National Geographic

The Orphanage Problem

Last November I went to Bucharest to shadow an American neuroscientist, Charles Nelson, whose team has studied the same group of 136 Romanian orphans for the past 14 years. My (loooong) story about this project came out this week in Aeon Magazine. Here’s a snippet:

In 1999, [Nelson] and several other American scientists launched the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, a now-famous study of Romanian children who were mostly ‘social orphans’, meaning that their biological parents had given them over to the state’s care. At the time, despite an international outcry over Romania’s orphan problem, many Romanian officials staunchly believed that the behavioural problems of institutionalised children were innate — the reason their parents had left them there, rather than the result of institutional life. And because of these inherent deficiencies, the children would fare better in orphanages than families.

The scientists pitched their study as a way to find out for sure. They enrolled 136 institutionalised children, placed half of them in foster care, and tracked the physical, psychological, and neurological development of both groups for many years. They found, predictably, that kids are much better off in foster care than in orphanages.

Perhaps the strangest part of this project was that the fundamental scientific question it posed — Are orphanages bad for kids? — had already been answered. Definitively. Studies going back many decades had shown that orphanages are awful.

Research with human subjects is normally considered unethical if it doesn’t tackle novel questions. In this case, though, Nelson’s project was ethically justified because Romanian officials had not paid any attention to those previous studies. Quite the opposite: They had a strong cultural belief that state-run orphanages would protect orphans far better than unstable and untrustworthy foster parents. So the study went ahead, and exactly how it did so is the crux of my story.

During my reporting, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the Romanian cultural preference for institutions. I chalked it up to the lasting shadow of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian dictator who, for decades before his assassination in 1989, had deliberately cultivated the population of institutionalized orphans to ensure loyalty to the state.

But this week I learned from fellow science writer Maia Szalavitz that the pro-orphanage idea still persists to a surprising degree.

In 2010, Szalavitz wrote a Forbes post outlining all the ways in which orphanages are damaging. In one part of the post,  she describes a fascinating early study:

Research on the dangers of institutional care for young children dates back to the 1940s. For as long as they have existed, orphanages have always had alarmingly high death rates. From the early 20th century onwards, this was blamed on contagious disease–and so, attempts were made to keep orphanages sterile, to isolate children from each other by doing things like hanging sterilized sheets between their cribs.

But Austrian psychoanalyst and physician Rene Spitz proposed an alternate theory. He thought that infants in institutions suffered from lack of love–that they were missing important parental relationships, which in turn was hurting or even killing them.

To test his theory, he compared a group of infants raised in isolated hospital cribs with those raised in a prison by their own incarcerated mothers. If the germs from being locked up with lots of people were the problem, both groups of infants should have done equally poorly. In fact, the hospitalized kids should have done better, given the attempts made at imposing sterile conditions. If love mattered, however, the prisoners’ kids should prevail.

Love won: 37% of the infants kept in the bleak hospital ward died, but there were no deaths at all amongst the infants raised in the prison. The incarcerated babies grew more quickly, were larger and did better in every way Spitz could measure. The orphans who managed to survive the hospital, in contrast, were more likely to contract all types of illnesses. They were scrawny and showed obvious psychological, cognitive and behavioral problems.

Now here’s the surprising part. Szalavitz told me that she got tons of comments on that post from people who still believe that institutions are OK for infants. There were so many apologists, in fact, that she wrote a follow-up post a few days later calling them out. In that, she pointed to a story in the New York Times with a dreadful headline: Study Suggests Orphanages Are Not So Bad. The study in question, published in 2009, indeed found no differences in cognitive development or emotional well-being between kids in Africa and Asia who lived in orphanages versus family homes. But the study had one big caveat that was ignored in the Times article: The kids were all between the ages of 6 and 12. For children younger than that, orphanages are so bad.

Why is this idea so difficult to accept? Szalavitz says it’s not about cost, as foster care is far less expensive than keeping an orphanage open. She suspects it does come down to money, though, in that government and non-profit funding is more easily granted to institutions than individuals. That agrees with what I heard in Romania. Elizabeth Furtado, one of the researchers working on the Romanian orphans project, put it like this:

The last two years on the project have been somewhat defeating, Furtado says, because the adolescents’ behaviors are becoming more difficult to manage, and the foster-care parents are getting less and less support — financial, educational, emotional — from the government. ‘On the one hand, I know that we are doing a lot of good for a lot of these kids,’ she says. ‘But it makes me sad that legislation isn’t keeping up with enough of what we’re finding.’

There are 21 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Anarcissie
    July 31, 2013

    During my reporting, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the Romanian cultural preference for institutions. I chalked it up to the lasting shadow of Nicolae Ceaușescu….’

