Adoption research has had a long and impressive history within child welfare, but has lost vigor and rigor in recent years. We continue to fall short of meeting Mech's [1965: 7] 30-year-old challenge to broaden the research base of adoption practice: "The prospects of moving toward a scientific base for child placement appear bright, though at present the hiatus between the actual and potential contributions of research to practice is truly vast." Recent years have witnessed a devastated infrastructure of adoption indicators, little basic adoption research, and the absence of rigorous adoption services research.
The following discussion pinpoints areas most critical to the enhancement of adoption practice and policy and ranks them, roughly, in the order of importance.
We need better aggregate adoption indicators to assess the dynamics of adoption. The most important indicators would shape adoption policy and answer the basic questions regarding children under public agency supervision: how many children are in need of adoption, how many children are adopted each year, what is the timing of those adoptions, and how do client and service characteristics affect the incidence and timing of adoption? This information must be at the individual case level to allow for analysis of the contribution of the child's age at the time of placement, reason for referral to placement, and child's ethnicity to the likelihood and timeliness of adoption. Since 1975, the federal government has had no system in place for collecting comprehensive national data on adoption. A list of national adoption indicators necessary to guide the field is shown in figure 1. Continued support of the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS) and the Multi-State Data Archive at Chapin Hall will also ensure that the dynamic relationship between foster care and adoption is better understood.
A fundamental building block of case-level adoption research is a child-specific identifier that remains with the child even if the child's name changes as a result of adoption. This is necessary for long-range research that will help us understand the postplacement adjustment of children who are adopted (in contrast to those who are not). Currently, changing names and identifiers make it difficult to match the histories of children who are adopted with their preadoptive histories. This prohibits accurate counting of adoptions as well as linkages to juvenile justice, education, health, and mental health databases. The compelling Scandinavian studies on the outcomes of adoption (e.g., Bohman and Sigvardsson 1990) are possible because a single child identification number allowed researchers to routinely access indicators of the performance of adults who were foster and adopted children. Adoption research cannot reach its potential until lifetime child-specific identification numbers are used [Barth et al., in press].
The second priority for adoption services research should be the development of information necessary to increase adoptive placements. The research is clear that adoptive placements, on the whole, work well [Glidden 1991], that parents and children are generally satisfied [Rosenthal and Groze 1992], and that disruption rates are modest [Barth and Berry 1988; Partridge et al. 1986]. The greatest challenge to the success of adoption services is not that adoptions are troubled. Some of them are, but "what seems remarkable is the degree of consistency in favorable outcome in widely differing types of adoption" [Schulman and Berman 1993]. By far, the greatest problem facing the field is that too many children who would benefit from adoption are not adopted.
Potential Adopting Families
More needs to be understood about the universe of potential adopting families. The feasibility of strategies to increase the adoptability of children in family foster care depends on greater knowledge about the adopting public. Exceptionally useful research about adoption-seeking has begun to emerge from the National Study of Family Growth (NSFG) [Bachrach et al. 1991]; this research places the number of current adoption seekers at 200,000 in contrast to a commonly held figure ten times as large. Inconsistent with commonly held beliefs that African American families adopt at a rate higher than other families, Bachrach and colleagues found no differences between ethnic groups in adoption-seeking. The inconsistency may result because proportionately more African American families do adopt after they are sought out as foster and adoptive parents even though they were not adoption seekers. Still, more information is certainly needed to understand clearly who wants to adopt and who will adopt. Inclusion of questions about adoption-seeking and becoming an adoptive parent should be continued as part of the NSFG. Better information is central to understanding how to develop adoptive placements for the children in foster care who would benefit from adoptive homes.
Recruitment and Retention
Understanding ways to increase adoptive placements requires demonstration projects. National and local efforts to increase adoptions have relied heavily on minority recruitment, yet no systematic effort has been undertaken to determine the impact of recruitment programs. Recruitment of adoptive families will continue to be an important element of adoption practice. Basic research on the promotion of adoption and the obstacles to adoption as perceived by potential adoptees is essential to the continued development of innovative strategies. This information can build on what we have learned in the last two decades to arrive at the best possible recruitment and retention strategies. These strategies should then be tried and seriously evaluated.
