Foster Care Benefits Orphans' Cognitive Development
> 2/4/2008 2:38:06 PM

Children raised in orphanages experience worse cognitive developmentthan children placed in foster care, according to an ongoing studyappearing in the journal Science. American researchers compared the development of Romanian children placed in foster homesto that of children who remained in orphanages. Their results couldhave a dramatic effect on the way many countries view institutionalizedcare.

The researchers,led by Charles A. Nelson III of Harvard Medical School, randomlyselected 136 abandoned Romanian children to either remain in anorphanage or be placed with specially-trained foster parents. A controlgroup of children who had never lived in an orphanage was alsoincluded. At the study's start, the children, who averaged 22 months ofage, were tested for cognitive development, and they were tested twotimes later, once when they averaged 42 months and then again when theyaveraged 54 months. At 54 months, children still living in an orphanagescored an average of 73 on IQ tests, while children who had moved infoster homes scored an average of 81. The control children living withtheir biological families had the highest scores, averaging 109. Theresearchers also observed that children who entered foster care whenthey were under two had higher IQ scores than children who were overtwo when they left the orphanage. The researchers estimate that everymonth spent in institutional care translates to a half-point lost on IQtests.

Previous studies have already illustratedthe developmental lags children suffer when they grow up deprived ofcare and attention, as is often the case in institutions likeorphanages. Researchers have questioned, however, wether thedifferences between children in orphanages and children who have beenadopted out of an orphanage might be because the children left ininstitutionalized care were less healthy to begin with. This studyaimed to address those confounding factors by randomly assigninghealthy children to one of the two experimental groups. The resultsindicate not only that healthy children living in orphanages still showpoorer development than their peers in foster care, but also howvitally important the early years are to a child's developing brain.Children growing up in orphanages, where caretakers are responsible forwatching many children at once, will not receive the same regularone-on-one attention as children living in a family setting, and theearlier they leave these less healthy environments, the better theirchances for improved cognitive development.

This research hasalready led to some important outcomes. Using data from the study,UNICEF has begun urging countries still relying on orphanages toimplement new systems based in foster care. Romania has also changedthe way orphaned children are treated in their country. While they didnot have a foster care program when the study began in 2001, they havesince created one, and the government has also banned theinstitutionalizing of children under the age two. The researchers hopethat their study will also demonstrate the importance not only ofmoving 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 caretraining and information to new foster parents. While orphanagesappeared to do worse than foster families, bad foster care would likelybe as deleterious if not more so.

The researchers will continueto test the children and hope to learn whether or not children livingin orphanages can improve their cognitive development. They also hopeto see future studies questioning the effects of high quality versuslower quality foster care on children's development. As moreresearchers examine the factors affecting children in institutionalizedcare of foster care, we will be better able to give them a better startin life.

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