A lot of people, including the House of Lords when they asked questions about the rate of adoption breakdown and found that there was no clear answer, have been wanting to see some good research on adoption breakdowns.
This is a piece of research on that very issue, commissioned by the Department for Education and conducted by Bristol university. I think it is solid.
The report opens by saying that there hasn’t previously been a national study on adoption disruptions – the previous studies have been with narrow subsets of children, leading to “rates of disruption having been quoted as ranging between 2% and 50%” (To paraphrase Paddy Power “I hear you” – I have heard over many years in Court, a wide variety of numbers being given as to how likely an adoptive placement is to break down, usually thirty seconds before a Jedi handwave and “the research is well known” – though not capable of ever being named)
There’s a LOT of it, and my summary isn’t going to be a substitute for reading it.
There’s a decent summary over at Children and Young People Now
The headline there relates to the difference between the prediction Local Authorities made of the chance of a placement breaking down before the age of 18 (3.4%) and that reported by surveys of adoptive parents (which was 9%)
So, is the adoption breakdown rate about 9%? Well, maybe not. [Actually, when you sit and read the report carefully, their conclusion is that adoption breakdown rates are somewhere between 2 % and 9%. Why is the number so wide-ranging? Well, ultimately because there are actually substantial variations between Local Authorities – where Erehwon has a breakdown rate of 2% and Llareggub has 9% - is the breakdown rate between the middle, or is it more accurate to say that nationally it is BETWEEN those figures?]
The research is looking at adoptions where an order has been made, and whether the placement continued until the child was 18, or ended (which is then classed as a breakdown or disruption, for whatever reason)
It looks at the previous research – Rushton 2003 which cited a breakdown rate of 20%, but that covered placements pre order, and obviously had a number where the placement ended after a very short period because the ‘fit’ wasn’t right , and Rushton and Dance 2006 (Although no lawyer actually knows the name of it or what it really says, this is the piece of research that gives the figure that has been bandied about and exaggerated over the last few years) that gave a figure of 19% – the study had been entirely of children who had been placed for adoption later in life than the norm.
An interesting aspect, to me, is the comparison the research does of 3 types of placements and their stability (frustratingly for me, there isn’t the comparison of stability of adoption v long-term foster care, which would now be extremely helpful to know)
The research says that they looked at:-
•37,314 Adoption Orders of which 565 were known to have disrupted
5,921 Special Guardianship Orders of which 121 were known to have disrupted
• 5,771 Residence Orders of which 415 were known to have disrupted
Peculiarly, although the research highlights that SGOs were anticipated to largely replace Residence Orders, the number of Residence Orders doesn’t seem to have gone down since their introduction.
I did my own number crunching on that, which worked out as a breakdown rate of 1.5% for adoptions, 2% for SGOs and 7% for residence orders.
So is THAT the breakdown rate?
Well no, it gets a bit more complicated (because the individual cases they were looking at were at different ages – to exaggerate wildly – if you imagine the residence orders were mostly dealing with teenagers and the adoptions mostly with pre-schoolers, then of course one group has had more chance to break down. Wild exaggeration, just so that you get the underlying concept, that some complicated maths has to be done to smooth out the differences)
Breakdown (or disruption) rate
The research says that over a 5 year period
•147 in 1,000 ROs would have disrupted (14.7%)
57 in 1,000 SGOs would have disrupted (5.7%)
•7 in 1,000 adoptions would have disrupted (0.7%)
And that over a five year period, the most stable form of placement was comfortably an adoptive placement.
But of course, a five year period isn’t necessarily it for adoptions – the research demonstrates that the most precarious time in an adoptive placement is in the teenage years , and that over a 12 year period the disruption rate went up to 3.2%.
The researchers suggest that by the time 1000 children who have been adopted reach the age of 18, those placements will have been disrupted or broken down for between 2 and 9% of them (i.e between 20 and 90 children – the corollary of that, obviously is that for every 1000 children placed for adoption somewhere between 910 and 980 of them will have placements that endure for their childhood)
Of those disruptions, nearly two thirds will be during the child’s secondary school years, with the average age of a child whose placement breaks down being 12 ½.
When looking at what influences a disruption, the research found that for children placed with adopters before the age of 4, only 1% of those placements had broken down. For children aged over 4 at the time of the placement, that went up to 5%. Three quarters of the children who had an adoption breakdown had been placed after the age of four.
Additionally, the more moves a child had had prior to the adoptive placement, the higher the chance of disruption. And the longer a child waited for a placement, the higher the chance of disruption – of the children whose placements had broken down, three quarters of them had waited for more than two years for a placement.
There is no real difference in terms of gender of the child as to whether a disruption is more or less likely (1.4% of all males placed had breakdowns, 1.7% of all females – a slight difference, but not statistically important – anecdotally it is mildly surprising that this is not the other way around). Nor was ethnicity a relevant factor in breakdown rates.
