Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Adoption Disruption and Dissolution
Adoption Disruption and Dissolution
What is disruption?
The term disruption is used to describe an adoption process that
ends after the child is placed in an adoptive home and before
the adoption is legally finalized, resulting in the child’s return
to (or entry into) foster care or placement with new adoptive
What is dissolution?
The term dissolution is generally used to describe an adoption
in which the legal relationship between the adoptive parents and
adoptive child is severed, either voluntarily or involuntarily, after
the adoption is legally finalized. This results in the child’s return
to (or entry into) foster care or placement with new adoptive
How many adoptions disrupt?
Individual studies of different populations throughout the United
States consistently report disruption rates that range from about
10 to 25 percent—depending on the population studied, the
duration of the study, and geographic or other factors (Goerge,
Howard, Yu, & Radomsky, 1997; Festinger, 2002; Festinger, in
press). A few examples are listed below:
• Festinger (in press) notes that the rates reported since the
mid-1980s and mid-1990s, despite some variations, show a
slight downward trend. Excluding studies that singled out
small groups of older children, disruption rates have mostly
varied from about 9 to 15 percent, although a summary of the
research by Coakley and Berrick (2008) mentions a range of
about 6 to 11 percent. Among older children, the reported
rate has reached roughly 25 percent.
• Using administrative data from more than 15,000 children in
Illinois who began adoptive placements between 1995 and
2000, Smith, Howard, Garnier, and Ryan (2006) found that
approximately 9.5 percent of adoptions disrupted before
• The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) surveyed public
child welfare agencies and reported that about 5 percent
of planned adoptions from foster care disrupted in 1999
and 2000 (U.S. GAO, 2003). Researchers have questioned
the validity of this finding because a minority of States
responded, and States had differing capacities to respond as
well as potentially differing interpretations of the requested
• Barth, Gibbs, and Siebenaler (2001) reported in a literature
review that studies show that between 10 and 16 percent
of adoptions of children over age 3 disrupt; no comparable
figures are available for children under age 3.
• Goerge et al. (1997) conducted a longitudinal study of
disruptions and dissolutions in thousands of public agency
adoptions in Illinois from 1976 through 1994 and found that
slightly over 12 percent disrupted.
• Berry and Barth (1990) found a disruption and dissolution rate
of 24 percent for children ages 12 to 17 for a sample of 99
adolescents. Barth and Berry (1988) also reported a disruption
and dissolution rate of 10 percent for children older than 3
years in a group of more than 1,000 children adopted from
the child welfare system in California.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) collect data
on the number of disruptions and dissolutions in cases where
children are adopted from other countries.
• For Federal fiscal year (FY) 2011, the Bureau of Consular
Affairs of the U.S. Department of State (2011) reported that
six adoptive placements made in the United States from
another country through the Hague Adoption Convention
were disrupted. There were 9,320 completed intercountry
adoptions that occurred through the Convention.
• For FY 2010, States reported to HHS that there were 33 cases
of disruptions and dissolutions involving 41 children who
were adopted from other countries and subsequently entered
state custody (U.S. Department of State, 2011). These cases
may be of children placed or adopted through the Hague
Adoption Convention, through non-Hague countries, or
before the Convention was ratified by the United States in
2008. (For more information about the Hague Convention,
see the Information Gateway website at http://www.
Why do adoptions disrupt?
Most studies assessing the characteristics associated with
disruption occurred during the 1980s and 1990s, with a few
additional studies being conducted in the 2000s. The following
are some of the primary factors that have been shown to be
associated with higher risk of disruption:
• Older age (Festinger, 1986; Barth & Berry, 1988; Rosenthal,
Schmidt, & Conner, 1988; Coakley, 2005)
• Presence of emotional and behavioral issues (Barth, Berry,
Yoshikami, Goodfield, & Carson, 1988; Rosenthal et al., 1988,
Berry & Barth, 1990, Smith & Howard, 1991)
• Strong attachment to the birth mother (Smith & Howard,
• Being a victim of preadoptive child sexual abuse (Nalavany,
Ryan, Howard, & Smith, 2008)
Adoptive Family Factors
• Being a new or matched parent rather than the child’s foster
parent (Festinger, 1986; Barth & Berry, 1988; Berry & Barth,
1990; Smith & Howard, 1991; Coakley, 2005)
• Lack of social support, particularly from relatives (Feigelman &
Silverman, 1984; Barth & Berry, 1988)
• Unrealistic expectations (Barth & Berry, 1988; McRoy, 1999)
• Adoptive mothers with more education (Festinger, 1986;
Rosenthal et al., 1988; Berry & Barth, 1990)
• Inadequate or insufficient information on the child and his or
her history (Nelson, 1985; Barth & Berry, 1988)
• Inadequate parental preparation, training, and support
(Nelson, 1985; McRoy, 1999; Smith et al., 2006)
• Staff discontinuities (i.e., different workers responsible for
preparing the child and family) (Festinger, 1990)
• Having more caseworkers involved with the case (Festinger,
1986; McRoy, 1999)
• Not having sufficient services provided (Goerge et al., 1997)
Additionally, a study by Smith et al. (2006) provides indepth,
recent data about risk and protective factors for disruptions
among children adopted from the Illinois public child welfare
• White children had lower disruption rates than AfricanAmerican children.
• When two or three siblings were placed together, they had
a higher risk of disruption; when four or more siblings were
placed together, they had a lower risk of disruption.
• Children who had experienced sexual or emotional abuse had
the highest rates of disruption.
• Children with physical disabilities and emotional or behavioral
problems had a higher risk for disruption.
