child is nurtured and looked after – the brain will struggle to develop normally. This is
something the Jensen family from Wisconsin has experienced first-hand. Carol and Bill
Jensen adopted Tom, John, and Victoria when the children were four years old. The three
children were orphans who had, until their adoption, endured appalling conditions in
state-run orphanages in Romania – with consequences for their brain development.
When the Jensens picked up the children and took a taxi out of Romania, Carol asked
the taxi driver to translate what the children were saying. The taxi driver explained they
were speaking gibberish. It was not a known language; starved of normal interaction, the
children had developed a strange creole. As they’ve grown up, the children have had to
deal with learning disabilities, the scars of their childhood deprivation.
Tom, John, and Victoria don’t remember much about their time in Romania. In
contrast, someone who remembers the institutions vividly is Dr. Charles Nelson,
Professor of Pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital. He first visited these institutions in
1999. What he saw horrified him. Young children were kept in their cribs, with no sensory
stimulation. There was a single caretaker for every fifteen children, and these workers
were instructed not to pick the children up or show them affection in any way, even when
they were crying – the concern was that such displays of affection would lead to the
children wanting more, an impossibility with the limited staffing. In this context, things
were as regimented as possible. Children were lined up on plastic pots for toileting.
Everyone got the same haircut, regardless of gender. They were dressed alike, fed on
schedule. Everything was mechanized.
Children whose cries went unanswered soon learned not to cry. The children were not
held and were not played with. Although they had their basic needs met (they were fed,
washed and clothed), the infants were deprived of emotional care, support, and any kind
of stimulation. As a result, they developed “indiscriminate friendliness”. Nelson explains
that he’d walk into a room and be surrounded by little kids he’d never seen before – and
they’d want to jump into his arms and sit on his lap or hold his hand or walk off with him.
Although this sort of indiscriminate behavior seems sweet at first glance, it’s a coping
strategy of neglected children, and it goes hand-in-hand with long-term attachment
issues. It is a hallmark behavior of children who have grown up in an institution.
Shaken by the conditions they were witnessing, Nelson and his team set up the
Bucharest Early Intervention Program. They assessed 136 children, aged six months to
three years, who had been living in institutions from birth. First, it became clear that the
children had IQs in the sixties and seventies, compared to an average of one hundred. The
children showed signs of under-developed brains and their language was very delayed.
When Nelson used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the electrical activity in
these children’s brains, he found they had dramatically reduced neural activity.