I’ve been a journalist long enough to know when someone wants to bury a story and we saw a prime example recently, courtesy of the journal Science and the MacArthur Foundation. They released a study on Friday, December 21 – yes, that’s the December 21st that occurs four days before Christmas – comparing the intellectual fates of Romanian children placed in foster care vs. those raised in orphanages. In case you need me to report the obvious, the research found that children do better in homes where they can get one-on-one attention. 

That children suffer when they are raised in orphanages is a generally accepted fact. So why release a study demonstrating this bit of information on a day when no one will be paying attention? Well, the problem lies in how to empirically prove a theory and this is where our champions of childhood, however well-intentioned, stumbled into some dubious and uncomfortable territory.If one just looks at children raised in orphanages as opposed to foster or adoptive care, one can’t truly control the sample. After all, random selection might not be at work. Maybe the children would-be foster parents select are smarter. Maybe these kids are more outgoing, and receive better care as a result. Maybe they have a special something that makes orphanage officials more likely to offer them up if a permanent home becomes available.

Our intrepid researchers found a way around all these problems of bias. They got the permission of the Romanian government to follow a group of young children abandoned to the state. Guinea pigs — oops, I mean children – in hand, they randomly assigned the wee ones to be raised either in an orphanage or by a specially trained foster family. When the children in the study turned four, the paper’s authors administered IQ tests and came to their unsurprising conclusion. 

A bit of history is in order here. Under the former Communist regime,Romania banned abortion. As a result, unwanted children were legion. Often, they were simply abandoned to ghastly orphanages, where they would be tied to their cribs and beds and left covered in bodily wastes. The situation received much negative press after the fall of the Nicolae Ceausescu’s government in in 1989 and foreigners – including Americans — rushed in to adopt many of the children. However, a new government could not completely solve the problem of unplanned children and many infants continued to be turned over to the country’s Snake Pit-like group homes.

Romania eventually banned third-country adoptions of their children, under pressure from European Union officials concerned about everything from mothers being paid to place their children with adoptive families to child trafficking of the orphans. But, ban or no ban, there were not enough would-be adoptive or foster homes within Romania itself to take in all the children and the orphanages persisted.   The authors of this study and their supporters defend this work by pointing out that Romania was sentencing children to live in orphanages in any case and that their findings encouraged the government to work harder at finding the abandoned children foster homes:If a government is to consider alternatives to institutional care for abandoned children, it must know how the alternative compares to the standard care it provides,” they write. “In Romania, this meant comparing the standard of care to a new and alternative form of care.” All well and good. In fact, the Romanian government, over the course of this study, began to forbid the institutionalization of children under the age of two unless they were severely disabled, in part because of the researcher’s early findings. However, whether Romania is enforcing this law is another issue entirely. In 2006, activists for Mental Disability Rights International, investigating the plight of children in Romanian institutions, stumbled into a group of 65 infants, many of whom had no disabilities at all, confined to their cribs with little human attention.

The plight of children in second and third world orphanages in countries such as Romania calls out for action and moral suasion, something the authors of this study surrendered the day they conceived of this idea. After all, if they were simply concerned about the children, they could have worked with the Romanian government to find all the children foster homes, and not used them to prove the obvious.

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