From Stanford and Tulane Universities
By Alex Shashkevich
February 1, 2018
“These kids are not doomed, and many of them end up with normal outcomes…”
Neglected children placed with foster care families earlier in life are more likely to be as resilient and competent socially, academically, and physically as their peers who have never been institutionalized when they reach their teenage years, according to new research focused on children in Romania.
Researchers discovered that 56% of previously institutionalized children randomly placed with foster care families when they were between 6 months and 2 ½ years old were as competent across a range of metrics as their peers at 12 years old.
This is more than double the percentage of those children who remained in institutional care, of which only 23 percent were deemed to be competent at age 12, according to the new study, which appears in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
The number of children who met the researchers’ threshold for competent outcomes was even greater among children placed in family care at young ages. Of children who were placed at age 20 months or younger, 79 percent were deemed competent. This is nearly the same rate as children who were never institutionalized at all.
Early Action, Better Outcomes
“This study proves that resilient outcomes can be promoted by placing kids into foster care earlier in life,” says Kathryn Humphreys, a postdoctoral scholar in psychology at Stanford University and a lead author of the study.
“These kids are not doomed, and many of them end up with normal outcomes. So it’s important for us to work on removing them from those neglecting environments as soon as possible.”
There are about 8 million orphan children in the world, and the new research can clarify how best to take care of them, Humphreys says. In the United States, where institutional care is less common than in other places, neglect is still the most common reason for child maltreatment cases reported to child protective services around the country.
Recognizing cases of neglected children and placing them into positive foster care environments is something even developed countries need to strive for, Humphreys says.
The study evaluated children who have been part of a long-term randomized, controlled trial in Romania, called the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, which started in 2000.
Previous research on orphanages and other early institutional care has shown that children in institutions experience severe psychosocial deprivation, leading to long-term developmental challenges. Adding to that, the Bucharest project found that children who were institutionalized longer early in life had poorer IQ scores and mental health.
‘A Hopeful Lens’
The new study takes a broad approach to analyzing children’s functioning, says Humphreys, who conducted the research during her postdoctoral fellowship at the Tulane University’s School of Medicine and continued the work at Stanford, where she is working with Ian Gotlib, professor of psychology.
Researchers assessed the children’s level of resilience to early deprivation across seven categories of well-being: family relations, peer relations, academic performance, physical health, mental health, substance use, and risk-taking behavior. If a child scored positively in six of seven categories, they were deemed to meet the threshold of adaptive-functioning.
“There is no one metric of resilience,” Humphreys says. “But this was our way of using the existing available data to measure how well children are doing relative to their peers.”
Humphreys says one finding was a surprise: 40 percent of all children who ever experienced institutionalized care met their threshold for resilience.
“When we think about kids in institutional care, we often think about how they end up not faring well,” Humphreys says.
“This research gives us a different, hopeful lens. A lot of kids seem to be doing just as well as their peers. It also gives us a window into how to promote resilience in children who experience neglect—namely, placing them in family care as early as possible.”
Additional coauthors are from Tulane University School of Medicine; the University of Washington; the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Harvard University; and the University of Maryland.
Original Study: DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.12865