A new book detailing a decade of research on children in Romanian orphanages illustrates the developmental damage suffered by those who spend infancy within institutional walls.
Romania’s Abandoned Children: Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery, co-authored by Senior Fellow Charles A. Nelson, a professor of paediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, uncovers the findings of a study on the mental and physical growth of abandoned children over the first 12 years of their lives. Called the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, the study began in 2000 with a group of 136 children and 58 families available to give foster care. The researchers were able to place half of these children into foster families and the rest remained in institutional care.
The regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu, which required women to have at least five children and banned abortion, led many impoverished families to abandon children. About 170,000 kids lived in poor, badly equipped institutions by 1989, when the Ceaușescu regime fell, and many of them spent their infancy left neglected in cribs. More than 10 years later, Nelson and his colleagues began to study Romania’s abandoned children, and he says he was shocked by what they found.
The institutionalized children actually had smaller heads than other children, and their brains also showed about half the electrical activity of a normally developed child when scanned with an electroencephalogram (EEG).
“Their brains are underpowered. The metaphor we use is that instead of a 100 watt light bulb it’s a 40 watt light bulb.”
An MRI test on the children when they were eight years old found evidence that there might be fewer neurons and connections between neurons in their brains.
“I think these kids have actually lost brain cells,” Nelson says.
The children also had more emotional and mental health problems; they acted out, behaved disruptively and were more likely to suffer from an attention deficit disorder. The researchers compared the group of institutionalized children to those they placed in foster care and to a third group of children who lived with their birth parents.
“We were surprised at how profoundly development was derailed by the kids assigned to institutional care,” Nelson says. But even children in foster care, if they were placed too late in childhood, showed “crippled” development, he says.
In a new paper published this month in the Journal of Pediatrics, Nelson and colleagues used data from the same study to describe how the children placed in foster care showed severely limited motor skills years later.
“If you ask these kids to close their eyes and walk on a line, they fall over,” Nelson says.
This knowledge could lend new insight to policies and interventions for children who have faced adversity. Romania, for example, has now forbidden the institutionalization of kids under the age of two. In North America, there are broader implications for neglected children.
“The courts or social workers should not spend years deciding the fate of these kids, because the clock is running.”