Foster Care Benefits Orphans' Cognitive Development
> 12/27/2007 12:14:24 PM

Children raised in orphanages experience worse cognitive development than children placed in foster care, according to an ongoing study appearing in the journal Science. American researchers compared the development of Romanian children placed in foster homes to that of children who remained in orphanages. Their results could have a dramatic effect on the way many countries view institutionalized care.

The researchers, led by Charles A. Nelson III of Harvard Medical School, randomly selected 136 abandoned Romanian children to either remain in an orphanage or be placed with specially-trained foster parents. A control group of children who had never lived in an orphanage was also included. At the study's start, the children, who averaged 22 months of age, were tested for cognitive development, and they were tested two times later, once when they averaged 42 months and then again when they averaged 54 months. At 54 months, children still living in an orphanage scored an average of 73 on IQ tests, while children who had moved in foster homes scored an average of 81. The control children living with their biological families had the highest scores, averaging 109. The researchers also observed that children who entered foster care when they were under two had higher IQ scores than children who were over two when they left the orphanage. The researchers estimate that every month spent in institutional care translates to a half-point lost on IQ tests.

Previous studies have already illustrated the developmental lags children suffer when they grow up deprived of care and attention, as is often the case in institutions like orphanages. Researchers have questioned, however, wether the differences between children in orphanages and children who have been adopted out of an orphanage might be because the children left in institutionalized care were less healthy to begin with. This study aimed to address those confounding factors by randomly assigning healthy children to one of the two experimental groups. The results indicate not only that healthy children living in orphanages still show poorer development than their peers in foster care, but also how vitally important the early years are to a child's developing brain. Children growing up in orphanages, where caretakers are responsible for watching many children at once, will not receive the same regular one-on-one attention as children living in a family setting, and the earlier they leave these less healthy environments, the better their chances for improved cognitive development.

This research has already led to some important outcomes. Using data from the study, UNICEF has begun urging countries still relying on orphanages to implement new systems based in foster care. Romania has also changed the way orphaned children are treated in their country. While they did not have a foster care program when the study began in 2001, they have since created one, and the government has also banned the institutionalizing of children under the age two. The researchers hope that their study will also demonstrate the importance not only of moving institutionalized children into foster homes or adopted homes, but of doing so quickly, ideally before the child's second birthday. The study may also point to the benefits of providing child care training and information to new foster parents. While orphanages appeared to do worse than foster families, bad foster care would likely be as deleterious if not more so.

The researchers will continue to test the children and hope to learn whether or not children living in orphanages can improve their cognitive development. They also hope to see future studies questioning the effects of high quality versus lower quality foster care on children's development. As more researchers examine the factors affecting children in institutionalized care of foster care, we will be better able to give them a better start in life.

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