The Rileys were prepared to go to Romania, the Whites to China. They told Jo Kearney and Chris Arnot why
Six Christmases ago the Rileys, along with thousands of others, watched with horror as pictures of Romanian orphans filled their television screens. By the following summer, they had adopted a half-wild eight-year- old from one of those orphanages.

She was ugly, cross-eyed and ate with her hands. Today, she is studying for 11 GCSEs and has a little sister, also adopted from a Romanian orphanage, who has cerebral palsy.

Why and how did an ordinary couple in their fifties with a grown-up family and a sub-post office to run work a miracle? For a start, their motivation was different from the scores of childless couples who flew out from Britain ready to offer a better life to these orphans.

Most wanted newborn babies who they would know from birth. But Jean and Peter Riley, who live in Stoke on Trent, wanted to help an older child. In doing so, they realised they would not be presented with a clean slate, but a legacy of extraordinary psychological and physical abuse.

Cezarina was eight when the Rileys first met her in the principal's office of Orphanage No 6 in Bucharest. She was wearing grey tracksuit bottoms and a Marks & Spencer's jumper, sent over in an aid convoy.

"She was cross-eyed and wearing thick brown-rimmed spectacles, of which one of the glasses was cracked. We later found out the prescription bore no resemblance to her eyesight," says Jean. Her hair was short and was due to be shaved the next day because of lice.

"She was extremely ugly. But we hadn't come looking for a perfect child. We were informed Cezarina was the most obedient, quietest and cleverest girl in the orphanage, and that it was OK to take her away as she had not had a visit from her family for eight years."

So Peter and Jean did. At an age when they could have been spending time together, going on holidays and enjoying leisure activities, they became responsible for a daughter with the social skills of a two-year-old.

Cezarina was totally unhousetrained. Sanitary conditions at the orphanages were dreadful, and there was no hot water. The children rarely washed, preferring to squat on the ground than use the toilet.

"When we collected her, she was wearing all the clothes that she owned - two pairs of trousers, several skirts, dresses - and to top it all she was tottering about in a pair of stiletto-heeled boots. I've burnt better clothes on the guy on Bonfire Night," says Jean. "But she told us if you didn't wear them, they'd disappear.

"She was filthy. It took us hours to scrub her knees clean. It was three months before we got the dirt out of her body and another 18 months before we got rid of the smell. She had drunk so little water her body was unable to eliminate the waste properly and it stayed in her skin.

"One of her legs was slightly longer than the other and her pelvis was distorted due to the beatings she'd suffered. Her muscles were wasted due to lack of exercise."

"I bought some sandwiches during the drive home and she proceeded to bite her way through the plastic casing," says Jean.

"When we first got home, during meals she'd watch us like hawks in case we stole the food from her plate, which is what happened in Romania. She'd take apples up to bed with her and hide them under her pillow." Used to eating with her hands from a metal bowl, she had to be taught to use a knife and fork.

For Jean one of the hardest things was dealing with Cezarina's wildness. "After being cooped up in the orphanage, she was enjoying her new-found freedom. She was a total extrovert and was always wanting to be the centre of attention.

"She'd charge around like a wild animal, knocking furniture over. She didn't realise things could break. She would throw china plates into the sink thinking they were metal.

"It was so exhausting. She'd run into the road, oblivious of traffic. It was as if she was trying to catch up on the life she'd missed."

Cezarina did not speak English and had had very little schooling, but within three months she was speaking English. By the age of 12, she was reading unabridged novels by Charles Dickens.

"There was so much to do to bring her up to standard. We had to put in three hours' work a night. I'd have her standing on a chair reciting her times table while I rushed round and did the housework," says Jean.

"Although she is very intelligent, there are many gaps because she has missed years of schooling. One day her teacher asked her the probability of pulling an ace from a pack of cards. She put up her hand and asked: "What's a pack of cards?"

Despite the missed years, she was selected for grammar school, is studying for 11 GCSEs, and wants to be a doctor.

She is still unable to show physical affection. She does not like being hugged or kissed. "Children with years of abuse find it difficult to understand or cope with relationships. This is where adoptions can go wrong if parents expect gratitude and affection in return," says Jean.

Three years after adopting Cezarina, the Rileys adopted Augustina. Cezarina has taken a delight in her arrival, sharing her bedroom and helping to bathe and feed her.

Augustina is seven, but behaves like a child of 14 months. When the Rileys first saw her, aged six, she was like a large baby. But unlike babies, she lay still, not responding to anyone or anything. With little attention or food in the orphanage, she was more or less abandoned. Her skin was a bluish hue because of her difficulty in breathing.

Jean and Peter met her first when she was brought to Britain for heart surgery. "As we were standing at Augustina's bedside, her eyes caught sight of the watch Cezarina was wearing. I could see she was fascinated by the second hand as she watched it go round and round. I knew she had a brain. If she'd been completely mental, she wouldn't have done that," says Jean.

"For the first month she did nothing but lie on a bean-bag and groan. We really didn't know what to do with her. We didn't think she'd survive.

"She'd had the hell beaten out of her so often, she had completely shut out the world, it was her way of protecting herself. She used to hit herself with whatever she could lay her hands on. It was almost out of self-hatred or frustration."

Now she can giggle and walk, and Jean is sure she will also talk. "She definitely has a brain, but how much intelligence we just don't know. She has developed a personality. Whenever she has clean pyjamas on or a meal in front of her, she giggles. I think it's a sign she is happy and content."

The children have changed the Rileys' lives. Peter, formerly a postman, has switched to working nights in the sorting office to enable him to be free to put Augustina on the bus that takes her to a special school while Jean is busy at the shop.

Their lives rarely meet, to the extent that they are hardly ever in bed at the same time. Jean will often not go to bed until 2am, rising at 7am.

Why do they do it? "We must be mad," says Jean. "If we didn't have children, we would probably have an active social life, but our lives would be a lot emptier. People go to the pub, out to restaurants, theatres and cinemas to fill their time. But we wouldn't be fulfilled with that.

"Peter and I have had a very privileged life. We've never been to war, known deprivation or been hungry. We've done this because we wanted to do something worthwhile to help others."