AQA 17: Romanian orphan studies: effects of institutionalisation.

Institutionalisation refers to the behaviour patterns of children who have been raised in institutions such as children’s homes or orphanages and instead of having one primary attachment


Goldfarb (1943) found that children in long-term institutional care showed later problems in social, cognitive and language development, but were less affected if they had been adopted at a young age.

Institutionalisation – Rutter et al (2007) – Romanian orphans

This is an on-going longitudinal study which began in 1998. 111 Romanian orphans were adopted into British families.  Rutter wanted to see if good care could compensate for the privation the children had suffered before the overthrow of the Communist dictator Ceaucescu.

This has been run as a natural experiment with age of adoption being the naturally occurring independent variable (IV). Rutter is studying three groups:

  • Adopted before the age of 6 months
  • Adopted between 6 months and 2 years
  • Adopted after the age of two (late adoptees).
  • By the age of six years children were making very good recoveries, however, those adopted later (older than two years) had a much higher level of disinhibited attachment.
  • This suggests that the longer the children suffer emotional deprivation the longer it will take them to recover.
  • In 2007 Rutter returned to the children (then aged eleven years) and found that some had made recoveries but about half of those diagnosed with the condition at the age of six still had it at the age of eleven.
  • Although children are given the opportunity to form attachments, a degree of recovery is possible.
Institutionalisation & Privation – Hodges and Tizard (1984+1989)

Aim: To investigate the permanence of long-term effects of privation (the state of a child who has never formed a close attachment with anyone) due to institutionalisation, including emotional and social effects in adolescence. This followed Bowlby’s claim that maternal deprivation would cause permanent emotional damage, and earlier contradictory research by Tizard, which suggested that the negative effects of privation could be reversed.

Procedure: 65 children who had been taken into care before the age of 4 months formed an opportunity sample. This was natural experiment, using a matched pairs design, as the institutionalised children were compared with a control group who were raised at home. It was a longitudinal study, (age on entering care to 16 years). By the age of 4 years, 24 had been adopted, 15 restored to their natural home and the rest remained in the institution. The children were assessed at ages 4, 8 and 16 on emotional and social competence through interview and self-report questionnaires.

Findings: At the age of 4, children had not formed deep attachments, and they were highly attention seeking. By age 8, significant differences did exist between the adopted and restored children. Most of the adopted and restored children had formed close relationships with their caregivers and were as attached as the control group. However at school they were very attention seeking and tended to be unpopular with their peers. At 16 the adopted children were still closely attached with their adoptive parents, where as the attachment bond was fragmented between the restored children and their parents. Both the restored and adopted children were less likely to have a ‘best friend’ or be part of a group or liked by other children. Many displayed bullying behaviour.

Conclusions: Their study suggests that early privation had a negative effect on the ability for some of the children to form relationships especially outside of the home with other peers and adults. Some of the effects of privation can be reversed, as the children were able to form attachments in spite of their privation. However, some privation effects are long lasting, as shown by the difficulties that the institutionalised children faced at school. This suggests a need for research into possible reasons why the adopted children fared better than the restored children and the importance of high-quality subsequent care if the effects of privation are to be reversed. Hence, there are practical implications for care home, adoption, and fostering practices.[space=10]

  • Problems of a longitudinal study include the sample drop-off. Hodges and Tizard noted that the adopted children who remained in the study had shown better adjustment at age 4. In contrast, the restored children who remained in the study had shown more adjustment problems at age 4. Thus, the sample drop-off left a biased sample.
  • This biased sample may have distorted the difference between the adopted children and the restored children, because the adopted children were better adjusted at the start of the study. Consequently, the findings may lack validity, which reduces their meaningfulness and generalisability.
  • As this was a natural experiment, the IV cannot be directly manipulated, and so cause and effect cannot be inferred. Therefore, it cannot be said that privation causes long-term social and emotional effects, such as the difficulties the children had forming peer relationships.  At best privation can be implicated in this effect, meaning that conclusions are limited.
  • Negative: It is misleading to assume that restored children will always show less social adjustment than adopted children. What happens depends crucially on the reasons why the restored children were initially taken into care and on the amount of love and affection they receive when restored to their natural home.
  • Individual Differences: It is also important to note that there were some considerable individual differences within each group. Some of the restored children actually had good family relations and some of the adopted children didn’t. This reminds us that individual differences are important and that early attachment experiences are not the only cause of later maladjustment.