Stanford researchers pioneering a new model of foster care have discovered that placing vulnerable children with foster families at an earlier age enhances resilience, physical competence and emotional and academic intelligence.
Toddlers and infants abandoned at or around their time of their birth were more likely to reach an equal stage of development to their peers by the time they reached adolescence if placed with trained foster care families by the time they were two and a half years old, according to the new study. In contrast, only 23 percent of children who remained in institutional care matched the competence levels of their peers by the age of 12, researchers noted.
Conducted in Romania as part of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), the randomized study has followed the effects of foster care on 208 Romanian children with a history of institutionalization since 2000 and compared them to children who have never been in institutional care. The BEIP sought to establish a model for child-centered foster care as an alternative to institutional care; its model emphasized parent-child bonding, trained families to treat the children as if they were their own and psychologically prepared parents for the challenges of caring for a neglected child.
The findings, published in a Feb. 1 paper, reveal that the developmental progress of neglected children was highest among those aged 20 months or younger at the time of their placement. In this group, 79 percent were deemed competent, demonstrating a similar competency rate to their peers who were never institutionalized. In other areas of development, however, the timing of the placement did not seem to affect outcomes.
According to Kathryn Humphreys, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral scholar in psychology, this discovery proved that placing children into foster care while they are still very young promotes resilience.
“These kids are not doomed, and many of them end up with normal outcomes,” Humphreys said in an interview with Stanford News. “So it’s important for us to work on removing them from those neglecting environments as soon as possible.”
Researchers measured the children’s level of resilience using seven criteria of well-being: family relations, peer relations, academic performance, physical health, mental health, substance use and risk-taking behavior.
“This was our way of using the existing available data to measure how well children are doing relative to their peers,” Humphreys said.
To Humphreys’ surprise, 40 percent of children who had been in institutional care met the study’s threshold of resilience by achieving a positive score in six of the seven categories.
“When we think about kids in institutional care, we often think about how they end up not faring well,” Humphreys added. “This research gives us a different, hopeful lens…[and] a window into how to promote resilience in children who experience neglects – namely, placing them in family care as early as possible.”
BEIP’s past research reported that neglect has significant and startling effects on children’s physical and mental growth, including stunted growth, delayed cognitive development and psychological disorders.
Institutional care was the primary source of care for Romania’s abandoned and neglected children from 1945 until 1989. After the collapse of the Communist regime, reports that around 100,000 Romanian children were living in institutional care in poor conditions came to light.
There are approximately 8 million children growing up in institutional care in the world and, in America, three-quarters of child abuse cases are classified as neglect by child protection services.
Contact Yasmin Samrai at ysamrai ‘at’ stanford.edu.