Selection of Placements
What balance of factors is most important to successful adoptive placements? The field has long gone on faith regarding the significant elements of adoption. At different times during the last decades, social workers have held strong preferences for adoptive parents who were married; middle-class or above; infertile and resolved about it; the same race as the adopted child, the same religion as the adopted child; seeking a child just like the adopted child; educated parents; younger than 40; and kin. Each of these conditions has some merit, but the field's use of these conditions in an inflexible way has undermined their value. That is, these conditions have been used as preconditions for an adoptive placement, rather than in combination with other factors. Researchers should work toward a decision-making matrix that clarifies the appropriate weighting for each of these factors as they relate to placement delays. As court rulings and public reaction move the field away from a singular reliance on racial matching as the precondition for adoptive placements, other decision mechanisms must be substituted.
Procedural Barriers to the Adoption of Foster Children
Adoption requires the development of a permanent plan of adoption, the termination of biological parents' rights, placement of the child in a preadoptive home, and the legal transfer of parental rights and responsibilities to the adoptive family. Because children become more difficult to place as they get older, reasons for placement delays must be better understood. We should consider delays that arise from procedures for identifying children who might need adoption, from difficulties transferring children from intake and foster care units to adoption units, from legal and procedural constraints regarding parental rights terminations, and from restrictive placement procedures. State and local procedural variation in these matters is enormous and little understood.
The vast majority of special-needs adoptions begin with a family foster home placement. Many of those placements start with the expectation that they are more likely to result in adoption than end in reunification with the biological family. Such placements are little understood. We know virtually nothing about the proportion that do not result in adoption, for example, and how this is affected by the length of time given to reunification efforts prior to the foster-adoptive placement, or by the characteristics of the biological parents and the child, or by services provided after the placement. Understanding these factors would allow identification of children likely to be adopted at the earliest point in time. Further, the knowledge gained would help us know the general point at which reunification efforts are not likely to be successful or to make certain that reunification efforts continue to be provided as long as they show some promise of reunification.
Our knowledge about kinship adoption is surprisingly little given the enormous growth in kinship care in the last half-decade. The federal government has recently begun to fund demonstration projects to examine practice elements in kinship adoption, primarily those related to the likelihood that kin will adopt. Emerging evidence suggests that the likelihood of kinship adoption of foster children depends, in great part, on the ethnicity of the children [Barth et al. 1994]. Yet, the causes of these differences are not known. We are left with hypotheses about how cultural differences, practices that differ among social workers, and economic impediments to adoption may decrease the likelihood of adoption among kin. Given evidence that kinship adoptive families look vastly different than other adoptive families and are poorer, less educated, older, and more likely to be single than nonkin adopting families [Magruder 1994], we also should research the needs of kin who do adopt and the outcomes of kinship adoption.
Although some evidence is available suggesting that independent adoptions are a reasonable alternative to agency adoptions [Meezan et al. 1978], this research should be replicated to determine the changes of the last 15 years. Opponents of independent adoption claim it ignores biological mothers' psychological well-being, shuts out low-income families, and underestimates the seriousness of adoption [Emery 1993]. Alternately, its proponents say it promotes healthy aspects of open adoption, is preferred by biological parents, and is more likely than agency adoption to involve separate legal counsel for biological and adoptive parents [McDermott 1993]. Research that identifies the strengths and shortcomings of agency and independent adoption can strengthen both approaches.
Postplacement adoptive services have experienced rapid expansion in the last decade without commensurate research. The lack of research leaves questions unanswered about the efficacy of these services for preserving adoptions or promoting the well-being of adopted children. Research is called for to test components of postadoptive services. Further, cost-effectiveness studies are necessary to compare the value of resources invested in postplacement services to those invested in recruitment and placement.
- Barth, Richard P.; Adoption Research: Building Blocks for the Next Decade; Child Welfare; Sep/Oct1994; Vol. 73 Issue 5
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
Reflection Exercise #12
The preceding section contained information
about needed adoption research. Write three
case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in
Online Continuing Education
What are the four questions that could be answered to enhance research regarding adoption indicators? Record the letter of the correct answer the .