Foster care benefits abandoned kids

A study in Romania finds that children abandoned at birth and placed in state-run institutions display marked advances on thinking and reasoning tests by age 4½, but only if moved into foster care. In contrast, abandoned kids who stay only in institutions experience declines on the same tests over time and many nearly qualify as mentally retarded by age 4½.

Psychologist Charles A. Nelson III of Children’s Hospital Boston and his colleagues randomly assigned 136 Romanian orphans residing in any of six institutions either to stay in those settings or to receive foster care from families recruited and trained by the researchers. Until now, studies of institutionalized children have not been able to exclude the possibility that only the healthiest, smartest youngsters get adopted or put in foster care.

Children placed in foster care before age 2 made the largest intellectual gains when tested at ages 3½ and 4½, Nelson’s team reports in the Dec. 21, 2007 Science. Their scores approached those of 72 Romanian children who had lived with their biological parents from birth.

Nelson’s group presented its early findings to Romanian officials, who then passed a law that prohibits institutionalizing children under 2 years old, unless a child is severely handicapped. By the end of the study, only 20 of 68 children remained in institutions. The rest had been adopted, returned to their biological families, or placed in foster care through a new government program.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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