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The University of Delaware’s Mary Dozier is leading a pilot project examines intervention to help at-risk children
The University of Delaware’s Mary Dozier is leading a pilot project examines intervention to help at-risk children

Russian orphan research partnership

Illustration by Jeff Chase

UD's Mary Dozier is leading a pilot project meant to help at-risk children

An intervention, developed by the University of Delaware’s Mary Dozier, to help parents and caregivers nurture neglected and at-risk children has had demonstrated success in the U.S. and abroad.

Now, in an agreement that’s a first for UD, researchers at a Russian university will partner with Dozier to implement the intervention in that country and study its effectiveness with children who have been living in orphanages.

The agreement with Saint Petersburg University took effect in early July and will “establish linkages and create the foundation for mutual cooperation and collaboration” among the disciplines that the two institutions have in common. It is the first such agreement that UD has reached with a university in Russia.

“We consider the particular project [involving her team’s research] exciting, but the possibilities for the future even more so,” said Dozier, who is the Unidel Amy E. du Pont Chair in Child Development in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the 2016 recipient of UD’s Francis Alison Faculty Award.

Dozier is internationally known for her work in the development of young children who have experienced neglect or other adversity. She leads the Infant Caregiver Project at UD, where she and her team have developed an evidence-based intervention for parents and other caregivers of these vulnerable children.

The intervention, known as Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC), has been used with parents of children at risk for maltreatment or neglect, as well as those caring for foster children and internationally adopted children. It focuses on helping parents with three main skills — providing nurturing care, following the child’s lead and avoiding frightening behavior.

When parents are nurturing, children learn to rely upon their parents when distressed; when parents follow their children’s lead, children develop self-regulatory skills.

Mary Dozier Unidel Amy E. du Pont Chair in Child Development

When parents are nurturing, children learn to rely upon their parents when distressed; when parents follow their children’s lead, children develop self-regulatory skills.

Mary Dozier Unidel Amy E. du Pont Chair in Child Development

Parents take part in 10 sessions to help them develop those skills, in which ABC-trained “coaches” visit the families in their homes, observing and providing feedback on how the parents and children interact.

Dozier’s follow-up research over the years has found that ABC participants develop long-term, improved responsiveness to their children. In turn, the children are found to have developed more secure attachments and to have better regulated their behavior and emotions.

“When children have experienced adversity, they really need nurturing and responsive care,” Dozier said. “When parents are nurturing, children learn to rely upon their parents when distressed; when parents follow their children’s lead, children develop self-regulatory skills.”

The Russian study will look at 40 children who have been placed from orphanages into what are called foster homes in Russia but which are expected to be permanent placements, similar to an American adoptive family. Half of those families will take part in the ABC intervention, with the results compared with those who have no intervention. Both groups will also be compared with 40 other children—half who remain in orphanages and half who live with their birth families.

“ABC is being used in a few other countries, but this project is especially interesting because it’s the first foreign country with a randomized research study,” Dozier said.

The project is being implemented on a small scale with donor funds, but Dozier said she hopes to apply for grants to expand it in the future. Much of her previous work has been supported by the National Institutes of Health.

The research she and her colleagues are conducting in Russia seeks to evaluate the results of using the ABC intervention according to four measures.

The team will observe the children’s behavior, specifically their attachment to their caregivers, and the parents’ sensitivity to the children’s needs. Researchers will also measure two biological functions—the children’s production of cortisol, a hormone that is released as part of the body’s response to stress, and the process of DNA methylation, or measurable changes in genes that occur because of stress.

The cortisol will be analyzed in laboratories at St. Petersburg University, and the DNA work will be done at UD in collaboration with Tania Roth, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences. Roth’s research focuses on the changes in gene regulation and activity triggered by mistreatment and investigates whether those changes may cause behavioral problems.

As one of Russia’s two universities with specially designated research status, St. Petersburg has benefited from government investment in what Dozier described as “very impressive core facilities.” Because of the collaborative research, she said, the lab work is being conducted in Russia at no cost to UD.

Dozier visited St. Petersburg recently and met with administrators at the university there. They were enthusiastic about the research partnership and about other possible collaborations and scholar exchanges with UD, she said.

 


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