Dateline   |  January 06, 2014

'Second Chances' part 2

The Little Baby Face Foundation provides free plastic surgery to low-income children with facial deformities. But when the group decided last year to treat a bullied teenager whose medical problems were less obvious, controversy ensued.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> traumatized by bullies who made fun of her looks, 14-year-old renata was becoming more isolated day by day . her mother, michelle, says two years of home schooling had not made her daughter any happier.

>> she wants to go back to school, and i want her to go back to school. it's just that she's not going to go back until she feels better about herself.

>> reporter: renata gave up hope that the bullies would ever change.

>> i would just keep picking on kids.

>> reporter: and that convinced her she had to change through cosmetic surgery .

>> if i had this operation done, it would probably change my whole life, in a good way, though.

>> reporter: can a scalpel change how these children are feeling?

>> i think we've seen that it makes a difference.

>> reporter: dr. thomas romo , a plastic surgeon and his wife, diane, run the little babyface foundation , the group that renata and her mom heard about on the news. based out of the romos' private practice in new york, the nonprofit treats low-income children with facial deformities.

>> you take a child and you change the way they look to anybody who sees them they're good-looking, that gives that child strength. we can't go after the bully. what we can try and empower the children.

>> reporter: each year hundreds of children apply to the foundation , and it could take several months to decide which kids the doctors will treat. "dateline" was invited to go inside the foundation last year to witness the process.

>> this is kind of the meat and potatoes of the foundation . this is why we volunteer.

>> reporter: inspired by his overseas missions treating children with facial deformities, dr. romo wanted to do the same in the u.s. and he recruited some of the best plastic surgeons in new york to help him.

>> i said, how much fat do you want to suck and how many boobs do you want to do? people will look at you and go wow, you treat real patients.

>> move this over and close the hole.

>> reporter: their work never gained much notice until they decided to treat that teenager. nadia says she was picked on because of her looks. naud dia asked for her protruding ears to be pinned back. to her surprise, the foundation offered to do that and more, giving her a nose job and chin implant as well. when her makeover made the news, it sparked a wave of criticism.

>> are we saying that the responsibility falls on the kid who's bullied to alter themselves surgically?

>> reporter: psychologist vivian diller says promoting elective surgery as a remedy for bullying sends a harmful message to kids.

>> we really have to address the idea that there should be zero tolerance of bullying, and maybe we even have to encourage the acceptance of differences.

>> reporter: there was one of the kids we talked to who said look, if it stops the bullies, great, i want to do it. because if we're trying to change the bad guy , we'll be here forever.

>> i suppose one way to look at this is, is there some benefit to learning how to struggle with adversity? we're not convinced confidence is gained by changing the way you look.

>> reporter: despite that criticism, applications to the foundation soared, many of them from other bullied teams.

>> we could get 60 in a day. we respond to every one of them.

>> reporter: but the romos say an applicant, even a bullied one, must have a facial deformity to be considered. let's talk about the word "deformities," because that scares me a little bit. when i think deformity, i think of, like, a cleft lip , something that you look at and you say, wow, that needs to be fixed. when you say deformity, you see something else. you see something that's out of sync.

>> there's a spectrum. so some are really profound, and some are minimal, but there's still a facial birth abnormality .

>> reporter: dr. romo believes plastic surgery could be helpful for some children. do you feel like the bully wins? the bully bullied them into getting some kind of surgery?

>> i don't think that that's reality. and again, they have to have a facial birth defect , and they go back, and they may be the best looking kid in the school. and they're not getting bullied anymore. now, that's just the feedback that you would get from a patient that you operated on their heart, and now they're jogging again.

>> reporter: doesn't it put the burden on the victim as opposed to the bully? is that sending the wrong message?

>> no, i don't think that's sending the wrong message. she still sees what she sees in the mirror, and it has an effect on her self-esteem and confidence regardless of what anyone says.

>> reporter: what do you think about that question, rena 26789 renata ?

>> i think if she see you getting the surgery, maybe it makes them feel bad about doing it.

>> let me take a look at her pictures and see what's going on here.

>> reporter: will the romos consider renata 's case a facial deformity worth of help? they follow strict criteria.

>> we only help children with facial birth defects , and then i start to look at the parents' income to make sure that they could not otherwise afford this. and then their story. dear dr. romo , diane and staff. i am writing this letter to you --

>> my file and to thank you for considering me.

>> reporter: this letter was from a 16-year-old in illinois named connor .

>> i don't like my face because i feel like everyone's, like, looking at me or, like, talking about me and i'm made fun of for it.

>> reporter: connor was born with a minor cleft lip , and the surgery to fix it left a scar, but it's his nose, he says, that's made him an easy target.

>> teasing makes me feel very self-conscious, which, in turn, makes me somewhat shy, especially around girls. i wouldn't mind dating right now.

>> is there someone you like?

>> i guess. yeah, i would ask her out after i got my nose done. i don't know if i would ask her, like, right after. i come from a very large family of eight, and it's difficult for my parents to afford my procedures.

>> page and my sister. i don't really look like them much, most people would say.

>> reporter: his older sisters saw connor struggle more and more.

>> when he gets all eyes on him and the attention, i feel like that's when he's self-conscious about it. kind of just, don't look at me. but he's never had a date to a dance. i don't know. i feel bad for him.

>> reporter: there are people who say, connor , you're going to grow into your looks. have you thought about waiting and seeing?

>> i did, but then i was, like, i don't really want to wait.

>> reporter: connor 's family members including mom, kimberly, hope the foundation would choose him if, in fact, the surgery could make connor happier. but as other bullied teens applied in droves hoping to be selected --

>> it's basically a chin implant .

>> reporter: -- some of their parents weren't sure if surgery was the best way to help their child.

>> i hate to see him put so much emphasis on just one feature. that's not what makes a person a person.