Orphanages stunt growth, foster care better - study

  • World
  • Saturday, 18 Feb 2006

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Children raised in orphanages are stunted physically, emotionally and intellectually but good foster care can help orphans start to grow again, researchers said on Friday. 

An experiment in which foster homes were set up in Romania showed that children taken out of the country's notorious orphanages began to grow taller and put on weight, gain intellectually and lose the most marked symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

The researchers said their findings apply to all children in orphanages, not just in Romania. Their study, however, provided them a unique opportunity to examine the effects of foster care in a place where it had never existed before. 

"An orphanage is a bad place for a child to grow up in," Dr Dana Johnson, a pediatrician and adoption specialist at the University of Minnesota, told a news conference. 

Johnson and colleagues, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, did the first scientific comparison of what happens to children raised in orphanages versus those raised in foster care and children raised in normal families. 

They persuaded the Romanian government to place 69 children in foster homes -- something that had not existed in Bucharest before. Another 67 had to remain in the orphanage and the researchers compared the two groups. 

Social workers trained the foster families and checked on the children's progress. 

"At age of entry, institutionalized children are doing very poorly compared to community controls," Dr. Nathan Fox of the University of Maryland told reporters. 

"Their mean IQ score is close to the retarded range compared to community children and compared to standard norms. The good news is ... foster-care children showed increases in IQ at 42 and 54 months (4 1/2 years)." 

Girls, especially, did well, Fox and colleagues told a meeting in St. Louis of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

"At the age of 42 months (3 1/2 years) there is a significant group difference between children who were placed into foster care and children who remained in institutions," Fox added. 


Johnson found the children also grew very quickly in foster care. 

"Children who are neglected or abused do not grow," Johnson said. They may not be fed properly, but also depressed children do not eat well, he said. 

"You can predict in regular orphanages that you are going to lose one month of growth for every three months in the orphanage," Johnson said. "A three-year-old child will be the size of a two-year-old." 

But, placed into foster care, they literally shoot up, Johnson said. 

"By the time they have been in foster care for a year and a half, they had reached normal size in terms of height," he said. "I always tell the families not to buy many expensive clothes." 

Johnson believes physical growth can be used as a way to measure a child's progress overall. 

Not everything dramatically improved in the foster children. Behavioral disorders, especially in boys, did not always disappear. 

And Dr. Charles Nelson of Harvard University found that brain scans did not change as dramatically as he had hoped among the children in foster care. 

His team had found that electroencephalograms, or EEG scans, done on institutionalized children were much different from those of children raised in families. The children are scanned while looking at pictures of human faces with various emotional expressions. 

"There is a diminution of brain activity," Nelson said. 

Foster care did not immediately improve this, although those children who spent the longest time in foster care did begin to show some improvement, he said. 

Dr. Charles Zeneah of Tulane University said the study might help governments come up with better ways to help children orphaned or abandoned due to wars, the AIDS epidemic and other scourges. 

"There has never been an institution, even in the West, that has been able to promote normal development, but there are interventions that can make it a more family-like environment," Zeneah said. 

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