Lurking Under the Surface: The Lasting Repercussions Faced by a Child in the System

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

With approximately 8 million children residing in institutions worldwide, it is reasonable to assume that as a population we are well educated on a topic of such magnitude. A common conclusion many may quickly jump to surrounding foster care and orphanages is that one of the two is better. Many studies have attempted to argue for either side, but a good portion have failed to determine a clear, universal hierarchy.

Whether abandoned by loving parents unable to provide for them or perhaps taken by the state from a neglectful home, children in the system can justifiably feel like they have received the short end of the stick early in their lives. Regardless of any opinions differentiating the two, kids in foster care and orphanages each uniquely experience a series of disadvantages that those from stable homes could hardly fathom.

These disadvantages manifest themselves in a multitude of ways. Children put in the system who experience foster care or institution life have an increased rate of revisiting “the system”-- but with criminal charges the next time around. Specifically, a 10% increase in crime rates exists for males, and 11% for their female counterparts.

What leads to this? Being exposed to so much so young changes the perspective of children that live without their biological parents. To the extent that school begins lacking in value as early as at age six, unfortunately leading to a 50% higher dropout rate.

Can Children In Orphanages Do As Well As Those In Foster Care?

Professor at Duke University, Kathryn Whetten, yearned to investigate the overwhelmingly shared perception that orphanages provided a greater disadvantage than foster care. Whetten was quick to go against the popular opinion, explaining, “some kids in institutions can do just as well as those in a foster home.”

To substantiate such a claim, Whetten sought out to track the wellbeing of 2,700 children from both orphanages and foster homes, ranging from ages six to twelve and located in one of five chosen countries. These included India, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.

After a three year long cohort study tracking both physical and mental health biannually, Whetten was finally able to support her initial suspicion. Despite overall improvement in children from foster homes being greater, the difference in improvement rates did not show to be statistically significant. Perhaps most shockingly, institution-reared children reportedly achieved higher scores rating their physical health. The variance in child wellbeing in either situation creates a more complex problem, where a simple solution will not suffice.

Value Preference Comparison Between Children In Institutions vs. Homes

Likewise, a 2003 study carried out in Estonia was rooted in the desire to research the value acquisition of children from a multitude of developmental backgrounds. Teenage youth bound by their belonging to an institution held more traditional values (i.e. conformity) at a higher importance, whereas youth living in ordinary homes had more modern values (i.e. self direction) instilled in them.

The variance in gender preference was also greater in ordinary homes as well, alluding to more stereotypical gender roles utilized in homes along with more individual treatment. Specifically, boys living in home settings scored highest on power, implying that treatment at home may heavily introduce the idea of males as more dominant figures.

With preferences being neither inherently good or bad, this study served to give a more lighthearted interpretation of how each type of setting affects the brain. Children are exposed to different ways of life, changing their perspective of various values including collectivism and power. It contrasts many studies in the way it approaches the topic-- merely with the desire to learn more instead of prove an idea. This could arguably be the best way to analyze such comparisons, as contrary to other research, no initial bias is present. The differences presented may provide unique challenges, or at least change the approach to which a potential adoptive parent may take in raising their adopted child.

Effect of Foster Care on Young Children’s Language Learning

Furthering the idea that many children who have been dealt the bad hand in terms of familial circumstances inevitably struggle with mental setbacks, learning languages is yet another challenge they must overcome. While not an academic death sentence, low socioeconomic status often negatively impacts the education levels a child receives. Institutional care specifically is far from optimal to begin with, but when education is considered, it plummets even further.

As a crucial symbol of academic and social competence, language learning was researched in the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. Likely expected, the study found that the “age of foster placement was highly [inversely] correlated with language outcome.”Affected almost identically, children were also found to experience delays in expressive and receptive language. A previous study entitled Cognitive Recovery in Socially Deprived Young Children had also confirmed the direct relationship between language and cognitive development. In simpler terms, children in foster care are almost immediately placed at an academic disadvantage.

A Dull Future

Considering the distinctions in upbringing and numerous setbacks, children who are fostered have higher criminal rates than those who come from “normal” homes. That is not to say “normal” is always positive, when remembering that socially deemed “stable” households can be some of the most toxic to children. However, growing up with such uncertainty and frustrations surrounding the disconnect with one’s origins tends to be more detrimental overall. A dangerous combination of anger and a lack of compassion is sometimes all it takes to generate a criminal.

With a foundation constructed off of pain and instability, it is “no surprise they [foster children] strike back in dispassionate anger offending a society that has not befriended them.” At a heightened risk of developing certain mental illnesses commonly associated with delinquency, the assumption that these kids are set up for failure becomes feasible.

How Paper Bridges’ Impact Can Become Yours

Regardless of background, many children in the system look to adoption as their light in a life full of blown out candles. In some ways, stability is a privileged experience-- one that has the potential to open many doors for the futures of children currently living in foster care or institutions. Most often, these children have yet to experience life in a stable household, with the exception of a few who long for what they once had.

Whether looking for adoption resources or reading out of curiosity, there are many options to consider when taking the first steps in helping these children in need. Most obviously, is adoption itself. A process which may seem daunting, but with the assistance of the internet and its many resources, can be a beautiful and life changing decision. Websites like provide information to pacify any concern over the adoption process and promote informed decision making.

In an ideal world, all children would be adopted into caring homes who can provide them with more than just bare necessities. However, in situations where a child’s guardian maintains legal custody, adoption cannot happen so easily, or at all. Where adoption is out of the picture, other forms of help can be offered.

Donations through our website go directly towards sending letters, care packages, and educational materials to our various partner orphanages around the world. Writing personal letters is another simple, yet powerful task that can spark an emotional connection and begin to close the gap between people of various walks of life. Even the smallest of steps could mean the world to a child growing up wondering about their family, and working through their mental struggles.

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