Tracking the progress of Romanian orphans

Oct 16, 2003, vol. 28, no. 4
By Diane Luckow

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Ten years ago, tragic television images of neglected Romanian orphans shattered North American viewers with their pathos, sparking a spate of international adoptions. As many as 700 children were adopted by Canadians.

New parents soon discovered that a majority of the orphans were profoundly delayed in their mental, physical and emotional development. Some, at the age of two years old, had not yet learned to sit up. Others were silent because their early cries never elicited a response from orphange staff.

Today, these children are 12 years old and live, for the most part, in stable, nurturing family environments. Over the years, SFU education professor Lucy LeMare and a succession of SFU graduate education students have followed the development of 36 orphans who spent eight months to four years in Romanian orphanages before being adopted by B.C. parents. They have also followed the impact of these adoptions on the families.

The latest research findings, in a thesis study conducted by Karyn Audet for her master of arts degree in counselling psychology, show that the longer the time spent in an orphanage, the more severe are the orphans' attention and self-regulatory difficulties.

“Forty-three per cent demonstrate clinical, or borderline clinical, attention and self-regulatory difficulties,” says Audet, citing problems with controlling impulsivity and activity levels and an inability to sustain attention to a single task.

The children were compared to a control group of 25 Romanian orphans who spent less than four months in an institution and to 42 Canadian-born, non-adopted children.

Interestingly, only five per cent of the Canadian-born non-adopted children and just 16 per cent of early-adopted Romanian orphans exhibited similar difficulties.

As well, Audet's study reveals that the Romanian orphans whose Canadian home environment had the most appropriate levels of nurturing and stimulation were the least likely to exhibit the disorders.

Audet defines a nurturing and stimulating environment as one where there is physical care and love combined with appropriate stimulation from books, games, outings, toys and art materials and activities.

“I've always been interested in the effects of environment on children and in attachment with parents and the influence of caregivers,” says Audet, who is currently undertaking her PhD in the psychology of educaton.

“This study really looks at the effects of not having attachment, not having caregivers and demonstrates how having wonderful parents and caregivers later on in life can mitigate those early deficits.”

Audet worries about how these children will do in high school, where they will face increasing challenges but says, “I can also be hopeful in the sense that if home environments have been mitigating some of these early deficits that they can continue to do so.”

It is striking, she notes, that despite considerations such as genetics and personality, the over-riding factor in attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders appears to be the length of time the orphans were institutionalized and the quality of their home environment.

“This study teaches us to look at the other factors going on in a child's life,” says Audet, “such as early experiences and family factors that may be contributing to difficulties and not solely rely on medication such as Ritalin when children exhibit hyperactivity and other attention-deficit disorders.”

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