    Faith in institutions precedes the regrettable Ceaușescu by a good bit. It goes back at least to the faith in Reason proposed by the Enlightenment, on the basis of which we believe we know enough to know how to completely order human life — hence liberalism, capitalism, socialism, fascism, and many other ideologies and practices. Others might trace the idea back to the Church, or to antiquity (for example, Plato’s Republic).

  2. pgan
    July 31, 2013

    Orphanage problem is an international problem seeking social groups attention for a remedial measure to make every child born to have a decent living. In this era of 21st century having plenty of opportunities to a child born it is a pity to know that orphans are often gets limited education and opportunities to grow as a responsible citizen. Merely getting charity is not enough. The poor parenting is a reason to this deplorable state of affairs and the law must also take a course to fine the individual parents who are responsible for the inhuman situation of their siblings and making them orphans.

  3. Magoonski
    August 1, 2013

    I’ve noticed a trend…if people had a bad life and then someone points out that something from that person’s childhood is bad, then he or she gets incredibly defensive. If the majority of Romanians have suffered through some form of institutionalization (orphanage or other) and then someone comes along saying, ‘Yeah, that really messed you up.’ Then those people aren’t going to listen. It’s their egos saying, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’ believing a lie that gets them by. Changing the practices would be admitting they are not fine.

  4. Elaine
    August 1, 2013

    I suspect part of the issue is not just a preference for institutions but also a dislike of fostercase. Many people feel that foster parenting is simply unnatural. As a former foster parent and current adoptive parent I have encountered many people here in the US who think, for example, that children can only have ONE mother figure. Or they think that parental-style love isn’t “real” unless it has biological origins. They are suspicious of fostercare.

  5. Miss Cellania
    August 1, 2013

    I adopted a baby from an orphanage in another country, along with five other sets of parents, 15 years ago. Only one of those children was in a foster home. The orphanage babies were delayed and bit malnourished, but thrived afterward. The six families reunited every two years afterward, and most of us adopted a second (and some a third) child. But the country was changing, and the second babies were all in foster homes when they were adopted. Within a couple of years, we were all marveling at the little sisters being so much taller than their older siblings …except for the one older sister who had been in a foster home. She was pretty tall, too. They were all one to two years old at adoption, but that amount of love and attention made a world of difference in their physical growth.

  6. Ctin
    August 2, 2013

    So many lies…

  7. Cherokee
    August 2, 2013

    I want to adopt. Now I think I know from where, an orphanage. If I can save even one child then I’ve done the world some good. Not to mention the child. Of course, now I think I want to adopt two children… originally I only wanted to adopt one.

  8. Brittany
    August 8, 2013

    As a self-professed “children’s rights activist” I long for the day when we see this harmful and outdated practice of institutionalization no longer practiced. Warehousing children in orphanages is no way to treat human beings…every child has the right to family-based care, individualized attention. I would want nothing less for my own children if orphaned.

  9. Ian
    January 22, 2014

    .. I know what these children went threw in the orphanage, I lived it for seven years of my life. I know what its like to be adopted by an american family then to only be placed into group homes and Foster care for 8 years of my life. I live the memories all the time, and I have lived some ruff paths, I am 29 years old and still going. its sad what those children had to go threw and still have to go threw, I am not sure if they have it as bad as I did, but I can tell you this, I would rather be in a safe group home then go back to the orphanage that I lived in for seven years of my life. I can only hope that things will get better, for the children and the study, funny had cat scans done to me soon after I cam to the U.S not really sure what the results were to that, but i liked what I read and had to say my little story,. cheers peeps, p.s. I was born in Transylvania, Romania but was in an orphanage in honiduru Romania I be leave it was or Bucharest.

  10. Perry Davis
    February 25, 2014

    An interesting article esp. what it said about the differing impacts of orphanages on infants and over-sixes. I was in an orphanage in Canada for nine years but from the age of six. Now, in old age, myself and others from the orphanage are talking about the effects it had on us. One of the perplexing questions is “How good or bad was it?” Perplexing because what can it be compared to? We know from many of our members – we don’t know what to call ourselves: “inmates” suggests prisoners, “alumni” suggest advantage – that some had nasty families, others had no families and still others had decent family without the means to keep them. Some children who went to foster homes were no more than servants and/or sources of incomes. In some cases they were victims of brutality. So do you compare the real orphanage, to an ideal orphanage, to the dream family you never had, to the loving foster family, to life on the street? One thing that does seem to be common among us is a sense of shame for having been in an orphanage. Strange because it wasn’t our fault.

