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Study finds high-quality foster homes can raise IQ among children raised in government care

Romanian children in the Bucharest Early Intervention Project.
Mike Carroll
Harvard University
Romanian children in the Bucharest Early Intervention Project.

A long-term study of children raised in government care in Romania, started by Harvard researchers, has found higher IQ's in those placed in good foster homes.

Starting in 2000, 136 babies abandoned in Bucharest were either left in government institutions or placed in what researchers considered high quality foster care. (The group was divided through a randomized selection process.)

Eighteen years later, the IQs of those placed in stable foster homes were on average 9 points higher than the institutional group, according to Harvard University neuroscientist Charles Nelson, one of the study’s principal investigators.

The latest results were released as part of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, which was originally designed to measure social and emotional development, Nelson said.

Nelson suspects the difference in cognitive function comes down to the level of neglect the children experienced.

“Early in life, the brain is sitting there waiting for a set of instructions about how to develop,” he said. “And if it doesn't get those instructions, it doesn't know what to do. And that's why neglect is so insipid.”

A 2014 documentary from New England Public Media examines the ways early experience is embedded in the brain.

Nelson said he hopes U.S. policy makers use the latest results to understand why quality caregiving matters for children taken from their biological families - including among immigrants separated at the border, or, in recent years, children orphaned by COVID-19.

“If they've lost parents because of COVID and they wind up in foster care, move towards a permanent placement as quickly as possible,” Nelson said, “and make sure that the foster care they’re placed with is as good as possible.”

In the Romanian study, Nelson pointed out that both groups of children in the study — those who went into foster care at 20 months of age and those who remained longer in institutions — fared worse than those who were never in government care to begin with. (All the children in the study were eventually given the chance to move into foster care.)

Nelson said the fact that high quality foster care can at least improve outcomes is a sign that brains are malleable, though the earlier the intervention occurs, the better.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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