• Each additional year of age increased the likelihood of
disruption by 6 percent.
• Children who entered the child welfare system due to lack
of supervision or environmental neglect were more likely to
experience adoption disruption.
• The longer time children spent in out-of-home care, the less
likely were their chances for disruption.
• If children spent time in a residential or group home while in
out-of-home care, they were less likely to experience a later
• Children placed with relatives had a lower risk of disruption.
• Children placed through private agencies were less likely to
experience a disruption.
• Children who had been placed in residential or group care
were at lower risk for disruption.
• The chance of disruption decreased for every year of
experience held by the case manager for the first adoption.
How many adoptions dissolve?
Accurate data on dissolutions are more difficult to obtain
because, at the time of legal adoption, a child’s records may be
closed, first and last names and Social Security numbers may be
changed, and other identifying information may be modified. As
highlighted in Festinger and Maza (2009), the Federal Adoption
and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS)
can be utilized to determine the number of children in foster
care whose previous adoptions were dissolved by reviewing
three data elements: whether the child was ever previously
adopted, the age of the child when the previous adoption was
legalized, and the dates of the termination of parental rights (if
the child had previously been adopted). Those data, however,
are reported only for children in public foster care and do not
capture adoption dissolution if the children do not come to
the attention of the public child welfare system. Also, some
researchers have observed that these data are inconsistently
reported by the States. Studies consistently report that only a
small percentage of completed adoptions dissolve—probably
between 1 and 10 percent.
• In Festinger and Maza’s (2009) analysis of data from AFCARS,
they determined that, of all the children who entered foster
care for the first time and who then exited the foster care
system in FY 2005, 0.5 percent had previously dissolved
• Festinger (2002) found that 4 years after adoption, about
3.3 percent of children adopted from public and voluntary
agencies in New York City in 1996 were or had been in foster
care since adoption. In most of these situations the adoptive
parents reported an expectation that the child would return to
their home again.
• A study of children adopted in Kansas City showed that
3 percent of adopted children were not living with their
adoptive parents 18 to 24 months after adoption (McDonald,
Propp, & Murphy, 2001).
• In a longitudinal study of families in Iowa who were receiving
adoption subsidies, Groze (1996) found that 8 percent of the
children were placed out of the home after 4 years. However,
in all cases the families did not dissolve the adoption and
were considered to be connected to and invested in the
• A study of public agency adoptions in Illinois reported that
adoptions dissolved at a rate of 6.6 percent between 1976
and 1987 (Goerge et al., 1997).
• The GAO reported that about 1 percent of the public agency
adoptions finalized in fiscal years 1999 and 2000 later were
legally dissolved. The report cautioned that the 1 percent
figure represents only adoptions that failed relatively soon
after being finalized, so the number of dissolutions could
have increased with time (U.S. GAO, 2003).
Why do adoptions dissolve?
One study found that the rate of dissolution increased with the
age of the child at adoption and was more common for male
or non-Hispanic children (Goerge et al., 1997). Festinger (2002)
reported that although dissolution is rare, families who adopt
children with special needs from foster care undergo enormous
struggles and face serious barriers to obtaining needed services.
The two barriers to successful adoption most often mentioned
by adoptive families were lack of information about where to go
for services and the cost of services (Festinger, 2002; Soderlund,
Epstein, Quinn, Cumblad, & Petersen, 1995).
Are disruptions and dissolutions increasing?
Professionals have expressed concern that recent public and
private initiatives to increase adoptions and decrease time to
adoption might lead to inadequate selection and preparation
of adoptive homes. Those concerns have often focused on the
shortened legal timeframes to file for termination of parental
rights unless there was some exception required by the 1997
Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). In reviewing data in
Illinois, however, Smith et al. (2006) noted that there was a 12
percent higher risk of disruption before the Adoptions and Safe
Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 than after ASFA. Festinger (in press)
concludes that reported rates have decreased slightly since the
1980s and 1990s.
What research still needs to be done?
No national studies on adoption disruptions or dissolutions have
been conducted. Most of the research to date has focused on
narrowly defined populations or adoptions from public agencies.
A number of researchers have called for the establishment of
uniform terminology and more complete and accurate outcome
data (e.g., see Evan B. Donaldson Institute, 2004; Groze, 1996;
Goerge et al., 1997). Additional research on the cause of
adoption disruptions or dissolutions could promote the design
and delivery of more evidence-based pre- and postplacement
preventive services to prevent disruption and dissolution.
Additional research is needed in several areas:
• Total numbers of disruption and dissolution for adoptions,
regardless of type
• Risk and protective factors related to dissolution or disruption,
including links between pre- and postadoption services and
disruption and dissolution rates
• Incidence of voluntary disruptions or dissolutions as a means
of obtaining needed services for a child
For additional information about adoption topics, visit the
Child Welfare Information Gateway at http://www.childwelfare.
gov/adoption. Information Gateway also has a compilation
of adoption statistics, which can be found at http://www.
sources of adoption information include the National Resource
Center for Adoption (http://www.nrcadoption.org) and
the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family
Barth, R. P., & Berry, M. (1988). Adoption and disruption: Rates,
risks, and responses. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
Barth, R. P., Berry, M., Yoshikami, R., Goodfield, R. K., & Carson,
M. L. (1988). Predicting adoption disruption. Social Work, 33,
Barth, R. P., Gibbs, D. A., & Siebenaler, K. (2001). Assessing
the field of post-adoption service: Family needs, program
models, and evaluation issues (Contract No. 100-99-0006).
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human
Berry, M., & Barth, R. P. (1990). A study of disrupted adoptive
placements of adolescents. Child Welfare, 69(3), 209–225.