Saturday, February 18, 2006

Study: Orphanages stunt growth

Physical, emotional and intellectual effects of institutional care

In a fascinating and heart-touching study, orphan care researchers discovered that children raised in orphanages face severe limitations in key areas of growth and development.

ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Children raised in orphanages are stunted physically, emotionally and intellectually but good foster care can help orphans start to grow again, researchers said on Friday. An experiment in which foster homes were set up in Romania showed that children taken out of the country's notorious orphanages began to grow taller and put on weight, gain intellectually and lose the most marked symptoms of depression and anxiety. The researchers said their findings apply to all children in orphanages, not just in Romania. Their study, however, provided them a unique opportunity to examine the effects of foster care in a place where it had never existed before.

The researchers found startling differences in the effects of home-based care vs. institutional care. The control group foster care children showed increases in IQ at 42 and 54 months, with girls doing especially well in the home environment – responding remarkably well in emotions and intellect.

In physical terms, the researchers found that they could almost predict a calculus of growth in foster care vs. orphanage care: for every three months in an orphanage, the orphan lost one month of physical growth. But get this: When placed in a loving home environment for at least a year and a half, these children recovered lost growth, reaching normal size in terms of height.

I personally have witnessed this…almost miraculous recovery when placed in a home of love – seeing orphans girls small and frail, with hair falling out, yet grow tall and strong and gain glossy, beautiful hair…and radiant smiles.

However, to balance the benefits, the study also showed that foster or home-based care, though measurably better than orphanage care, was not a cure-all for spiritual or emotional damage: Better, yes; panacea, no.

Behavioral problems often did not alleviate as extremely as the physical or intellectual. This is born out in orphan care tracking, but should not be surprising: damage to the soul is not cured as easily as damage to the body.

Brain scans [EEG] showed a diminution in brain and emotional activity – which directly relate to the child’s ability to empathize, to receive and give care. This improved over long-term care in the home, but not as much as hoped. Sometimes foster care fails…

The study has implications for how individuals, governments and NGOs might deal with the crush of AIDS, famine and war orphans.

I have several thoughts, after reading and analyzing this article:

  1. Orphanages are necessary. The orphan problem isn’t going away any time soon, in fact, is getting worse, not better. Great need demands great care, and orphanages stand in this gap of care.

  2. If it is a choice between an orphanage or the streets [and all this means for the death of soul and body] then the comparison should perhaps not stand so clearly between orphanages and foster homes.

  3. No institution can replace a family, but there things orphanages can do to create surrogate family care and moments of love, which the orphan can own – and which God can use to heal them, from inside out. As Charles Zeneah of Tulane University said, "There has never been an institution, even in the West, that has been able to promote normal development, but there are interventions that can make it a more family-like environment.”

  4. Many successful orphanages approach this in non-traditional ways, where the staff lives as family and creates daily moments of integral relation, related to emotional and spiritual wholeness. These models come a lot closer to the intellectual, physical and emotional development of the home. Not all orphanages are created equal! Countless orphans have been touched and healed in orphanages.

  5. It must be confessed that orphanages aren’t perfect, but we aren’t living in a perfect world – we are living in a very broken world, and we have to do our best to make a difference with the tools we have. We have to do our best to lessen evil, even when we can’t make it go away.

  6. And, there is the level of the problem: even if every orphanage was functioning at full capacity, we have still only cared for a fraction of the world problem…we are soon approaching 44 million orphans in our world. If that doesn’t stagger the mind and heart, nothing will.

  7. We need all of our orphanages, and all of Western foster care possible…but we also need something more to meet the vast problem.

All in all, this article really resonates with me because it is an area of deep prayer and concern. As Keith Green said, “This generation of believers is responsible for this generation of souls, all around the world.”

We will answer to Christ for the least of these, for…in our care or non-care of these little ones, we reveal our true care of Him. “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto Me,” He said.

I think there is something more to be done.

God, grant us vision! Grant us faithfulness…

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