Originally Posted By Brenda
Hot Topic: Disruption
For the thousands of adoptions that result in successful, happy families, there are some adoptions which do not continue, resulting in the separation of the child from the family. When the child leaves the family before the adoption petition is finalized in a court of law, the occurrence is called a "disruption." When it happens after the finalization of the adoption, the event is called "dissolution,"and results in the dissolution of not only the legal petition to adopt, but also of the family unit.
Adoption disruption and dissolution rates have remained relatively consistent over the past 15 years, ranging between 10 and 20 percent, depending on the type of adoption (Boyne, Denby, Kettenring, Wheeler, 1984; Groze, 1986; Barth and Berry, 1988). Infant placements have the lowest rate of disruption, at less than one percent (Barth and Berry, 1988). As for children placed out of the public child welfare system, the risk of disruption increases as the child ages (Boyne, Denby, Kettenring, Wheeler, 1984; Barth and Berry, 1988). The overall decrease in disruption percentages in 1988 from 1984 can be traced to the introduction of post-adoption services, an important factor in containing the number of adoption disruptions.
Risk Factors
Characteristics and risk factors associated with adoption disruption can be identified in terms of the three groups contributing to the adoption: children, parents, and service providers. These groups are also the focus of the best practice, policies, and improvements suggested at the end of this paper.
Children adopted at an older age are especially at-risk for adoption disruption (Boyne, Denby, Kettenring, Wheeler, 1984; Groze, 1986; Partridge, Hornby, McDonald, 1986; Barth and Berry, 1988). As illustrated in the graph below, the disruption rate increases exponentially as the age of the child increases. For example, the disruption rate for children adopted between ages three and five ranges between 3 and 5%, while the disruption rate for children adopted at the ages of 15 to 17 can be as high as 47%.
A single factor, such as the gender or race of the child or their placement as one of a sibling set, does not appear to have significant influence on the likelihood of disruption (Boyne, Denby, Kettenring, Wheeler, 1984; Groze, 1986; Partridge, Hornby, McDonald, 1986; Barth and Berry, 1988); however, some studies have shown higher disruptions in the adoptions of girls adopted by non-fostering parents; in the adoptions of some minority teenagers; and in the adoptions of children placed in adoptive homes with one or more biological or adoptive children (Barth and Berry, 1988).
While no difference in disruption rates has been found based on the relinquishment and termination history of the child (Partridge, Hornby, McDonald, 1986; Barth and Berry, 1988), a previous disruption is one of the most significant predictors for a second (Groze, 1986; Partridge, Hornby, McDonald, 1986; Barth and Berry, 1988). Physical, psychological, and emotional handicaps, or cognitive disability, are indicators (Berry, 1997), as is a history of dysfunctional, abusive birth and adoptive family relationships and strained peer interaction (Partridge, Hornby, McDonald, 1986). These histories often leave children with behavioral and emotional problems and confused self-identity: characteristics that can lead to disruption. However, the presence of physical problems or mental retardation by themselves are not associated with increased disruptions (Boyne, Denby, Kettenring, Wheeler, 1984; Berry, 1997).
Behavioral problems especially seem to be indicators of possible disruption (Partridge, Hornby, McDonald, 1986; Barth and Berry, 1988; Berry, 1997). Using child behavior checklist, researchers found a significant association between adoption disruption and a host of behaviors, including
sexual acting out
physical aggression
suicide attempts.
Few parents complain in post-adoption counseling of issues related to the child's physical limitations or internalized behavior, but often have difficulty coping with aggressive behaviors (Lawder, 1970).
Children described by their adoptive parents as having low levels of attachment also have heightened risk of adoption disruptions (Barth and Berry, 1988). Researchers, asking families to rate their child's capacity for attachment, found that disruption was associated with lower capacity ratings in the areas of curiosity, ability to meet the child's needs for affection, showing spontaneous affection, and caring about the parents' approval.
While no one factor stands out as the "silver bullet" to identifying a child at risk for adoption, behavioral problems need to be realistically assessed and described. These, more than any demographic or disability, more accurately distinguish children in danger of disrupting.
While demographics have little significance in identifying children whose adoptions will or will not disrupt, they are increasingly important in recognizing parental strengths and matching parental strengths to the needs of a particular child.
Disruptions are very unlikely in families where children are adopted by their foster parents (Berry, 1997). Adoption stability is also often associated with an older adoptive parent (Groze, 1986; Barth and Berry, 1988); these parents tend to adopt "age-appropriate" older children and create more stable homes for these older children. Parents of larger family units have demonstrated prior child-raising experience, less anxiety about the child-raising process, are more tolerant of a wide range of behaviors, and have more flexible and realistic aspirations for their child (Berry, 1997). Risk for disruption is increased, though, in cases where the adopted child displaces a biological child as the oldest in the family, or when siblings are placed in a home with other biological or adopted children (Barth and Berry, 1988).
