June 27, 2018

What science teaches us about isolatingk children from their parents

The Bucharest Early Intervention Project is a joint collaboration between researchers at Tulane University, University of Maryland, and Boston Children's Hospital.  

In our Bucharest Early Intervention Project, which we launched in 2000, we began by studying 136 young infants who had been abandoned by their parents and placed in state-run institutions.

After a baseline assessment, half of these children were placed in high-quality foster care that our team created, monitored, and financed (there was no foster care in Bucharest when we started our project), and the other half remained in institutional care; we also recruited a sample of 72 children who had never been institutionalized.

This randomized controlled trial design, coupled with our long-term follow-up of these children, uniquely positioned us to draw causal inferences about the effects of early parent-child separation and subsequent psychosocial neglect on the children’s health, and the extent to which recovery is possible.

We followed the children through age 16, and our findings are both sobering and consistent: The children who were assigned to remain in institutional care have markedly lower intelligence quotients (generally in the upper 60s to low 70s); a high prevalence of mental health problems, particularly attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; a decrease in the brain’s electrical activity and in its gray and white matter — the mass of neurons and the connections between them; and problems with executive function, the set of skills that includes planning and organization. Separations are antithetical to everything we know about child development and run counter to everything science has taught us.

By contrast, the children removed from institutional care and placed into our high-quality foster care recovered (although not always completely) in most domains, and those who entered foster care before 2 years of age evinced the greatest recovery.

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