In the United States, nearly 400,000 children of all ages who have lost one or both parents are placed with relatives or foster families, according to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Many others are faced with childhoods in institutional settings, however. Although these facilities are becoming obsolete in the United States, they function widely all over the world. While research has provided significant insight regarding the ways the lives of orphans can be improved, they face a multitude of challenges. Approximately one third of those eligible for adoption wait more than three years to enter permanent homes, which compounds their difficulties. Many reach adulthood without being adopted.
Physical health and development are among the many components of life affected by orphanhood. Children in institutional settings suffer from stunted growth, even with plenty of healthy food, according to a study conducted by the St. Petersburg-USA Orphanage Research Team, titled "The Effects of Early Socio-Emotional and Relationship Experience on the Development of Young Orphanage Children." Weight, height, and head and chest circumference are all affected. Children who struggle with poor growth usually also encounter a wide range of medical problems.
Behavioral support is a frequent need among orphaned children. Those in residential care are more likely than those in foster homes or living with family members to take risks, run away and engage in criminal activity, according to a compilation of research on institutional care of vulnerable children distributed by the North American Council on Adoptable Children. These problems are compounded by an increased risk of substance abuse.
Cognitive functioning also fails to thrive in institutionalized children -- particularly those who spend their earliest years in orphanages. They may have difficulty thinking independently and solving problems, struggle with basic reasoning and fight to maintain concentration. They also tend to have significantly lower IQs than their peers in private homes, and are susceptible to being diagnosed with myriad learning disabilities.
The research conducted by the St. Petersburg-USA Orphanage Research Team found that children reared in orphanages consistently suffer social attachment issues. They may be overly friendly to people they hardly know, for instance, but unable to form healthy friendships with others. Many of these problems are attributed to minimal human interaction, as well as the turnover of employed caregivers with whom young children were able to successfully form attachments.
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- Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute: Facts and Statistics
- The US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: The Effects of Early Socio-Emotional and Relationship Experience on the Development of Young Orphanage Children: St. Petersburg -- USA Orphanage Research Team
- Journal of Social Sciences: Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) Care Institutions: Exploring Their Possible Damage to Children in a Few Countries of the Developing World: S. M Kang’ethe and Abigail Makuyana
Jill Avery-Stoss is a graduate of Penn State University and a writer and editor based in northeast Pennsylvania. Having spent more than a decade working with victims of sexual and domestic violence, she specializes in writing about women's issues, with emphasis on families and relationships.