Up Close with Kim Ferguson

Up Close with Kim Ferguson

by Sophia Kelley MFA '10
Reprinted from the February 2009 issue of the Alumnae/i Community Update eNewsletter

The AIDS pandemic in Africa has left countless babies without parents, consigning them to crowded orphanages with limited resources. Recent research has painted these institutions in a negative light, but Kim Ferguson (psychology) wanted to see for herself whether conditions in the orphanages were actually detrimental to children's health.

Ferguson was raised in Malawi, and in 2006 she returned to study the physical environments of two orphanages and gauge how they affected the cognitive and emotional development of the infants in their care. She collected data on 60 babies ages 6-30 months and evaluated the institutions on everything from basic safety and hygiene to the types of toys and books available. Were there enough windows? Did children have a soft space, such as a blanket, where they could retreat from the noise of the crowded facility.

She found that overall, the infants were doing reasonably well: All the children had recovered from malnutrition and their basic health needs were being met, though she did note some small developmental delays. In addition, the children appeared to have secure attachments to their caregivers. "Overall, the children had pretty good-quality care, especially given their situation," Ferguson says.

Based on her results, she made recommendations to the institutions about improvements they could make, some of which have already been implemented. Ferguson will return to Malawi this summer to meet with government groups and institutions about further improvements. Eventually, she hopes to conduct a longitudinal study that will follow the conditions in the orphanages over time.