The reason for the child coming into care makes very little difference to the breakdown rates either.
Looking at the types of carer, the research SUGGESTS that single carers had a higher proportion of disruptions than would be predicted by pure averages, but are cautious about this because the data isn’t as full (the information about whether an adopter is married or in a civil partnership has only been collected since 2006)
The research also suggests that foster carers who go on to adopt the child don’t have (as many professionals would suspect or believe) lower disruption rates than stranger adoptions – if anything, it is slightly the other way. [The research points out that it may be more likely that foster carers who adopt are taking more damaged children than the statistical norm, that children have usually waited longer to be adopted if their foster carers adopt them and that foster carers who adopt might suffer more than stranger adopters when the LA backs off]
The percentage of adoption disruptions varied significantly between the Local Authorities sampled – from 0.7% to 7.4% (it is figure 20, page 55 of the research if you want to look at it).
Really hard, obviously, to unpick whether that is because of something that the LA’s are doing (picking adopters, supporting them, managing dramas) or whether it is that in any particular LA one has a higher proportion of older children, who wait longer in care. If it is the former, then we really want to get all of the Local Authorities learning from the best ones, because every single breakdown is a human tragedy for all involved.
•Between April 1st 2000 and 31st March 2011, 37,335 children were adopted and of these 565 were known to have disrupted post order and information was available in the database.
• Nearly two thirds of disruptions occurred during the teenage years.
• Gender and ethnicity were not associated with greater risk of disruption.
• The children whose adoptions had disrupted were significantly older at entry to care (average 3 years old) in comparison with children (average 1 year old) whose adoptions were intact. Nearly three-quarters of all the children had been abused or neglected.
• Children who had experienced a disruption also had significantly more moves whilst looked after and waited longer to be placed with their adoptive family compared with those children whose placements were intact.
• Children who were no longer living with their adoptive families were significantly more likely to have lengthier adoption processes compared with the children whose adoptions were intact. This was the case for those who entered care under the age of 4 years old and those who entered over 4 years of age.
• Three-quarters of the children who experienced a disruption were older than 4 years of age at placement with their adoptive family and a quarter were younger than 4 years of age. In comparison, 70% of children in intact placements were under the age of four.
• Children whose foster carers became their adoptive parents entered care at a similarly young age to those who were adopted by stranger adoptive parents. However, they waited on average two years before their foster placement was confirmed as an adoptive placement and were on average 5.2 years old at the time of the Adoption Order. In comparison, those adopted by strangers were only 3.8 years old at the time of the Order.
• Foster carer adoptions were not more stable than adoptions by stranger adoptive parents.
• The proportion of adoptions that disrupted varied by local authority
This is a bit that is fairly low key and probably won’t be picked up by the press reports, but I think is very important
“We asked adoptive parents whether there had ever been any difficulties with birth family contact through SMS, email or Facebook. Whilst 20% said this had been the case, many more feared that they would be facing these problems in the future”
If you wanted to find a person in the 1980s, you had to hire a private detective. Now, if you spend an hour on the net, you’ll know more about them than their own mother.
I think there are really good bits in the research dealing with how various local authorities dealt with requests for help from adopters, and some very honest and raw interviews where things that are normally unspoken were said out loud – the shame, the guilt, how hard it is to ask for help, and on the other side, how social workers can sometimes present as being very intolerant of the need for help and that the adopters took this child on and they just had to make it work. Many requests for help ended up being managed as s47 investigations, which escalated things badly.
There are some major criticisms of life story work (particularly about these books not being moved forward and age-appropriate for much older children, at the point where they really want to know more about their identity)
We began this study knowing very little about adoption disruption. To our knowledge, there had never been a funded study in the UK whose focus was on disruptions post order. The disruption rate was lower than we expected. The reasons for that became obvious when we met the families. The commitment and tenacity of adoptive parents was remarkable. Most parents, even those whose children had left, still saw themselves as the child’s parents and were supporting their children from a distance. An adoption manager who was interviewed for this study suggested that perhaps a revolving door approach was needed for some adopted adolescents, whereby they could spend time away from their families without it being seen as a failure. Instead, most of the families we interviewed spoke of an ‘all or nothing’ social work approach that blamed and judged parents when relationships were just not working, and parents needed respite or young people wanted to leave. A key value150 of social work in professional practice is compassion and respect for individuals. It is probably easier to practice if there is a clear duality of victim and abuser. Who was the victim and who was the abuser was unclear in families where there was child to parent violence. Splits and conflicts between children’s social workers and post adoption social workers then emerged. It left adoptive parents feeling blamed, demoralised and unsupported. It was apparent that many had lost faith in professionals of all kinds and felt betrayed.
The research makes a number of recommendations – they cover 6 pages in the report, starting at page 284, so I won’t rehearse them, but they are well worth reading, particularly for any professional involved in adoption work.