Predictors of Adoption Disruption and Dissolution: A Literature Review
There is unanimous agreement in the scientific literature that the vast majority of all adoptions are successful. Despite these encouraging statistics, it remains important for adoption social workers to be prepared to help support families who may struggle after adoptive placement. This article provides an overview of the existing empirical evidence pertaining to adoption disruption or dissolution and associated variables, highlighting factors related to the child, the adoptive parent(s), and the professional adoption services.
Unsuccessful adoptions are markedly complex. Child welfare scholars have attempted to guide and inform social work practice by isolating specific variables that may serve as “predictors” of adoption placement instability. This article provides an overview of the existing empirical evidence pertaining to adoption disruption or dissolution and associated variables. Mirroring most studies on this topic, this article highlights factors related to the child, the adoptive parent(s), and the professional adoption services.
It is well documented in the literature that the child’s age at the time of adoption and the child’s behaviors in the adoptive home are the strongest predictors of adoption instability. In their now classic and heavily cited study on adoption, Barth et al. (1988) examine the outcomes of public adoption cases (n=926) in northern California from 1980-1984.
An adoption that is unsuccessful prior to an adoption being legally finalized.
An adoption that is terminated after an adoption is legally finalized.
Children under the age of 3 were removed from the sample as were children placed out of state. Although not the first large-scale study on age and adoption outcomes in the U.S., this study is particularly noteworthy for its rigor and methodical approach. Findings show that as the age of the child increases so does the risk of an adoptive placement’s disruption.
|Age of child at adoptive placement||
Percentage of adoption disruptions
3-5 years of age
4.7% of adoptions disrupted
6-8 years of age
10.4% of adoptions disrupted
9-11 years of age
17.1% of adoptions disrupted
12-14 years of age
22.4% of adoptions disrupted
15-18 years of age
26.1% of adoptions disrupted
Source: Barth et al. (1988), p. 230
Despite the myriad changes in child welfare practice and policy since the 1980s, these early findings have been consistently replicated in a number of rigorous studies over the past two decades for both domestic and intercountry adoptions (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012; Coakley & Berrick, 2008; Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2004; Julia, 2013; Palacios et al., 2005; Paniagua et al., 2019; Reilly & Platz, 2003; Sattler & Font, 2020).
Many theories have emerged (and were later empirically tested) to help explain why older children appear to be particularly vulnerable to adoption disruption or dissolution. Several scholars were quick to note that the child’s age at the time of adoptive placement may be a proxy for the amount of time a child has been in an out-of-home placement; however, studies do not confirm that the length of time in care is associated with adoption instability (Barth et al., 1988; Coakley & Berrick, 2008). Scholars increasingly agree that the age of the child at adoptive placement more accurately captures an accumulation of negative experiences that harm the child’s development and perception of the world, thereby increasing the likelihood that the child will experience mood instability and express challenging behaviors (Helder et al., 2014; Palacios et al., 2018). This theory does gain additional support from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study completed by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente. In the ACEs study, researchers proved that as a child’s ACE score increases so does the likelihood that the child will experience less favorable health and well-being outcomes (Felitti et al., 1988).
Unsurprisingly, a child’s behaviors in the adoptive home are also reliable predictors of adoption placement instability. Children who exhibit aggression or children who sexually act out are at an increased risk of adoption disruption or dissolution. In a study using case data (n=74) from the Illinois child welfare system, Smith and Howard (1991) documented that children who exhibit sexually acting-out behaviors were 74% more likely to experience an unsuccessful adoption. Selwyn et al. (2014) found that aggressive behaviors (particularly aggression perceived as violent) in the home significantly increase risks of adoption disruption and dissolution.
It is well documented in the literature that the child’s age at the time of adoption and the child’s behaviors in the adoptive home are the strongest predictors of adoption instability.
Placing a child with siblings yields mixed results, with some studies suggesting that sibling placements are more stable (Rolock & White, 2016) while others suggest just the opposite (Selwyn, 2018). In their comprehensive review of the literature, DiGiovanni and Font (2021) highlight that sibling placements are complicated, and outcomes are difficult to predict. In social work practice, these findings seem to make sense as social workers can attest to the fact that sometimes sibling groups thrive, while at other times sibling groups seem to increase stress and overall discord in the adoptive home.
Other child-related factors where there is no established association, a weak association, or mixed research findings include gender, race and ethnicity, child’s intellectual ability, school performance, and medical diagnoses (Barth et al., 1988; Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2004; Palacios et al., 2018; Rosenthal, 1993; Sattler & Font, 2020).
