New project to evaluate effects of adoption on older children

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The Pennsylvania child-welfare system places thousands of children from across the state into adoptive families. Penn State researchers recently received a $3.8 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to explore successful post-adoption development in children.

Brian Allen, associate professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Penn State Health, and cofunded faculty member of Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute, will serve as the principal investigator.

“We know a lot about children that were adopted before the age of three, but we don’t know much about those children adopted at older ages,” Allen said. “Children adopted at older ages are at a later stage of development where creating significant and lasting change in outcomes may be more difficult.”

The project examines children adopted from the child welfare system in order to determine factors that contribute to successful post-adoption development in their ability to regulate emotions and behaviors. Allen and his team will work closely with the Statewide Adoption Network (SWAN) to recruit adopted children and their parents from across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

A chief goal of this study is to determine the influence household factors, such as family composition and pet ownership, have on a child’s ability to develop emotional and behavioral regulation skills.

Hannah Schreier, assistant professor of biobehavioral health and cofounded faculty member of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, is also a researcher on the project.

“One of the unique parts of this study is that it not only focuses on high-risk yet historically understudied youth, but that we’ll also be able to bring together several lines of research,” said Shreier. “In addition to collecting data on youth’s new family environments, we’ll examine their emotion regulation skills and possible underlying physiological mechanisms that may shed further light on youth’s behavioral, emotional and physiological well-being and how they are interconnected.”

The study will provide researchers the necessary insight to offer recommendations on how to improve the lives of children adopted from the welfare system, which aligns with NICHD’s collective motive of enhancing child and adolescent well-being through human development research.

“We are hoping this study will tell us the factors in adoptive homes that predict healthy post-adoption development both emotionally and behaviorally,” Allen said. “If it’s successful and we can specify those factors, then we know clinically where we need to target to improve development moving forward and can provide caseworkers and adoptive families with suggestions on how to improve a child’s adjustment to the home.”

Other Penn State researchers involved include Erika Lunkenheimer, associate professor of psychology; Jennie Noll, professor of human development and family studies and director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network; Ming Wang, associate professor of public health sciences; and Nancy Dreschel, associate teaching professor of small animal science.

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