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Foster care, not orphanage, boosts a child's mental growth

Children live in good foster homes possess better reasoning, language and other intellectual skills than those live in an orphanage, revealed a new study by U.S. researchers.

The study, published Friday in the journal Science, suggests that foster care may be better for a child's mental growth, including language, reasoning, planning and problem solving skills, than an orphanage.

To reach their findings, Charles Nelson of Children's Hospital Boston and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and colleagues randomly assigned 136 young children in Bucharest's six orphanages.

Of the total kids, 68 were moved to the foster care homes, while others kept living in the orphanages. The researchers then compared the two groups with the third group of 72 children lived with their families.

Researchers’ team repeatedly tested brain development as those children grew, and tracked those who ultimately were adopted or reunited with family.

Funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the study began in the capital Bucharest in 2000 at a time when Romania had no foster care system. The study showed that kids rescued from orphanages and placed in good foster homes scored significantly higher IQ by age 4, on average, than the children who were left behind.

"Kids who stay in institutions have greatly diminished IQs," said Nelson. "Their IQs were in the low- to mid-70s. In the United States, that would meet the criteria for mental retardation," he added.

The earlier a child was moved to foster care, the greater the improvement, while the longer the children stayed in the institution, the worse their IQs became, Nelson said. Children removed from orphanages before age 2 showed the biggest improvement, a 12- to 15-point increase in IQ.

"Our findings suggest there may be a sensitive period spanning the first two years of life within which the onset of foster care exerts a maximal effect on cognitive development," Nelson said.

Results of the Romanian project may help child welfare agencies around the world find alternatives to institutional care for abandoned children. UNICEF has started using the data to push several countries to start shifting away from state-run orphanages to foster care-like systems.