How region can strengthen its foster care system
More than 30 years have passed since the fall of the communist regime in Romania, yet it remains a chilling fact that impoverished orphanages under its rule left an indelible mark on the children living there. Shortly after the new democratic government took over, an estimated 170,000 children were found living under the most appalling conditions in institutionalized care. The huge number of children affected was the result of the Ceausescu regime’s pro-birth policies and rampant poverty, which left parents with little choice but to abandon their infants to the care of the state.
The orphanages received little funding and, consequently, operated with few and untrained staff, electricity and heat were cut off at times, routine medical checkups were missed, nutritious meals were irregular, abuse pervaded, and neglect was common. The new government at the time invited global child development experts to study the impact of neglect and abuse on children’s emotional, mental and physical development. Furthermore, they wanted to know whether their conditions could improve if they were transferred to nurturing foster homes.
One of the most enlightening studies that came out of this invitation was that by Nathan Fox, along with his colleagues Charles Nelson and Charles Zeanah, who wrote a book titled “Romania’s Abandoned Children: Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery.” They compared the conditions of babies who were left in orphanages in Bucharest to those embraced by foster parents. They also compared them to local children who were never institutionalized. After 12 years of brain scans and behavioral assessments, the team published some notable findings.
The neglected children living in institutionalized care had smaller brains, with lower volumes of brain cells and neural connections. These children had reduced language skills, motor development, and cognitive function. They also had limited socio-emotional intelligence and were subject to more psychiatric disorders. On the other hand, children put into foster care showed improvements in language, socio-emotional intelligence, and IQ. Both these groups, though, still fared worse than the children who were never institutionalized. The good news is that, the sooner children move into foster care (ideally before their second birthday), the more likely they can catch up on developmental milestones compared to their peers.
Every child deserves to live with a loving and nurturing family. Parents play a vital and influential role in the development of their children; spending more time with them than any other family member and forming strong and beautiful bonds. Thus, countries need to ensure their foster care system embraces children who are disadvantaged, at-risk, abused, neglected, orphaned, or who have parents that are unable to care for them due to illness or imprisonment. UNICEF estimates that at least 2.7 million children are currently living in institutionalized care worldwide, while the figure in the Middle East and North Africa lies at 212,000. However, such institutions face interrupted and limited funding that prevents them from providing a safe and nurturing environment for resident children. Audits and assessments are irregular and cases of abuse or neglect could go unnoticed by authorities.
As such, institutionalized children are often traumatized and can prove difficult to care for by people who are not their biological parents. That is why child protection agencies have the unique challenge of attracting, selecting and certifying foster parents who have the necessary skills and demeanor to deal with these tensions. One of the first challenges is to increase the number of suitable foster parents available at any given time. Public awareness of the plight of institutionalized children is imperative and, in the case of the Romanian orphans, the global media coverage resulted in many of them being fostered or adopted.
A fantastic example is the US, which has recognized the month of May as the National Foster Care Month since 1988. Last year, the national Children Need Amazing Parents campaign celebrated 110 remarkable foster families that have made a positive difference in the lives of their foster children.
In the UK, those that are interested in becoming foster parents are screened rigorously and assessed by a social worker based on personality, standard of living, employment history, home suitability, health conditions, and useful skills that could be relevant to fostering. In Australia, the government demands that foster parents enroll in special training programs on a variety of important topics relevant to their roles and responsibilities. This includes learning and behavior, attachment and trauma, child development, grief and loss, stress management, and first aid.
Foster parents also need to receive an adequate allowance to cover the everyday costs of caring for children. This would ensure essentials are covered, such as housing, food, clothing, school costs, leisure activities, health services, and transport. A supplemental foster parent fee is also dispensed to acknowledge the much-appreciated skills and knowledge foster parents bring.
Countries need to ensure their foster care system embraces children who are disadvantaged, at-risk, abused, neglected, or orphaned.
Following this, a foster care team, led by a social worker, needs to be formed to look after the best interests of the child, and a detailed child care plan needs to be devised to ensure the responsibilities and outcomes are clarified with all relevant parties. In cases of children with special needs, learning difficulties or health conditions, foster parents should receive ongoing support from a team of medical professionals, including doctors, psychiatrists, nurses, physiotherapists and speech therapists. Social workers need to provide regular support to foster families, in addition to scheduling home visits to ensure the child is thriving with the new foster family. Foster parents would also need to undergo annual reviews and evaluations of their care.
By strengthening the foster care system in the region, we can ensure disadvantaged children can get a chance at living with nurturing families, feeling loved and safe.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.