Foster infants retain security option

Neglected and abused infants shuttled from one foster-care setting to another have every reason to feel anxious and threatened in the presence of caregivers. However, if placed with a nurturing foster mother as late as age 1 1/2, children with such backgrounds usually develop a secure relationship with her in a matter of months, a new study suggests.

Surprisingly, 1-1/2-year-olds responded as well and as quickly to a nurturing foster mother as did much younger infants, who had experienced less neglect and fewer disrupted foster placements, say psychologist Mary Dozier of the University of Delaware in Newark and her coworkers.

“Even though late-placed foster infants initially push their caregivers away, they’re capable of forming secure attachments [with a nurturing foster parent],” Dozier’s group concludes in the September/October Child Development.

In related research, children adopted by age 2 fare better emotionally and academically than those adopted at later ages, regardless of any deprivations suffered before the adoption (SN: 8/13/94, p. 104). Scientists have yet to track the long-term emotional development of infants placed with foster parents at various ages.

Dozier and her colleagues studied 50 infants–32 black, 14 white, and 4 Hispanic–and their foster mothers. Infants had been placed with these caregivers between birth and 20 months of age. They began receiving foster care after their biological parents had neglected, abandoned, or abused them. Twenty-two of the children had one to five previous foster placements.

Foster mothers ranged in age from 26 to 69, and each cared for one to five foster kids during the study. Half the foster mothers lived with a husband or partner.

A little more than 3 months after placement, the researchers observed each infant’s style of relating to the foster mother during a series of brief separations and reunions. In separate studies of children and their biological mothers, secure infants look to a friendly experimenter for solace when the mother leaves but are more readily calmed by the mother upon her return.

Insecure infants either shun or angrily resist their mother when upset. Other children, who fit neither category, look dazed, freeze, or otherwise appear to be disorganized in the face of distress.

Of 26 secure foster infants in the new study, 23 had foster mothers who, in interviews with the researchers, placed great value in warm, trusting family relationships. In contrast, of 24 insecure or disorganized infants, 13 had foster mothers who expressed significant conflicts or confusion about their family relationships and their roles as foster mothers.

Infants’ responses showed no link with their foster mothers’ age, race, marital status, or number of foster siblings.

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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