30 Years Ago, Romania Deprived Thousands of Babies of Human Contact

Melissa Fay Greene - The Atlantic

This article from the Atlantic tells the story of Izidor, and others, who grew up in institutional care in Romania and the impact that has had on them as adults. "In his hospital, in the Southern Carpathian mountain town of Sighetu Marmaţiei, Izidor would have been fed by a bottle stuck into his mouth and propped against the bars of a crib. Well past the age when children in the outside world began tasting solid food and then feeding themselves, he and his age-mates remained on their backs, sucking from bottles with widened openings to allow the passage of a watery gruel," says the article. "Izidor was destined to spend the rest of his childhood in this building, to exit the gates only at 18, at which time, if he were thoroughly incapacitated, he’d be transferred to a home for old men; if he turned out to be minimally functional, he’d be evicted to make his way on the streets. Odds were high that he wouldn’t survive that long, that the boy with the shriveled leg would die in childhood, malnourished, shivering, unloved," the article continues.

After the Romanian revolution, however, foreign news programs learned of what was happening in these institutions and began airing video segments exposing the conditions there, including a U.S. news segment from 20/20 entitled 'Shame of a Nation.' Pediatric and neuroscience teams were soon called in to these institutions and saw firsthand the effects of the severe neglect the children had experienced. Images from these Romanian orphanages, along with other research, "changed the course of the study of attachment."

In the decade that followed, the Romanian government invited "child-development experts to simultaneously help and study the tens of thousands of children still warehoused in state care," says the article. "Researchers hoped to answer some long-standing questions: Are there sensitive periods in neural development, after which the brain of a deprived child cannot make full use of the mental, emotional, and physical stimulation later offered? Can the effects of 'maternal deprivation' or 'caregiver absence' be documented with modern neuroimaging techniques? Finally, if an institutionalized child is transferred into a family setting, can he or she recoup undeveloped capacities? Implicitly, poignantly: Can a person unloved in childhood learn to love?"