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Over time, widespread changes have occurred in practices and attitudes toward foster child adoption in the United States. One of the more noticeable changes in recent years has been in the volume of adoptions. According to federal estimates, the number of adoptions of children in out-of-home care between 1983 and 1995 remained quite flat, at between 17,000 and 20,000 (Maza, 2000). Since then, the numbers have risen considerably in response to various federal legislative initiatives, and most recently to the Adoption Incentive Program of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which provided both policy and fiscal incentives for increasing adoptions (Avery, 1999). Thus, the fiscal year (FY) 1998 Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System report estimates that 36,000 children were adopted from the public child welfare system nationwide (Children's Bureau, 1998).
New York City began emphasizing foster care adoptions prior to the latest federal initiative. This can be seen by the dramatic rise in finalized adoptions from 1,212 in 1990 (New York State Department of Social Services [NYSDSS], 1991) to 3,735 adoptions completed in 1999 (NYSDSS, 2000).
Along with this increase in foster care adoptions, there has been a rise in professional concerns that more adoptions would fail. This is not a new concern. Years ago, this fear was fueled by the belief that dissolutions were apt to increase dramatically as caseworkers sought adoptive homes for children who earlier had been considered unadoptable. More recently, the concern has been intensified as a result of the focus on increasing adoptions and on speeding the adoption process. In fact, some in the past have suggested that efforts to promote adoptions might lead to more adoptions that end (Barth, Berry, Yoshikami, Goodfield, & Carson, 1988). Part of the concern has been based on the assumption that such adoption increases would be a function of speedy and inadequate home selection (Barth & Miller, 2000). Concern has also been kindled by guesses and rumors about high rates of disruption. Such concerns are not surprising, because disruptions are painful for all involved — the children, the adoptive parents, and the caseworkers.
Before going on, it is necessary to clarify the two kinds of disruption. In the adoption literature, the term disruption has commonly referred to the removal of a child from an adoptive placement before the adoption has been legalized (Barth & Berry, 1988; Festinger, 1986, 1990). Situations in which a child has been returned to the custody of the child welfare system following legal adoption has also been termed disruption, although the term dissolution was coined early on by professionals in the adoption field (Donley, 1978). Whatever the terminology, the focus here will be only on the latter situation, postadoption dissolution.
Little is known about the frequency of dissolution following legal adoption because it is so difficult to obtain accurate data. The difficulty arises because foster care cases are closed when children are legally adopted, and those who reenter the system do so as new cases with new identification numbers. Furthermore, the children may have new first and last names. Thus, there is no easy way of tracking children using existing management information systems, although probabilistic record-matching has been attempted (Goerge, Howard, Yu, & Radomsky, 1997). The accuracy of this latter approach is not known.
Background Literature Summary
A second study (McDonald, Propp, & Murphy, 2001) also showed great placement stability. Eighteen to 24 months after adopting children in state custody in 1995 in Kansas, 159 parents, representing a 52% response rate, were surveyed by mail and telephone interviews. The authors noted that 97% of the families "reported that the child was living in their home at the time of the survey" (McDonald et al., 2001, p. 80). Almost all of these placements had been legalized. The authors noted that only three children were in a temporary placement, and only one child was permanently placed outside the home. Furthermore, of those in the home at the time of the study, just 9% had been in a placement since adoption.
The correlates of disruption have also been summarized in the past (Barth & Miller, 2000; Berry, 1997; Festinger, 1990; Smith & Howard, 1999), but again refer primarily to preadoption removals. Age has been a consistent predictor, with the placements of children who were older at the time of adoptive placement more likely to be disrupted. A higher number of placements and the presence of various kinds of emotional and behavior problems also have been consistent predictors of disruption, as have such service characteristics as staff discontinuities, whereas such factors as time in care and whether placed with or without siblings have yielded mixed results. Demographic characteristics of the adoptive parents — their race and income — have been shown to have no bearing on outcome, whereas parental age, education, and family structural variables, as well as factors concerning the presence of birthchildren, have shown mixed results.
In view of the dearth of studies on dissolution postlegalization, it is not surprising that little information is available with respect to related factors. The one study that examined this (Goerge et al., 1997) showed that older children, males, and non-Hispanic children were more likely to experience dissolution of an adoption, but time in care showed mixed results, with some durations yielding a higher rate and others not, thus probably suggesting factors at play that were not connected to length of time in care. The limitations of these data led the authors to conclude that "research into a wider range of circumstances and predictors is urgently needed" (Goerge et al., 1997, p. 29).
Although the literature on rates and correlates of adoption dissolution is sparse, many researchers have written about services needed after adoption to prevent dissolution (see, for instance, Ashton, 2000; Freundlich, 2000; Marcenko & Smith, 1991; Rosenthal, Groze, & Morgan, 1996; Smith & Howard, 1999; Watson, 1992). The empirical literature on postadoption service needs is also sparse, yet dotted with a small group of adoptive parent surveys in various states, asking about potential service needs and sometimes service use. Although yielding a great deal of important information used for planning purposes, many of these surveys tend to suffer from low response rates. This literature was summarized in an earlier report, which focused on post-adoption service needs of parents who adopted in New York City in 1996 (Festinger, 2001).
- Festinger, Trudy; After Adoption: Dissolution or Permanence?; Child Welfare; May/Jun 2002, Vol. 81 Issue 3The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
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