Single parents applying to adopt have been found to be, by self-selection, more mature and have a high capacity for frustration (Branham, 1970). These adopters usually are independent but have a wide network of very supportive friends and family. For any family, this supportive network is key in relieving parental frustration, providing social encouragement, and providing necessary respite and stress relief. While early studies showed that adoptions by married couples are more stable (Partridge, Hornby, McDonald, 1986), later research has shown that single parents are no more likely to disrupt than two parents, even though single parents are adopting older and more troubled children (Barth and Berry, 1988). Almost half of two parent families indicated that both parents would work outside of the home, and this had no effect on disruption rates (Barth and Berry, 1988).
There is a significant relationship between higher education and disruption, and family income and disruption. Families with higher education levels and higher incomes have higher disruption rates, possibly related to higher academic and social expectations for their children (Groze, 1986; Barth and Berry, 1988). While no relationship has been found between transracial placements and disruption, transracial adoptees are much more vulnerable to identity issues and problems during adolescence, which may lead to behavioral problems for parents (Partridge, Hornby, McDonald, 1986; Barth and Berry, 1988). Many of the conflicts between adoptive parents and adopted children can be resolved or diminished by the acknowledgment of the sometimes wide gap between expectations on the part of the parents and behavior on the part of the child. Social workers can help mediate and broker this evolving relationship.
Service Providers
The child welfare system, with its fragmentation of responsibilities and division of services among dozens of agencies, can itself contribute to adoptive disruptions (Berry, 1997). The lack of oversight and multiple numbers of caseworkers can contribute to higher disruption rates (Festinger, 1986, Partridge, Hornby, McDonald, 1986). The timing of the placement of the child in the adoptive home is critical; delays between the time of the referral and actual placement of the child in the home create frustration for both the child and the parent, increasing the chances of disruption, while insufficient or rushed assessments can have similar effects (Berry, 1997).
Overwhelming majorities (67%) of adoptive parents have indicated that while preplacement preparation was important to the success of the adoption, more and better information about the child would have better prepared the parents for the placement and parenting of the child (Barth and Berry, 1988; Berry, 1997).
Parents cite two types of information as best preparing them for parenting their adopted child: first, more specific, child-centered information prepares them for parenting better than overview presentations on adoption and parenting in general. Second, meetings with other foster and adoptive families , including group sessions with the child's current caretaker, increase adoption stability (Berry, 1997). Complete, realistic histories and assessments of the child's prospects are necessary to the stability of the adoption (Nelson, 1985; Berry, 1997).
Large gaps were found between the information that social workers stated that they gave and the information that parents stated that they received (Barth and Berry, 1988). The surprises that parents experience in learning or realizing their child's history or current behavior are often directly associated with the disruption of the placement; better parental preparation can reduce this factor (Barth and Berry, 1988). Likewise, providing postplacement contact, especially in the first eighteen months after the placement (the average time to disruption) decreases the likelihood of disruption. During this period of contact, parents and children have opportunities to talk with social workers about issues on an ongoing basis, and workers can suggest appropriate plans of action or services to assist families (Berry, 1997).
Matching children and families can be a delicate process; however, often prospective parents are encouraged to downplay concerns about the needs or expectations of a child, or of themselves, in order to make a match (Berry, 1997). While recruitment, retention, and matching are of utmost importance in the adoption process, there is little research to guide workers in these areas. Consequently, children with extraordinary needs are sometimes placed with parents who indicated in their preparation that they felt unable to parent a child with this type of need (Nelson, 1985). The association between "stretching" and disruption is heightened when the family reports not receiving full and complete information on the child placed in their care (Zwimpfer, 1983). Disruptions are very likely in cases where an emotionally disturbed child is placed with a family which indicated that they do not intend to adopt an emotionally disturbed child (Barth and Berry, 1988).
The availability of adoption subsidy and services lends stability to placements, as shown by disruption rates, which had leveled in 1988, after the wide availability of adoption subsidy (Barth and Berry, 1988). Special educational tutoring for the child builds stability, but the availability of psychotherapy or family counseling had no direct relation (Partridge, Hornby, McDonald, 1986a). With this emphasis on thorough pre- and postplacement parental preparation, and on maintaining focus and awareness of matching and stretching, service providers can reduce the risk, and the likelihood, of adoption disruptions.
Lessons from Best Practice
It is important that parents and practitioners remember the most important and consistent finding in disruption research: that risk factors for disruption do not always lead inevitably to disruption, and that there are always many factors which lead to disruptions, making it difficult to pin the "blame" on any one cause (Berry, 1997). Each family situation must be evaluated individually and independently to assess risk factors, potential for stability, and possibility of adoption success. With this in mind, there are areas for improvement in adoption practice, to increase support and stability for families adopting children with special needs.
Post-placement supervision
Complete disclosure of background information can prepare parents for a child, but continued support after the placement can ensure that families are receiving the information and services they may need over time. Whether it is the social support of a parent support group, community resources or services, counseling, special education services, or information on behavior management, the continued contact of a social worker may encourage the family to deal with these problems early, before they escalate toward disruption (Partridge, Hornby, McDonald, 1986).