    • Ian
      February 26, 2014

      living in in orphanage for seven years of my life in Romania was something that was very hard for me, it was more of the things I saw and the things I went threw that made it hard for me and some that still hant me to this day, I am now 29 and still working on the dissturbing thoughts that come and play into my thoughts once in a while. I plane to finish the Documentary film that I have started about my life and what really happened in the orphanage, its not so much about me but more about those children and what happened then and what still happens behind closed doors. I would never say what I went threw was my fault, but to only say in a way what I have had to go threw from being an orphan for seven years to living with the state for more then half my life because my adopted partents did not know how to raise what you could call ” out of control child”. in the long run its maid me a better person today. its a shame whats still going on in a place that I grew up and call home.

  11. Steve
    March 5, 2014

    Ian if you (or anyone) would like to get in touch with someone else who has been in an orphanage for a few years, you may contact me.

    • Ian
      March 6, 2014

      My best friend that I grew up with in the Romanian Orphanage lives in Colorado and has been since I came home to the U.S in 91 and many more came after me, I maid a video several years ago of me and in the orphanage and me and some of the others that got adopted. Its called, ” Lets Talk Romania” .. ( you can find the video on youtube under that name if you ever want to look at it, and yea it would be amazing to talk to others that have gone threw what I have.

  12. mark Andersen
    March 12, 2014

    This was even faster than I could dream of, dr.rivers( Thank you for taking time to listen to me and answering all my emails. I feel emotional strong again. My confidence is back and I see my future clearly. I am forever grateful for your help for re-uniting me with my old lover.

    This was even faster than I could dream of, dr.rivers( Thank you for taking time to listen to me and answering all my emails. I feel emotional strong again. My confidence is back and I see my future clearly. I am forever grateful for your help for re-uniting me with my old lover.

    mark Andersen, Seattle, new york Seattle, new york

  13. ipah rosipah
    April 11, 2014

    halo ms virginia. i’m ipah, officer at alqomariyah orphanage in bandung, west java indonesia. i would like to thanks for you who write about the badness on the orpahanage. but i think, orphanage can be a last choice for the orphan chodren, not for long last time but just for a while.

    in indonesia, we are envolving for how can the orphanage still caring them but with the family based care system. the orphanage will be a center education for all of children in around area orphanage.

    if u dont mind to open our website and give us a critic or solution about our system in orpahange, i will glad. this is our blog.

    or send me an email to
    best regards,

    Ipah Rosipah

  14. Lloyd Franklin Brown
    April 22, 2014

    I grew up in Thompson Orphanage in Charlotte, N.C. It was originally Thompson Plantation and was bought by the Episcopal church of North Carolina. There was a 120 acre dairy farm in downtown Charlotte just off of East Fourth street. They also purchased a 500 acre piece of land 13 miles from Charlotte on Margaret Wallace road for raising all types of farm animals. I was placed in the orphanage in 1943 when I was 4 years old. I lived in the orphanage for 14 years until I was 18 years old. I am now 75 years old. We had all our physical needs provided but there was a very big lack of emotional nurturing in the institution. Adult attention was a rare commodity and we were left pretty much to ourselves to deal with our emotions. There were things that all of the children got involved in and should have had some type of adult counseling but was never offered to the children. I have spent the biggest part my life in counseling. I have been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, alcoholism, and Post Trauma Stress Disorder. These diagnoses were treated with Meprobamate tranquilizers,Nortryptoline antidepressants, and Zoloft) I also went to about 30 years of counseling. I just read about P.O.B. and it does address my emotional behavior better than any of the previous diagnoses. I was lied to about my mothers and fathers situations and was never allowed visitation with my mother at the State Hospital (Broughton) in Morganton, N.C. I also was not allowed visitation with my father at the State Prison in N.C. I was never told of my mother or fathers deaths nor allowed to go to their funerals. I do have abandonment issues that I still live with today. Thompson Child Care Services as the orphanage is now called has done away with the orphanage and operates individual group homes.

  15. Lloyd Brown
    April 26, 2014

    When I look back and remember the things that went on in the orphanage, it does not surprise me that the Episcopal church discontinued running a farm operation orphanage. They are now using group homes with a man and woman as house parents instead of the old method of using a woman as Matron of the individual groups of children. There were four large buildings called cottages. Baby cottage housed 20 boys and or girls aged 4 to 9 years.. Smith cottage housed 20 boys aged 10 to 14 years. Christ cottage housed 20 girls aged 10 years to 14 years. Kennan cottage housed 20 girls aged from 15 years to 18 years. Baker cottage housed 20 boys aged 15 to 18 years. There was no interaction between boys, girls, and parent figures in the orphanage.

