(This article has been adapted from the New Scientist interview by Jessica Hamzelou, issue 3093.)
What does abject poverty and extreme deprivation do to the human brain? Charles Nelson has spent his career studying and helping children in Romanian orphanages to find the answer, using scientific research to improve political will and the lives of children.
Romania once had a long history of institutionalising children, with around 170,000 children in institutions when communism was overthrown in 1989. In the late 1990’s, Charles and his team began research on children who had been abandoned, which proved to be an emotionally harrowing experience. There were high levels of domestic violence, with staff proving extremely callous and the children’s suffering sometimes being too overwhelming to bear.
“We had a rule – no crying in front of the kids. But I can’t tell you how tough it was”
Many children were suffering from significant development delays and extreme growth stunting, as they were deprived of key experiences during critical periods of development. Ceilings were all painted white, so the infants’ visual experience was limited. Care-giving is stretched thin between many children and there is nobody to talk to them, so they were heavily deprived of psycho-social stimulation.
Charles and his team investigated how growing up in institutions like these affected the children’s development and if high-quality foster care could remedy the developmental issues they had. The group also studied whether recovery would be influenced by the age at which they were placed into foster care. Foster care parents were recruited via a rigorous screening process from Bucharest and were paid a wage. Support such as nappies and toys were also provided and the families were closely monitored by visits by a social carer.
After two years, the team reported significant differences between the foster care children and those left in institutions, with these children having much lower IQs, delayed language development, smaller brains and multitudes of mental health problems. Improvements in language and IQ were only seen in children placed into foster care younger than two, but the prevalence of mental health issues dropped no matter how old the children were when placed.
The children remaining in the institutions are now around the age of 16 and are experiencing significant mental health issues, such as psychosis and paranoia. Since the study proved that the intervention of foster care was so effective, Charles’ team called a national press conference for members of the government in Romania. A year later, legislation was passed forbidding the institutionalisation of any child under the age of two, unless severely disabled. The country has now also introduced government foster care, and the political will to improve the lives of children is finally improving.