Finding Homes for Romania’s ‘Unsalvageables’ : Adoption: An Encinitas man’s journey yields release of handicapped children to be placed with U.S. families.


John Upton remembers the place called the Institute for the Unsalvageables.

He can still see the hundreds of orphaned children who each day are herded half-naked onto a urine-covered floor in a room with no heat. He sees their faces, sees their eyes calling out to him, their mouths contorted in confusion.

And the smells of the place are still so strong, he says, he can almost taste them.

The images Upton carries from a recent visit to a Romanian orphanage aren’t confined to memory. The award-winning filmmaker has them committed to videotape--taken with a hand-held camera he carried by his side.

And now the 34-year-old Encinitas man is playing the video at his Olivenhain home for couples interested in adopting a physically limited Romanian child--boys and girls with Down’s syndrome, dwarfism, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.


This is a story about a man who saw a network news show about children suffering in some faraway place and didn’t just turn off the set when the broadcast was through. He went to Romania.

Within four days of seeing an October segment of ABC’s “20/20,” Upton was in Bucharest meeting with Communist government officials to see about gaining the release of a group of children he admits stole his heart.

“Being a television producer, you learn pretty quick how to get to the bottom of things real fast,” said Upton, who this year won an Emmy Award for an after-school special on teen-age promiscuity.

“There just wasn’t any doubt in my mind that I could do something, that I could make a difference with these kids. But I didn’t waste much time thinking about it. I just went.”

And now, after spending more than five weeks in the Eastern European country, sorting through reams of red tape and countless setbacks, Upton has already secured homes for five Romanian orphans.

Beginning next spring, he will bring back to Southern California what he hopes will be scores more children--while he helps them begin their search for new American homes.

In less than two months, the father of three has become a one-man American clearinghouse for handicapped Romanian orphans. And Upton says he will take a one-year hiatus from filmmaking to continue his work--while he sees just how many children he can rescue from a system he says has given up on them.

The scenes he plays out now have characters like Elena Rosta, a 12-year-old girl whose deformed leg juts out almost backward so that her toes point toward her head. And 15-year-old Anna Ostos, an autistic blind girl who longs to sing a song with her hero--Stevie Wonder.

There’s Isador, the little boy with the crooked leg who pulled on Upton’s sleeve at the orphanage and pleaded, “Take me to America.” And there’s a 20-year-old dwarf who has been confined to a bed all his life.

For years, they were nobody’s children.

“There he is, he’s my main man,” Upton said of the dwarf child Monday morning as he watched his videotape in a neighbor’s living room. “I’m just going to work on this project for as long as I can so I can get a kid like this a home, get him out of his crib. So he can have a life.”

Upton’s 6,000-mile journey, he admits, began as a quest for Elena.

One Friday night in October, while writing the scripts for a new television project, he and his wife, Suzanne, saw a network news special about conditions in Romanian orphanages.

Upton recalls being speechless as he watched. He paced the floor as he saw images of little Elena, who dragged her deformed body across a dirty floor and who flinched on-camera as a nurse hovered over her.

“My wife just looked at me and said, ‘You’re going, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes I am.’ I was ready to do anything to get that little girl out of there, even if I had to adopt her myself.”

The following morning, Upton was at the Encinitas home of Dr. Roger Schmitt, chief of orthopedics at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. The physician reviewed a tape of the program and said he could repair the girl’s leg.

On Monday--armed with a letter from Schmitt and a local dentist who vowed to perform free dental work on the child--he was on a plane for Bucharest.

Upton admits having preconceived notions of the Eastern Bloc country that only months before had liberated itself from dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. And that notion was wrong.

“I went in there with the attitude of the angry American, someone who was going to set right the wrongs he found,” Upton recalled. “I expected heartless officials and corruption. But that’s not what I found at all. I found people who wanted to act but were handicapped by a lack of resources.”

He recalled interviewing the president of a Romanian television company, asking why there hadn’t already been an expose about orphanage conditions. The executive showed Upton evidence that there was indeed such a project in the works.

But the work took time, Upton was told. After all, there was only one camera for the station’s coverage of the entire country.

