Compelling Washington Post Op-Ed on Orphans in Russia

Following the controversy over the American woman who sent her adopted son back to Russia last month, the Washington Post ran a compelling op-ed on the plight of orphans in Russia–Adopted boy’s return highlights problems in Russian orphanages. The author, chief of pediatric cardiology at the University of Massachusetts,  Darshak Sanghavi, does an excellent job explaining why debates that focus narrowly on potential problems with international adoption miss an issue of far greater importance to most Russian orphans:  the reality faced by children in Russian orphanages every day.

As I’ve often seen firsthand, many orphanages in Russian and Eastern Europe do an entirely adequate job providing food, shelter, clothing, and other physical necessities.  What most fail to provide, however, is the very thing children need more than anything else:  consistent  love and nurture.

Sanghavi describes a Russian orphanage visited by a colleague:  “The problem wasn’t that the children were neglected: They were kept fastidiously clean and were well groomed and well fed. The problem was that they were bereft of normal human contact. “

As Sanghavi presents it, many Russian orphanages still reflect theories of care-giving championed by progressive psychologists in the 1920s, when some parenting books discouraged mothers from hugging children and the head of the American Psychological Association literally went so far as to recommend only one kiss per year.

Western theorists eventually woke to what most any parent knows by common sense:  that love and affection are vital to a child’s well being.  And so efforts to care for orphans in the West moved decisively away from orphanages in the 1950s and 60s.  Sanghavi notes, “By 1965, only 4 percent of American orphans remained in institutions.  But attachment theory did not influence child welfare programs in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc…. At the time of a 1998 Human Rights Watch report, hundreds of thousands of children were committed to orphanages in Russia, while only several hundred lived in family-size foster-care settings.”

Furthermore, as Sanghavi describes, “A culture of adoption has never taken off in Russia: Of an estimated 800,000 Russian orphans today, only about 15,000 are adopted each year, half of them by foreigners.”

Describing the dire consequences of leaving children in institutions, Sanghavi refers to a watershed 2007 study by Harvard professor Charles Nelson, working in Romania.  The study found that of 136 infants placed either in foster care or orphanages, children in foster care produced significantly higher IQ scores, and the younger the child at the time of placement, the bigger the difference.

“Institutional care is bad for kids,” the study’s author told Sanghavi. “The fact is that institutional care always does worse than family care.”