Adopted children after school: the effects of early deprivation on their development – An overview of the current situation

Adopted children after school: the effects of early deprivation on their development – An overview of the current situation

Orphanages, even when they are endowed with resources and opportunities, cannot be considered suitable places for the growth of minors (Monti et al. 2010), as they are to be considered fully by the total institutions (Goffman, 1968).

This contribution is the first in a series of three articles on the subject. In this first part we present a general overview of the current situation relating to orphanages and institutions for minors. In the articles that we will publish in the coming days, on the other hand, recent research on the topic and its results will be illustrated.


In Italy, the total closure of orphanages was established by law No. 149 of 2001; to date, however, this has not yet happened completely (Istituto degli innocenti, 2007). In Europe, among the worst deteriorating situations are those of the institutes of Russia and Romania, where adequate legislation is not yet foreseen.

Even if the institutions have different characteristics according to the countries and also within them, a common theme for all is the lack of socio-emotional interaction with the caregivers: this is closely connected with the typical developmental delays observed in post-minors. institutionalized and their subsequent behavioral problems (Merz & McCall, 2010).

In institutions such as the Russian and Romanian ones, children are unlikely to enjoy an individualized relationship with a reference adult, as the numerical ratio between adults and children is around 1 to 30/50 (Rutter et al., 2007). To this must be added that these minors are exposed to excessive staff turnover, coming to relate, in their first two years of life, from a minimum of 50 to about 100 different caregivers (Groark & ​​Muhamedrahimov, 2005). Life in most institutions is characterized by the scarce or total absence of perceptual, motor and linguistic stimulations, and the interactions are often short and poorly directed (Monti et al. 2010).

Since for about 85% of the minors adopted, after separation from the biological family, life begins in an institution, studies on their physical growth and their cognitive and emotional development have continued for more than fifty years (Smyke et al. 2007).

Of course, the reasons why children come to institutions can also contribute to different outcomes and different levels of resilience. In Romania, for example, the main reason for child abandonment is poverty (Zeanah et al., 2003), associated with poor prenatal care, maternal malnutrition and prenatal exposure to alcohol and other substances. Even in Russia the situation of childhood is very difficult: in many areas of the country families live below the poverty line and social unease, often aggravated by phenomena such as drug addiction and alcoholism, often leads to the abandonment of children. In fact, the vast majority of hospitalized children still have at least one of their parents alive: they are defined as social orphans.

Although in many cases the institution situations should be short-lived, it is estimated that only 9% of the children return to their families after entering an institution (Smyke et al. 2007). Adoption can therefore be considered a solution; however, the importance of this event suggests a more accurate analysis of the protective and risk factors that characterize it.

An accumulation of risk factors (such as premature neglect and abuse) is assumed to lead to less good child development, while protective factors (such as a secure attachment relationship) can mitigate the negative effects of the risks, increasing the resilience (Chistolini, 2009).

Research has shown that the failure to build preferential bonds and the inability to live in a loving and predictable context lead to difficulties in various areas of biological and psychosocial development, which tend to increase in relation to the intensity and duration of deprivation. As early as the early 1990s, several authors found alterations in behavior and social relationships in the early de-institutionalized children very similar to those of autistic children. Starting from this, it has been possible, over time, to identify what has been named by Federici (1998) “post-institutional autistic syndrome” or also, by other authors, “quasi-autistic pattern” (Rutter et al., 1999) .

What makes it possible to differentiate the «quasi-autistic pattern» of subjects deprived of autism found in the normative population is that the first seems to have the context of profound deprivation and not genetic factors as its cause; therefore, by changing this dysfunctional context for growth, room for improvement is possible (Hoksbergen et al., 2005).

Research published in the past 15 years has found the presence of disorders especially in children raised in Romanian institutions (cognitive delays, severe social behavior disorders and abnormalities in the level of cortisol, a factor compatible with high levels of stress) (Smyke et al. 2002 ; Zeanah, et al. 2005). Despite these results, Rutter and colleagues (1999) noted a surprising individual variability in the degree to which children’s development is compromised by institutional experience and observed significant, if not complete, recoveries in minors adopted by Romania (Rutter, 2007). . According to some authors, roughly a quarter of institutionalized minors manage to function normally, even after two years of institutionalization (Emiliani, 2008).

Many researchers, including Juffer and van Ijzendoorn (2006), have underlined the significance of a comparison between abandoned children left in the institution and those, instead, welcomed in the family, so that the effective degree of international adoption effectiveness can be verified as alternative to institutionalization.

Bowlby (1982) concluded a chapter of his book with a hopeful phrase:

Countries with adequate knowledge of early institutional care and the consequences they entail can promote educational interventions in a more targeted and conscious way, favoring a better adaptation of minors to new life situations.


1- Children adopted after the institution: the effects of early deprivation on their development – An overview of the current situation – Published on State of Mind on 21 July 2020
2- Children adopted after the institution: the effects of early deprivation on their development their development – The main studies – Published in the State of Mind on 22 July 2020
3- Children adopted after the institution: the effects of early deprivation on their development – The results of the main studies – Published in the State of Mind on 23 July 2020