Disruption

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disruption

An adoptive placement that fails before the adoption is finalized. The child is removed from the home and returned to the placing agency or, if an independent adoption, to the attorney or other person who arranged it. An adoption that fails after finalization is called a DISSOLUTION, although it is important to understand that sometimes the term "disruption" is used interchangeably by researchers to describe an adoption that fails after finalization as well as an adoption that does not continue to the point of finalization.

Prior to the 1970s, most adoptions were of infants, and very few disrupted. Even today, infant adoption disruptions are probably less than 1%. Disruptions of older children are estimated at about 9% by such experts are Richard Barth. (The disruption rates vary according to the child's age and other factors.)

The highest disruption rate is for children who are adopted as teenagers. According to an article by Barth and Marianne Berry, the researchers found a disruption rate of 24% for children adopted as adolescents. (Conversely, the remaining 76% of these placements were successful.)

In the 1970s and the 1980s, agencies began placing increasing numbers of older children in adoptive homes with the goal of providing children with permanent families rather than a series of foster homes.

Many were very troubled children who had been physically or sexually abused, neglected or abandoned and faced great difficulty in their attempts to assimilate successfully in their adoptive homes. As a result, the number of adoption disruptions understandably increased.

A study by Trudy Festinger on disrupted adoptions among 1,500 adoptive placements in New York City yielded valuable information. Festinger reported her findings in Necessary Risk: A Study of Adoptions and Disrupted Adoptive Placements.

The children studied were all over six years old, and the average age was 10.2 years. Her research revealed that the disruption rate over the course of two years was about 8% for the adopted children ages 6 to 10, whereas the disruption rate for children 11 and up was 16% over the same period of time.

The Festinger study revealed a significant success rate when children were placed with their own siblings. Children placed with siblings disrupted at a lower rate than children placed alone: she found a 5.6% disruption rate for children placed with siblings contrasted to a 10.7% disruption rate for children placed alone. Children who were placed alone and who had siblings living elsewhere disrupted at a very high rate: 20.6%.

The separation may have been the source of the problem, or the reason for the separation may have caused problems; for example, siblings are separated when one is sexually or physically abusive to the other child.

If there are both biological children and adopted children in the home, one might conclude there would be greater anxiety for the adopted child than if he were placed with other adopted children. The reverse has been shown in a study by Marilyn R. Ternay, Bobbie Wilborn and H. D. Day.

The researchers contrasted homes that included both biological children and adopted children with homes of adopted siblings only.

The researchers found that the children from the mixed homes scored significantly higher on social adjustment tests. They also found that the adjustment of both the biological children and the adopted children in the mixed homes was equivalent to the adjustment of biological children with no adopted children; as a result, adoption did not produce a negative effect on either the adopted or biological child.

A study by Richard P. Barth and Marianne Berry did not find a significant level of disruptions among homes with nonadopted biological children already in the home. But if the adopted child is having severe conflicts with children already in the home, other researchers have found this can lead to a disruption.

A University of Southern Maine study found disruptions in over half the cases involving serious conflicts between adopted children and other nonrelated children in the home. (Normal sibling rivalries did not appear to lead to problems.)

Another indicator of a potentially disrupted adoption is if the child has been adopted before and that adoption failed. According to the Maine study, 34% of the disrupted children had previous disruptions compared to 12% for the successful placements.

Another major factor is prior SEXUAL ABUSE: children who have been sexually abused have a far greater disruption rate than children who were not sexually abused. Some experts say the disruption rate is as high as 86%. Sexually abused children may exhibit sexualized behavior toward adoptive parents and others, and such behavior is very difficult for many parents to cope with. Sexually abused children also experience more moves and may have been placed in many foster homes before their adoption. In addition, they are more likely to exhibit aggressive and acting out behavior than do children who were not sexually abused before the adoption.

Prior physical abuse may also lead to an adoption disruption because children may have difficulty accepting adoptive parents or conforming to expected behavior. Abused children are more likely to experience disruption than are children who have not been abused; for example, in the University of Southern Maine study, 86% of the disrupted adoptions involved children who had suffered physical abuse compared to 58% of the nondisrupted adoptions.

