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 used to
describe an adoption that ends after it is legally
finalized, resulting in the child’s return to (or entry
into) foster care or placement with new adoptive parents.
How many adoptions disrupt?
Individual studies of different
populations throughout the United States are consistent in
reporting 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) summarizes more
than 25 reports on disruption rates and notes that the
rates reported since the mid-1980s, despite some
variations, do not differ substantially. Excluding
studies that singled out small groups of older children,
disruption rates have mostly varied from about 9 to 15
percent. Among older children, the reported rate has
reached roughly 25 percent.
- 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 disruption and dissolution in
thousands of public agency adoptions in Illinois from
1976 through 1994 and found that slightly over 12
- Barth and Berry (1988) 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. 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.
- The U.S. Government 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 information.
Why do adoptions disrupt?
Although specific causes of disruption may
vary with each situation, the primary factors (correlates)
in disruptions are well documented. Several studies have
shown that the rate of disruption increases with the age of
the child. Other correlates include the number of placements
the child experienced while in foster care, the behavioral
and emotional needs of the child, and agency staff turnover
(Barth & Miller, 2000; Berry 1997; Groza & Rosenberg, 2001;
Festinger, 2001; Smith & Howard, 1999). Research suggests
that disruption is probably less likely when services have
been provided (Goerge et al., 1997), although no direct
links have been shown between particular services and
disruption rates. However various service characteristics,
such as staff discontinuities (different workers responsible
for preparing child and family), have been linked to
disruption (Festinger, 1990).
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 number may be changed, and other identifying
information may be modified. The Federal Adoption and Foster
Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) includes two
data elements to show previous adoption for a child in
foster care—whether the child was ever previously adopted
and, if so, age at adoption—but those data 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.
- 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 parent reported an
expectation that the child would return to their home
- 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 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?
Data indicate that, contrary to concerns
expressed by professionals about an increase in disruptions,
disruptions in Illinois were decreasing before 1997
(Goerge et al., 1997). In a more recent study summarizing
more than 25 reports on disruption rates, Festinger (in
press) concluded that reported rates have remained fairly
constant (with minor variations) since the 1980s.
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). The U.S. GAO addressed this question of the
impact of ASFA (2002, 2003), indicating that it was not
possible to determine whether the increase in adoptions
reported after ASFA reflects changes in data quality or
actual changes in outcomes for children.
No national data are collected on the
number of disruptions and dissolutions or the percentages of
adoptive placements that end in disruption or dissolution.
Most of the data that are collected are for adoptions from
public agencies or those under contract from public
agencies. No national studies are available on disruptions
or dissolutions of intercountry adoptions or adoptions from
private sources. There are no national data collected on the
number of independent, private, or tribal adoptions.
As mentioned above, while AFCARS includes
two data elements to show previous adoption for a child in
foster care—whether the child was ever previously adopted
and, if so, age at adoption—those data are reported only for
children in public foster care and do not capture adoption
dissolutions 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
What research still needs to be done?
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). Further
research on the cause of adoption disruptions or
dissolutions could foster design and delivery of more
evidence-based postplacement preventive services to prevent
Additional research is needed in several
- Total numbers of disruption and
dissolution for all adoptions, regardless of type
- Links between pre- and post-adoption
services and disruption and dissolution rates
- Causes of dissolution or disruption
- Incidence of voluntary disruptions or
dissolutions as a means of obtaining needed services for
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