He found himself getting angry instead at Western nonprofit agencies and church ministries that he says intended to use the plight of the orphans as a fund-raising ploy, Upton said.

“I saw a woman who owns a Christian television station stand there and throw shoes on the ground so she could watch the children scamper for them--and, of course, get it all on tape,” he said. “I decided pretty early to distance myself from that kind of thing.”

With the help of an interpreter, Upton met with Romania’s ministers of health and labor to secure permission to visit Elena’s orphanage in the small northern town of Sighetu Murmatiei, near the Soviet border.

By Upton’s estimate, more than 100,000 orphans are kept in more than 60 national orphanages like the one he visited--many of them misdiagnosed as mentally ill, condemned to a life in a place like the Institute for the Unsalvageables.

He remembers the moment he first laid eyes on Elena.

“I thought she was absolutely gorgeous,” Upton recalled. “She has impeccable bone structure. And she responded to my affection. I tickled her, and she touched me back.

“She stuck her finger up my nose and in my mouth. All those kids were like that. You got the feeling that they had never really been touched in their lives before.”

Upton returned to the orphanage several times during his stay, once with a Romanian doctor who told him that Elena was severely retarded and might not even respond to physical therapy. But he was still determined to bring her home.

He also learned that Romanian law required that to gain an orphaned child’s release, his birth parents as well as a judge must sign them off. And there lay the root of Upton’s frustrations.

Despite weeks of searching the “Gypsy country” of rural Romania, he could not find the parents of either Elena or two other children he intended on bringing back to Encinitas.

“I came back and told myself, ‘Well, you’ve failed. Five weeks in the country, and you can’t bring one child home with you.’ ”

That’s when he met the mother of Anna Ostos.

She was a big woman, Upton recalled. One day she appeared at the orphanage. The mother of two other blind children as well as two healthy offspring, she told Upton to take her daughter to America for treatment.

But she had one other demand, he recalled. “She told me, ‘By the way, my daughter loves to sing, and she loves Stevie Wonder. So you take her to see Stevie Wonder so they can sing together,” Upton recalled.

“I told her that I didn’t hang out with stars like Stevie Wonder. I just make my little films. But she just said, ‘You will find Stevie Wonder.’ ”

So Upton and Anna Ostos returned to San Diego County. His first day back, he called Wonder’s agent and sent a tape of the girl’s singing. Recently, Wonder agreed to meet with Anna, Upton said.

Meanwhile, the search goes on for the parents of children like Elena Rosta and Isador, the boy with the crooked leg. If they aren’t found soon, Upton said, the Romanian police could legally sign the children off, clearing the way for their release.

But when he returned home just before Thanksgiving, Upton found that others had been affected by what they had seen of the Institute of the Unsalvageables.

Paul and Debra Langness of Encinitas saw the network program and expressed interest in adopting Elena. So the first of Upton’s children had found a home.

Then he heard from Walter Moorehead of Los Angeles who also wanted to adopt the child. “When he found that Elena had been spoken for,” Upton said, “he offered to pay the $5,000 to cover the adoption expenses.”

And so the search goes on. A woman from Louisiana has expressed interest in the dwarf boy. And several other couples who have watched Upton’s video began proceedings to adopt.

In all, he says, 28 couples have expressed interest in adopting children from the Romanian orphanages.

Anna Ostos, however, is still without a home.

“Well, she’s going to stay,” Upton said. “If she has to, she can stay with us.”

Upton says he plans to return to Romania in March to secure the release of more children. He realizes that there may be a narrow window of opportunity in the ever-changing political climate in Romania. So he plans to work fast.

“I think I can secure the release of about 10 children a month,” he said. “I’m just going to pull out as many as I can.”

And he hopes his efforts will draw attention to the issue of adoption in San Diego County and throughout the country.

“Hey, if a guy like me can do something like this, anyone can,” he said. “And not just in Romania. There are children right here in our back yard who need homes as well.”

Mostly, though, John Upton plans on keeping his promise to children like Isabella, a 17-year-old who suffers from cerebral palsy.

“The day before I left, I gave her a teddy bear. And I told her: ‘Keep this little bear warm. And by Easter, I’ll be back for you.’ That’s what I promised her. And I plan on keeping my word.”