Overall, 90% of the disrupted adoptions were of children who had been abandoned, neglected or emotionally abused; 74% of the nondisrupted children had been abandoned or neglected, and 64% had suffered emotional abuse.

Many children in disrupted adoptions continue to display disturbing behavioral characteristics that their adoptive parents find very difficult to cope with. For example, in the Maine study, 30% of the children in the disrupted adoptions had stolen, compared to 8% in the nondisrupted group; 25% of the children in the disrupted group exhibited some type of eating disorder contrasted to 4% for the successful placements.

The Barth study identified other behavioral problems especially linked with disruptions: cruelty, fighting, disobedience and vandalism. According to Barth, the adopted child's behavior did not necessarily get worse, it just didn't get better.

The race of the child and his or her adoptive parents did not show up as a significant factor in studies of disrupted adoptions. Transracial adoptions were apparently as likely to succeed as adoptions of same-race children.

In their book, Adopting and Advocating for the Special Needs Child: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, authors Babb and Laws say that sometimes parents will need a "safety net" in the event a child may need residential care. In such cases, the authors recommend that adopting parents make sure that a clause is inserted into their adoption assistance contract that specifically states that the state will pay for such costs that are not covered by Medicaid, subsidy or private insurance, and will do so until the child is 18 years old. According to Babb and Laws, the family conditions may indicate that a "safety net" (as they define it) is needed if the child

  • has a biological family history of mental illness, behavioral and emotional problems, or drug or alcohol abuse;
  • has had multiple caregivers;
  • has experienced any type of abuse of neglect;
  • was hospitalized or institutionalized frequently and for many consecutive days during the first 18 months of life;
  • has a drug or alcohol abuse problem;
  • engages in high-risk or illegal behaviors;
  • has a history of emotional or behavioral problems in foster care or at school;
  • has seen or been seen by mental health professionals on a regular basis; or
  • exhibits moderate to severe emotional or behavioral problems with the adoptive parents or with other caregivers prior to finalization of the adoption.

Foster Parents Versus New Parents

Adopted children were adopted by either foster parents (nearly 70% of the children) or by "new" parents in the Festinger study. Among disrupted placements, 52.6% of the disrupted adoptions were with new parents even though the majority of adoptions were by foster parents. Barth also found a much higher success rate with foster parent adoptions.

This is understandable: a foster parent may have parented a child for years before adopting the child and is very familiar with the child's behavior. It should also be noted that the children placed with new parents had a higher number of previous placements. (3.4 vs. 1.2 for the children adopted by foster parents.)

Importance of the Extended Family

The Barth study found families who disrupted had fewer contacts with extended families than those families whose adoptions succeeded, indicating the strong importance of the support of grandparents, siblings of adoptive parents, friends and relatives. Sometimes adoptive parent support groups can help fill part of the emotional gap; however, the support of family members is very important to adoptive parents.

Higher Education

Several studies have indicated a relationship between the adoptive parent's education and the disruption rate. Adoptive mothers with higher educations were more prone to disrupt than adoptive mothers who were less educated, particularly when the children involved were between the ages of three and nine. Interestingly enough, educated mothers did not disrupt at a greater rate when they adopted teenagers unless the teenagers were emotionally disturbed.

Educated mothers are also less likely to have been foster parents, because foster parenting is often perceived by them as a blue-collar, working-class activity. Since foster parent adopters were more successful, this could be a factor in the disruption rate of educated mothers.

Adoptive parents who were found to have very high expectations of their children with special needs were often disappointed and did disrupt, which may tie in with the findings on mothers with higher education.

Knowing Other Adoptive Families

Another key factor in the success or disruption of a special needs adoption appears to be the adoptive family's interaction with other adoptive parents. Adoptive parents who receive support and understanding from other adoptive parents are more likely to persevere when they face problems.

As a result, classes with other adoptive parents and adoptive parent support groups appear to be crucial to the success of a special needs adoption.

Candor of Social Workers

The Barth study found that providing realistic information to the special needs adoptive parents was critically important and could affect the outcome of an adoption.

Parents who were prepared and understood a child's previous sexual or physical abuse were less likely to disrupt than parents who had no information. The families with the greatest potential for disruption received the least information or information they later perceived as overly positive or not realistic.

