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Children placed in foster care develop better IQ than those in orphanages

childcare policies

HQ Team

Sept 11, 2023: A new US research study has found a connection between the environment a child is raised in and the IQ levels at 18.

The researchers did a thorough comparison of cognitive abilities among fostered, institutionalised, and home-raised children, and found that children raised in orphanages and institutions developed a much lower IQ than those raised at home or foster care.

The findings are a part of the ongoing longitudinal Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) started in 2000 to investigate the effects of early institutionalisation on child development after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist regime in Romania in 1989.

Ceausescu imposed rigorous child rearing policies to increase the country’s population and his measures included strict regulations on contraception, abortion, and family planning. This resulted in a doubling of birth rates in a country that was struggling with a severe economic crisis. Parents were forced to abandon children and many entered state care. The government constructed hundreds of orphanages across the country to handle the deluge of abandoned babies.

“The foetus is the property of the entire society,” Ceaușescu infamously said. “Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity”. The end of his regime saw the world discovering a vast network of orphanages in deplorable conditions housing thousands of children, ranging from toddlers to babies. The number of children in such orphanages is estimated to be around 170,000.

The Bucharest Early Intervention Project

The seeds of the new study looking at brain activity amongst toddlers and their cognitive development and evolution in to adulthood has roots in the  Bucharest Early Intervention Project. The study involved a sample of 202 children. The project focuses on studying the effects of early psychosocial deprivation on child development and the potential benefits of intervention, particularly foster care, for children who have experienced institutional rearing.

This project was a result of the new Romanian government’s effort to deal with the orphanage crisis. Child development experts from across the world were invited to help find viable solutions. Dr Nathan A Fox, a professor from the University of Maryland College Park in the United States, was one of them.

“We got there about 10 years after [the fall of Ceaușescu], and with the participation of the Romanian government, we started a study and an intervention called Bucharest Early Intervention Project,” Fox revealed.

A team of experts was formed, including professors from the Universities of Harvard and Tulane in the US. The team worked on finding answers to the intricate connection between early life circumstances and cognitive development.

“Half of the children were taken out of the institution and placed with families – foster families that we had screened and selected; the other half remained in the institutions where they had been living at the time that the study started,” Fox said.

Latest findings

The most recent study, led by Dr Edna Tan from the university of Maryland and a student to Dr Fox,  used a decades’ worth of data, to examine a new and unexplored correlation: early brain activity and subsequent IQ scores.

His findings suggest that “early experiential factors and environmental differences may have affect later IQ differences or changes in brain functioning.”

Tan said his research highlights one more time, “the importance of early intervention for promoting healthy development among children living in disadvantaged environments”.

Previous studies had also found that the earlier children were placed into foster care, the better their cognitive outcomes later in life. Tan’s IQ evaluation also confirmed this factor to be positive.

“Institutional rearing and later (vs. earlier) foster care intervention (…) predicted lower IQ at 18 years,” the study, published in the scientific journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, concluded.

Worldwide policy implications

The study results come with worldwide implications regarding childcare policies. There are anywhere from 6 to 8 million children around the world who are living in some sort of institutional care, due to  abandonment, poverty or war.

Policies for children should advocate for more people to adopt and prevent young children from being placed in institutions and to place them in some sort of familial care.

The study is available here.

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