    There was an administration building-dining hall combination. There was an infirmary that could accommodate 20 sick children. There was a large industrial sized laundry facility which housed the boilers for running the laundry and heating the cottages. There was a chapel on the grounds. There was a fully operational dairy farm. There was a hired foreman with a house provided for him. He was more like an overseer. The superintendent and his wife had their own large brick home. They were the ones who administered discipline when children were reported by the Matrons. A board was used to beat the kids make them obedient

    . We were up at 5am every morning to hand milk and feed the cows. Meals were served in the dining hall for all cottages and the kids were marched to the dining hall in groups by cottage. We attended and walked to public schools. We carried lunch bags prepared for us by the older girls whose jobs were working the laundry and kitchen. The boys jobs were milking the cows and all other facets of dairy and beef farm operations. We worked 7 days a week and provided milk, eggs, produce, beef, pork, and chicken for the institution. There was a lot of milk, eggs, produce beef, pork, and chicken sold to dairies and stores. We cleared hundreds of acres of land on the 500 acre farm for corn fields, oat fields, hay fields and pastures for the animals

    The 120 acre dairy farm in downtown Charlotte was surrounded with a 7 foot high fence with barbed wire on top. There was housing all around the farm which was occupied by African Americans. I could never figure out if the fences were to keep the African Americans out or us in. They did hire some African American men and women to work in the institution.

    I always felt more like an inmate rather than someone’s child. We were hauled to public functions on the back of a large farm truck. We did not have any personal toys or games. I remember when we were hauled to a Fireman-Policeman ballgame, I won a girls bicycle at the game but was not allowed to keep possession of it. It was taken to the beef farm and kept in storage for use by any of the kids that were given permission to ride the bicycles.

    I had the opportunity when I was 12 years old to be adopted but was denied that opportunity by the Superintendent of the orphanage. I saw a lot of things happen with the kids on that farm that should have been addressed with counseling but was determined to be misbehavior and the kids were beaten for their misbehavior.

    I feel like the farm was good training for a productive life. It was also good training for going into the military. Most of the boys including myself went into the military when we graduated from high school. I was an accepted fact that when we reached 18 years of age we had to move out on our own and find jobs. There were some of the favorite sons and daughters of the Superintendent that were sent on to a higher education. My broher and I were not favorite sons. My brother asked to join the military when he was 17 years old because he hated the way he was being treated by the Matrons and the Superintendent. He was give permission, went into the Navy, served on board an aircraft carrier, and got his G.E.D. while in the Navy

    . As I said the physical needs were taken care of mostly because of our working on the farm. The emotional part of being institutionalized was poorly lacking in the proper communications between children and adults. I have had behavior problems most of my life which go back to the way I was raised. I have been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, first stages of alcoholism, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was given the medications Meprobamate tranquilizers, Nortryptoline antidepressant, and Zoloft. After finding out about Post Orphanage Behavior and understanding that my behaviors were learned survival skills from the orphanage, I no longer take any of the medications and concentrate on understanding the subconscious level of the learned behaviors. I hope all the kids who are now being put in foster homes or adopted will get good communication skills with their new parents.

  16. Kris George
    May 8, 2014

    My children are from Bucharest, Romania, adopted in 1998, when they were 1 year old. My story is like so many others whose children were/are emotionally scarred, delayed or physically unable to cope with the realities of life in a family. Even though my kids are thriving, I wish I could make their emotional pain disappear.

    May 12, 2014

    To Kris George,
    The link below may give you some resource for helping your adopted children get relief from their emotional pain.

    It is an Episcopal group in N.C. who have a new type of psychotherapy that gets lasting results in 60 days of therapy.

  18. Aditya
    September 17, 2014

    I had also brought up in SOS Children’s Village, India. There I fought for my education. Generally they used to provide education only for so called “good children” They kept me lable, through that I still under the trauma to deal with that. But however now I got admission for P.hd in prestigious univeristy in India. So after post orphange home I am so happy.

  19. Prof. Lasantha S Pethiyagoda
    November 1, 2014

    I recently conducted a small survey of an orphanage in Kandy, Sri Lanka which housed about 30 children from 3 to 12 years of age. The matron at the home was considered their mother and was called “Amma”. They enjoyed balanced meals, clothes in good condition and had schooling at nearby state schools. Apart from isolated behavioural issues with some young boys, their overall temperament seemed satisfactory in that loving and inclusive environment where everyone was a brother or sister. Perhaps cultural differences between countries have to be considered in evaluating the lives of orphaned children.

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