SAN FRANCISCO –results of a new study suggest.
The study shows that sustained recovery is possible after severe, early-life adversity, study author Kathryn L. Humphreys, PhD, assistant professor, department of psychology and human development, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., said in an interview.
“Given the strong evidence from the present study, I hope physicians will play a role in promoting family placements as an alternative to institutional care for children who have been orphaned,” she said.
The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association and were published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Millions of children around the world experience psychosocial deprivation while living in institutions, and many more are neglected in their families of origin. In addition, about 6.7 million children lost a parent or caregiver during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In particular, Romania has a history of institutionalizing children. Through decades of repressive policies from the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, child abandonment became a national disaster. Families couldn’t afford to keep their children and were encouraged to turn them over to the state.
The current study was part of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, initiated in 2001 to examine the impact of high-quality, family-based care on development. It included 136 Romanian children (mean age, about 22 months) who were abandoned at or shortly after birth and were placed in an institution.
Researchers randomly assigned each toddler to 1 of 56 foster families or to continue living in an institution (care as usual). The researchers had to create a foster care network, because such care was extremely limited at the start of the study.
Providing stimulating care
Foster parents in the study received regular support from social workers and U.S.-based psychologists. They were encouraged to “make a commitment to treat the child as if it was their own, providing sensitive, stimulating, and nurturing care, not just in the short term but for their whole life,” said Dr. Humphreys.
Foster care programs in the United States have been criticized for focusing on short-term care, she said. “It’s really just a bed to sleep on, clothes to wear, and food to eat rather than the psychological component we think is really important for child development.”
For the study, the researchers assessed the children across multiple developmental domains at baseline and at ages 30, 42, and 54 months. They conducted additional assessments when the kids were aged 8, 12, and 16-18 years.
The primary outcomes were cognitive functioning (IQ), physical growth (height, weight, head circumference), brain electrical activity (relative electroencephalography power in the alpha frequency band), and symptoms of five types of psychopathology (disinhibited social engagement disorder, reactive attachment disorder, ADHD symptoms, externalizing symptoms, and internalizing symptoms).
From over 7,000 observations analyzed across follow-ups, the investigators found that the intervention had an overall significant effect on cognitive, physical, and neural outcomes when considered collectively across waves (beta, 0.26; 95% confidence interval, 0.07-0.46; P = .012). Compared to children who received care as usual, those in foster homes had significantly higher average IQ scores (P < .001) and physical size (P = .008).
The intervention had an overall beneficial effect in regard to psychopathology. The greatest impact involved a reduction in symptoms of reactive attachment disorder (P < .001).
“There are a few forms of psychopathology that seem to almost entirely occur after severe neglect, including reactive attachment disorder; we think of these as disorders of social relatedness that derive from aberrant or insufficient early caregiving experiences,” said Dr. Humphreys. “Being placed in a family reduced the symptoms of reactive attachment disorder to pretty much nonexistent.”
To a lesser extent, the intervention reduced symptoms of disinhibited social engagement disorder. The foster care group also had significantly fewer internalizing symptoms than did children in the care-as-usual group.
But there was no significant overall effect of the intervention on symptoms of ADHD or externalizing problems.