A new research project at the University of Luxembourg investigates the mental health of children and adolescents growing up in residential and foster care in Luxembourg. Led by Profs. Pascale Engel de Abreu and Robert Kumsta, the project CHAMP, short for “CHildhood Adversity and Mental Health Project” aims to investigate the impact of adverse childhood experiences on child development.
This interdisciplinary project brings together researchers from the University of Luxembourg and the Luxembourg Institute of Health, who use methods from developmental psychology and epigenetic research. The long-term goals are to improve early identification of specific needs of children in out-of-home care and develop interventions to improve the mental health of affected children and adolescents.
Epigenetics is the study of how a person’s behaviour and environment can cause changes that affect the way that person’s genes work. Epigenetic changes are potentially reversible modifications that impact gene activity without changing the DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.
Today, epigenetics influences research in numerous areas, such as life sciences, sociology, psychology education, and even economics.
Distressing experiences in early childhood
Placing a child in residential or foster care is a double-edged sword. While it is a measure taken to protect the best interests of the child, it represents a major disruption in its life and research consistently shows an increased risk of developmental and mental health disorders in children raised outside their families.
The year 2023 saw approximately 1,400 vulnerable children and young adults placed in out-of-home care across Luxembourg, as reported by the National Children’s Office ONE. Behind these numbers often lies a troubling tale of neglect and child abuse, highlighting the urgent need for societal awareness and intervention.
To date, there is very little data on the mental health and cognitive development of children in residential and foster care in Luxembourg. Moreover, the exact mechanisms linking adverse childhood experiences to mental health and learning are still poorly understood. The large-scale research project CHAMP aims to fill this gap. In a holistic and interdisciplinary approach, psychological, biological, educational, and social aspects will be investigated. By understanding these connections, the researchers hope to pave the way for more effective interventions and support systems, ensuring a brighter future for vulnerable youth.
The CHAMP project – A team effort
Prof. Pascale Engel de Abreu, head of the research group for socio-emotional and cognitive development, and Prof. Robert Kumsta, head of the laboratory for stress and gene-environment interactions, are leading the project at the University of Luxembourg in collaboration with Dr Jonathan Turner at the Luxembourg Institute of Health.
CHAMP will be carried out over a period of three years. It will involve children, adolescents, and carers in residential child and family care institutions (AEF), as well as foster families in Luxembourg. Additionally, the study will incorporate control groups comprising children and adolescents from the general population. The research will encompass questionnaires, interviews, cognitive and epigenetic tests.
Project partners are the Office National de l’Enfance (ONE), FEDAS Luxembourg, FleegeElteren Lëtzebuerg, the Luxembourg Association for Social Work and Education (ANCES), the Ombudsman fir Kanner a Jugendlecher (OKaJu) and UNICEF Luxembourg. The research group is also supported by international experts in child and adolescent psychology and psychiatry from Germany, Scotland, and New Zealand.
Project leader Pascale Engel de Abreu, underscores the urgency of focused research in this area.