Adoptive Parent-Related Factors
Evidence of predictive factors relating to the adoptive parent or adoptive family are less conclusive. Demographic characteristics generally yield mixed results or generate weak associations, while measures of the parent-child relationship are better indicators of adoption success (Barbosa-Ducharne & Marinho, 2018).
Adoption research studies that examine characteristics of the adoptive parent such as age, marital status, parenting experience, income, and race and ethnicity yield mixed results across the literature. Interestingly, the adoptive mother’s educational attainment level emerges as an indicator of adoption placement instability, with higher educational levels associated with more disruptions or dissolutions when compared to mothers with more modest academic achievements (Barth et al., 1988; Coakley & Berrick, 2008). More contemporary research, however, complicates these findings suggesting that the adoptive mother’s education is actually a proxy for “heightened expectations” regarding the adopted child, and it is instead the adoptive parent’s expectations that are associated with adoption instability (Barth & Miller, 2000; Helder et al., 2014; Palacios et al., 2018).
In their study of adopted children (n=609) from Nevada, Reilly and Platz (2003) measured adoptive parents’ expectations (of their child) along with other variables (e.g., child’s age). Parental expectations emerge as a significant indicator, with the greatest influence on adoption outcomes (Reilly & Platz, 2003, p. 799). Other studies have replicated these findings (Selwyn et al., 2015). Of particular interest for intercountry adoptions, researchers suggest that as adoptive parents wait for their adopted child to join their family, they “idealize” their child and the adoption experience thus leading to unmet or disjointed expectations (Lopes Almeida et al., 2021; Palacios et al., 2018). Adoptive parents who can readjust or better align their expectations are far more likely to experience positive adoption outcomes (Reilly & Platz, 2003).
Measures of the parent-child relationship are better indicators of adoption success.
The parenting style of adoptive parents is also linked to adoption outcomes. Many studies have examined the impact of parenting styles on adoption outcomes (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2004; Reilly & Platz, 2003). In their recent publication Barbosa-Ducharne and Marinho (2019) examined all unsuccessful adoptions (n=117) in Portugal from 2006-2009. Their findings showed that parents with rigid parenting styles were five times more likely to experience adoption placement instability. The researchers, however, report that when a parent exhibiting a rigid parenting style is able to identify the specific challenges in the home, the probability of the placement breakdown reduces by three times (Barbosa-Ducharne & Marinho, 2019).
Another important finding in the child welfare research is that adoptions are far more stable when the adoptive parent and adopted child have a relationship prior to the adoptive placement (Coakley & Berrick, 2008; Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2004; Palacios et al., 2018). Barth and Berry (1990) studied adoption disruptions and dissolutions in older child adoptions from California (n=1,115). In this study, 19% of the foster-adopt (or relative adopt) placements disrupted, while 39% of cases where there was no prior relationship between the adoptive parent and the adopted child disrupted. These findings have important implications for intercountry adoptions, where families rarely have opportunities to develop a significant relationship with the adopted child prior to placement.
Professional Adoption Services
The impact of professional adoption services on adoption outcomes is also considered central to the discussion about adoption disruption or dissolution. Researchers have examined an array of variables such as adoption preparation, adoption training, post-adoption services, adoption timeliness, and public vs. private adoptions. While the results are interesting, the studies rarely produce results capable of being replicated. Components of the matching process and access to child file information appear to be stronger predictors for adoption placement stability than other aspects of professional adoption services.
The adoption matching process garners much attention in the literature. Child welfare researchers have suggested that when the adoptive match involves “stretching” or moving outside of the adoptive parent’s identified child parameters, the adoption is at an increased risk of disruption (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2004; Selwyn et al., 2014). Although it is not uncommon for families to revisit their adoption parameters throughout the adoption process, research highlights the need for caution. As Palacios et al. (2018) point out, stretching may help place a child more quickly; however, it can create serious long-term challenges for a family as adoptive parents may not be fully or realistically equipped to successfully parent the child.
Components of the matching process and access to child file information appear to be stronger predictors for adoption placement stability than other aspects of professional adoption services.
Having access to the child’s complete and accurate history prior to the adoption is also associated with better adoption outcomes (Coakley & Berrick, 2008; Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2004). Many studies reported that lack of documentation or inaccuracy in the child file was associated with adoptive placement instability. Reilly and Platz (2003) found that 58% of adoptive parents participating in their study reported not receiving enough information on the child and 37% reported that information was inaccurate or minimized the seriousness of the child’s problems. Barbosa-Ducharne and Marinho (2019) found adoption instability was more likely to occur when the social worker and adoptive parents have less information about the adopted child.
