February 16, 2003
DENVER -- Tens of thousands of children adopted from squalid overseas orphanages during the 1990s face serious developmental problems despite growing up in new, affluent surroundings, new research shows.
Psychologists studying children adopted from Romania, Bulgaria, China and other nations said the orphans typically have normal IQs, but suffer from attention problems and physical clumsiness caused by neglect and a lack of stimulation while they were institutionalized. Some also show elevated levels of stress hormones even years after being adopted.
In many cases, the children show encouraging signs of improvement over several years in their new homes. But problems in learning and socialization can persist into adolescence, the researchers said.
Details of the studies were presented Friday at the national meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Science. Researchers said the studies were among the first to test adopted children directly rather than relying on parents' answers on questionnaires.
The studies did not compare American and overseas adoptees, and researchers said the results are still considered preliminary.
The new research does not establish an optimal age for adoption, nor does it rank the children from any one country ahead of others. And in most cases, there was no clinical information available about an infant's development before adoption.
Instead, scientists said the new data suggest parents should be most concerned about the living conditions of the particular institution where their child was raised.
In many state-run institutions, a single caregiver might be in charge of 20 infants. The babies are rarely held, even during feedings. Wards and cribs typically are painted stark white and the children receive no visual stimulation. By age 1, the children are rocking themselves in their cribs.
"The more bad things you do to these kids early, the more difficult it is for them to reach optimum levels of development later even when they are in stable homes," said University of Minnesota psychologist Megan Gunnar.
At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, psychologists studied 24 children age 5 and 6 from orphanages in Romania, Bulgaria and Russia. All had been living with Milwaukee-area families for at least three years in what researcher Seth Pollack describes as "optimal environments."
Pollack said all the children performed well on visual-perception tasks, such as arranging blocks in patterns, and nearly all of them showed normal reasoning ability.
However, more than half showed extreme difficulty in paying attention to verbal instructions. Nor could they accurately retell a story, even though they had learned to speak English.
They also showed poor dexterity and balance, perhaps because they had few opportunities in the orphanages to crawl and explore as infants.
Pollack said the attention-related problems and the poor motor skills are linked to different areas of the brain that keep developing for years after birth. These parts of the brain may not have received adequate stimulation while the children were institutionalized, he said.