The Detrimental Effects of Institutionalization on Children
By Alexandra Fuhs
Around the world, more than eight million children currently reside in orphanages or other institutions. 80%; however, are not orphans. In Europe, it is common for children to be placed in these institutions due to poor parenting or physical/mental issues. Children who come from ethnic minorities, who are raised by a single parent, or in some countries are female, are more likely to be placed in these residences.`
Institutions often have less-than-ideal conditions. According to a study conducted by Kevin Browne, Chair of Forensic Psychology and Child Health at the University of Nottingham, the caregiver-to-child ratio is often unfavorable and emphasis is placed on infection control rather than allowing the children to build their immune system through natural exposure to things like dirt. The control over the children’s experiences can lead to physical underdevelopment, missed mental and emotional milestones, and hearing and vision issues. Unfortunately, it is difficult to note the extent of these issues due to poorly-kept records.
One study by researchers in India found that children in orphanages are 4x more likely to develop depression than those who live with their parents (21.7% vs 5%). A study from Japan noted that 43.4% of institutionalized children were in a depressive state compared to 2.33% of children who resided with their parents. The same study looked at behavioral problems, finding that these too were more commonly observed in children residing at welfare hostels (15%) than those in orphanages (8%) and those who lived with their parents (5%). The researchers suggested that a way to combat these issues is periodic assessments of these at-risk children, something not usually done at institutions.
Institutions have significant effects on children in other areas as well — including intellect and language, emotional attachment, and the developing brain. In Browne’s report, he found that 12 out of 13 studies performed concluded that children in these environments had lower cognitive abilities and IQ scores, which could be aided by transferring them to family-based care. For optimal brain development, infants need to interact with a caregiver figure who will handle them in a sensitive way and introduce them to new stimuli, something these institutions do not provide. These infants also had noticeably reduced metabolic activity in the front and temporal lobes of the developing brain. Browne’s report also looked at studies conducted on emotional attachment, for which nine out of 12 saw that institutionalized children were ‘over-friendly,’ suggesting attachment issues.
Regardless of the institution’s quality, ideal child development requires one-on-one communication with a caregiver. High-quality institutional care should only be used in extreme emergencies for high-risk children. However, it is important to ensure that children are being placed with a family or caregiver who can meet their needs, as poor deinstitutionalization practices can further harm and traumatize already at-risk children. While these practices may seem like common sense to most people now, children are complex and have varying needs that must be taken into account when finding the best fit for each one.
Viva. “The Risk of Harm to Young Children in Institutional Care”.
NIH. “The Effects of Institutionalization and Living Outside of Family Care on Children’s Early Development”. 2016.