Implications for Adoption Practice
- The evidence suggests that if a problem in the adoptive home can be identified quickly and support is offered at the onset of the concern, adoption stability increases (Palacios et al., 2018). Monitoring and waiting to see if the child’s behavior persists does not align with the evidence for adoption stability. In a study of children adopted outside the U.S. between 1990-2005 (n=937), Paulsen and Merighi (2009) encourage social workers to identify high risk profiles and prepare families with ‘ready’ access to resources. Adoption social workers should offer interventions at the onset of an expressed concern — even if the family is still in their child’s birth country.
- Children with sexual abuse histories are particularly vulnerable to adoptive placement instability. Studies consistently show that adoptive parents often learn of sexual abuse history after the child is in the adoptive placement (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2004). It is recommended that social workers universally prepare families for behaviors associated with sexual abuse trauma and the possible impact of sexual abuse. Adoptive families should have the language necessary to speak about child sexual abuse and know how to access supportive resources in their community, such as child advocacy centers, prior to placement.
Adoption social workers should offer interventions at the onset of an expressed concern.
- Although there is not strong evidence to suggest that transracial adoptions are more vulnerable to adoption instability, there is a consensus that transracial adoptions do require additional tools and skills (Sattler & Font, 2020). This aligns with evidence to continue to emphasize race and ethnicity trainings for adoptive families and include these conversations in the home study. Paulsen and Merighi (2009) found that adoptive parents who participate in cultural activities from their child’s birth country felt more prepared and ultimately more satisfied with the adoption experience.
- Adoption stability outcomes improve when the adoptive parents and the adopted child have a relationship prior to the adoptive placement (Coakley & Berrick, 2008; Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2004; Palacios et al., 2018). Although more research is needed, these findings suggest that participating in a hosting or fostering program prior to adoption may be beneficial to the overall outcome of an adoption. If it is not possible to foster, host, or even visit with the adoptive child prior to placement, it is recommended that prospective adoptive parents use every opportunity to create connections with their adopted child prior to the adoptive placement. If policies allow, social workers should encourage adoptive families to video-conference, send care packages and pictures, and write letters to the adopted child once they have accepted a referral.
Emphasize race and ethnicity trainings for adoptive families and include these conversations in the home study.
Although this paper discusses adoption disruptions and dissolutions, it is important for adoption social workers to remember that there is unanimous agreement in the scientific literature that the vast majority of all adoptions are successful (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012). Likewise, once with their adoptive families, most adopted children thrive and make significant gains on a number of important indicators (Helder et al., 2014). Moreover, the majority of adoptive parents are satisfied with their adoption experiences and share that adoption had a positive impact on their families (Paulsen & Merighi, 2009). Despite these encouraging statistics, it remains important for adoption social workers to be prepared to help support families who may struggle after adoptive placement.
 Barth et al. (1998) use the term “adoption disruption” to refer to all adoption placement breakdowns regardless of the legal status (finalized or pending) of the adoption.
 The age category of 15-18 years is less stable for a variety of interesting reasons beyond the scope of this paper.
 This trend is also observed in guardianship placements. These findings are primarily for public domestic adoptions because private domestic adoption is usually infant adoption. We would rarely see disruptions/dissolutions for this age group. In fact, many studies examining adoption outcomes eliminate children under three.
It is important to note that when examining the span of adoption literature that includes all adoptions (private domestic adoptions, intercountry adoptions, foster care adoptions, and relative adoptions) findings pertaining to race and ethnicity are inconsistent. However, when you isolate for U.S. adoptions from foster care, findings highlight that African American children are more likely to experience adoption instability (Sattler & Font, 2020).
 Previous experience parenting a child diagnosed with a special need suggests improved adoption outcomes in some studies; however, single parents with no previous parenting experience tend to have successful adoptions despite the fact that they often adopt older children with more special needs.
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About the Author
Lindsay Lanham has been a child welfare social worker for 18 years. She began her career as a child welfare caseworker and then was promoted to child welfare adoption supervisor. After over a decade in field practice, Lindsay transitioned to child welfare research and policy. In collaboration with state agencies, Lindsay has had the opportunity to work on a variety of child welfare related research projects, including evaluations that examine racial disproportionality, parent-child visitation, and training competencies for social workers, foster parents, and relative placement providers. Lindsay has also worked directly with state legislators to draft and implement state policy aimed at creating a more responsive child welfare system for parents and children. Deeply informed by child welfare history, a steadfast commitment to cultural humility is interwoven throughout Lindsay’s work. Lindsay received her master’s degree from the University of Washington School of Social Work, where she was a fellowship recipient. Lindsay currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two children.