Of course, social workers themselves do not always have complete information on a child, but when it is available, indications are clear that such information should be shared with adopting parents.

Adoption Subsidies

Barth also found the receipt of adoption subsidies as a positive element in adoption, although actual subsidies received by adoptive parents occurred far less frequently than expected by researchers.

Families with HIGH RISK PLACEMENTS disrupted less often when the family received a subsidy. Perhaps the subsidy eased the financial burden for the family that succeeded and the lack of one added to the problems of the families who were denied subsidies or who received inadequate subsidies.

Counseling a Family at Risk for Disruption

Psychotherapy is often recommended for adoptive families in turmoil; however, Barth did not find that therapy helped the family avoid the disruption. The therapy may have come too late, or therapists may not be attuned to the unique problems of adopting children with special needs.

Therapists may not have scheduled family therapy, instead concentrating on individual therapy for the child. In addition, a behavioral problem the child had prior to the adoption is sometimes mistakenly identified as an "adoption issue" rather than a problem that could be corrected by behavioral modification.

Stages of Disruption

There appear to be basic stages leading to a disruption, and caseworkers should be particularly sensitive to these stages in order to save an adoption, if at all possible, that looks like it may disrupt. These stages were named by the University of Southern Maine research study.

The first stage of a disruption is the stage of "diminishing pleasures," when the parent starts to see the hardships of raising the child as overtaking the joys of parenthood.

Many adoptive parents have moments when they wonder "why in the world" they ever adopted this child, but when that attitude becomes foremost and prominent, it has become a problem.

A second stage occurs when the child is perceived as a major problem-one the adoptive parents aren't sure how to cope with. The parents want the child to change his behavior, but the child cannot or will not.

The next stage occurs when adoptive parents begin to complain freely to other people about problems they face with this child. Invariably, they will receive some feedback from people who urge them to give up. An adoptive parent support group can possibly provide the positive reinforcement needed by parents in this stage to stop them from proceeding to a more advanced stage of disruption.

The fourth stage is a turning point: A critical event occurs that leads the adoptive parents to believe they can no longer accept the child's behavior. The child may be extremely cruel to other family members, and this behavior could frighten the parents. Or he may run away again, after numerous warnings, counseling and other attempts to help him resolve this behavior. The adoptive parents begin to envision life without the child and no longer actively strive to assimilate him into their everyday life.

The fifth stage is a deadline stage. Either the child is given an ultimatum or the parents decide if the negative behavior occurs just one more time, they will return the child to the agency.

The final stage occurs when the adoptive parents give up and decide they will return the child to the agency. They feel they've done everything they can, and they just cannot cope with this child any further.

This stage is extremely painful for the child and for the parents and is also difficult for the caseworker. It is easy for the worker to blame the parents at this point or for the parents to blame the agency, even when blame cannot reasonably be conferred.

The child's self-image is especially fragile at this point. Even if the child realized his behavior was disturbing the parents and deliberately continued his actions, he will experience a profound feeling of rejection and failure himself. He may not have believed the parents would give up on him, despite what they said, and be genuinely shocked by the disruption.

Adoptive parents should strive to educate themselves as thoroughly as possible about adoption in general and the child they plan to adopt in particular before making the serious commitment of adoption, particularly when they plan to adopt an older child. (See also ACTING OUT; OLDER CHILD.)


L. Anne Babb and Rita Laws, Adopting and Advocating for the Special Needs Child: A guide for Parents and Professionals (Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 1997).

Richard P. Barth and Marianne Berry, Adoption & Disruption: Rates, Risks, and Responses (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1998).

Marianne Berry and Richard P. Barth, "A Study of Disrupted Adoptive Placements of Adolescents," Child Welfare 69 (May/June 1990): 209-225.

Freddie Lee Denney, "Characteristics Descriptive of Maltreated Children Whose Adoptions Disrupt (Texas)," Master's thesis, University of Texas at Arlington, 1987.

Trudy Festinger, Necessary Risk: A Study of Adoptions and Disrupted Adoptive Placements (Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America, 1986).

Susan Partridge, Helaine Hornby and Thomas McDonald, Learning from Adoption Disruption: Insights for Practice (Portland, Me.: Human Services Development Institute, 1986).

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