Recruitment, Matching and Stretching
With loosening of eligibility requirements for public agency adopters and continued placement of children with single parent adopters, transracially adoptive families, and parents with lower incomes, education levels, and foster parents, the importance of strengths-based assessments and ongoing support increases. While looking for the "best family," agency personnel and parents should emphasize honest expectations and appropriate matching of families ready and able to suitably meet the child's needs, both for now and for the child's entire life (Berry, 1997).
Fully prepared adoptive families are developed, not discovered, and each family comes to adoption through by its own path (SWAN, 1998). In order to assist families in making the decision to adopt, or not to adopt, professionals should encourage and provide honest information sharing and evaluation, in order to arrive at the right answer for each family - whatever answer that is.
Background Information
Complete assessment of the child's history and future needs, and the thorough transmittal of that information to potential adoptive parents is critical to adoption success (Nelson, 1985; Barth and Berry, 1988). Though agencies now face legal liability for withholding or omitting information about a child, best practice insists that this information be made available to those who assume the responsibility for parenting a child (Berry, 1997). Not only does this policy deter these lawsuits, it improves parental preparation, encourages recruitment and retention of adoptive families, and leads to better working relationships between parents and agency personnel. By arranging meetings between the child's current caretakers and adoptive parents, having significant people in the child's life write letters about the child, and providing information and services related to child-specific challenges and behaviors, practitioners can support adoptive families and more stable adoptions (Partridge, Hornby, McDonald, 1986).
Post-Adoption Services
The most common complaint of adoptive parents is the information gap between what they expected from their child and the child's real behavior and history (Berry, 1997). In 1988 research, 53% of families responded that they were told about the child's usual behavior before placement, 76% of workers responded that they had told parents about this behavior (Barth and Berry, 1988). Professionals should take great care to be sure that they deliver comprehensive, accurate information about the child's history, present conditions and behaviors, and possible future prognoses, and ensure that the parents are receiving that information.
One technique for social workers to insure that they are effectively communicating information about the child is to plan a meeting with the family members where the family tries to predict specific anticipated child behaviors, and devise a family response to them. For example, if the child is currently acting out, and the family is made aware of this behavior, the social worker can ask them to explain how they, as a family, would handle a hypothetical situation. This assures not only that the family understands what the behavior is and how it may impact the family, but also gives the social worker an opportunity to discuss parenting skills and strategies, and to offer suggestions to help the family face these situations.
Before the placement, it is important that the family address the negotiation of adoption subsidy and the availability of continuing services such as special education, family therapy, respite care, and adoptive parent support groups (Berry, 1997). Arrangements should be made for any necessary services needed by the family immediately after the placement, as well as the ability of the family to access services as needed later in the child's development, as some behaviors and attitudes may not surface until later in the child's life.
When the Placement Does Not Work
In some cases, despite the best efforts of all involved, there will be adoption disruptions. While there exists no broad body of research on the effects of disruption on children and families, individuals in these situations should not be discounted. Although a previous disruption is a significant risk factor for a subsequent disruption (Groze, 1986; Barth and Berry, 1988), agencies are attempting second adoptions for these children. In a study of older child adoptions, all eight sibling placements which had first disrupted were stable in the second placement (Barth and Berry, 1988).
In cases where a disruption occurs, professionals should seek to "debrief" all parties: to find out what was not working in the placement, so that the parents, agency, and the child can learn from the experience, and try again (SWAN, 1998). It is important that everyone in the process keep a positive focus, even through the difficulties and trying times of a disruption; most children and families that face a disruption do go on to try again with another family or child, and can be successful the second time around.
Barth, R.P., and Berry, M. (1988). Adoption and disruption: Rates, risks, and responses. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Berry, M. (1997). Adoption disruption. In R. Avery (Ed.), Adoption Policy and Special Needs Children. Wesport, CT: Auburn House.
Boyne, J., Denby, L., Kettenring, J.R., and Wheeler, W. (1984). The shadow of success: A statistical analysis of outcomes of adoptions of hard-to-place children. Westfield, NJ: Spaulding for Children.
Branham, E. (1970). One parent adoptions. Children, 17 (3), 103-107.
Festinger, T. (1986). Necessary risk: A study of adoptions and disrupted adoptive placements. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.
Groze, V. Special needs adoption. Children and Youth Services Review, 8, 363-373.
Lawder, E.A. (1970). Postadoption counseling: a professional obligation. Child Welfare, 49, 435-442.
Nelson, K.A. (1985). On the frontier of adoption: A study of special-needs adoptive families. New York: Child Welfare League of America.
Partridge, S., Hornby, H., and McDonald, T. (1986a). Learning from adoption disruption: Insights from practice. Portland: University of Southern Maine, Human Services Development Institute.
Partridge, S., Hornby, H., and McDonald, T. Legacies of loss, visions of gain: An inside look at adoption disruption. Portland: University of Southern Maine.
State Wide Adoption Network (SWAN). (1998). Adoption Help Manual: A basic guide to special needs adoptions in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg, PA: State Wide Adoption Network.
Zwimpfer, D.M. (1983). Indicators of adoption breakdown. Social casework, 64, 169-177.
This material may be reproduced and distributed without permission; however, appropriate citation must be given to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse.