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Adoption breakdown research


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.

Click to access Final_Report_-_3rd_April_2014v2.pdf

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.





About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

10 responses

  1. forcedadoption

    Well all these stats are somewhat confusing.What I do know is that when a baby or young child is snatched from a mother that loves him/her to be given for forced adoption the consequences can be catastrophic for the adoptive parents .When the child becomes a teenager ,finds their mother and/or father via facebook and the internet,and realises that the parents never abandoned their baby at all and were neither drug addicts nor alcoholics and that they had been lied to since birth….The adoptive parents are dropped (serve the bastards right !) and the birth family is reunited.

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  3. Thanks for a pertinent post Andrew.
    Are you aware of any corresponding facts and figures for final care order/LAC placement breakdown?

    • No, which is a gap now – there was some relatively recent research showing that IF you take stable foster placements and compare them to stable adoptive placements, the outcomes for the children are very similar (in terms of wellbeing, educational achievement and similar factors). But what we don’t know is whether there’s a significant difference in stability, and if so, what could be done to overcome that.

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  5. What this study highlights, which many of the public are becoming more aware of, is the failure of social workers due to a lack of ability to make compassionate or sound, meaningful assessments. They mostly demonise families seeking help / support or who raising concerns when facing difficulties where abuse / manipulation may not be entirely one sided. That is if they do not ignore the concerns completely..

    Safeguarding work has become the ‘mantra’ of a group of workers and their management seeking roles for themselves when they lack a coherent and meaningful profession with a significant evidence base, as opposed to woolly, evolving and changing theories depending on the politics of the time and popular (in social sciences circles) views of human behaviours.

    Somehow truly independent thought and real concern for real people and their lives has been lost in the current state intrusion systems. False and unfounded allegations are rife- but I have yet to see any director of social work and their staff below them who can assess things proportionately or correctly. They all want to keep their jobs and positions of power- Child Protection and now Adult Safeguarding has assisted this, to the detriment in time of society. Distrust now is the norm. A society built on distrust will not be a safe society.


    This should make for an interesting CoP article.

  7. I think it would be more appropriate to conduct research based on the children’s experiences and their view of their life outcomes and experience of being adopted,it is meant to be about them and their best interests not the adoptive parents or placement….

    Research design is questionable when the focus is set indirectly on the focal point (the child/adult), its been set on the placement……

    Its confirmatory research,the measurement of outcomes have been predicted prior to research being initiated, a result is only to be recorded if the child left the placement, therefore the only significant result recorded is has the child left the placement before reaching 18, so the only results recorded are ones easily observed,not results or breakdowns of placements that have not been observed (ie the child remained in the placement but to the child the placement had broken down and their life was a living nightmare but the observers did not observe this as a result to be RECORDED or they had no idea what they was looking for or and were observing from their own view/need/emotions etc or they ignored the breakdown and it was never reported and therefore never known or recorded), it is not investorgatory research(it only looks deeper if a result has been recorded).

    As a cohort piece of research the longitudinal parameter is short(it does not cover all children’s time in the placement until 18, which is important because the only result that is to be recorded is did the placement breakdown before the child reached 18) and it is current and not historical from a position in the child’s adult life(after the fact, what does the child as an adult think ? probably the most important question of all in adoption, its only retrospective in the fact the child was adopted and in looking at preadoption circumstances, but it would really be about does adoption improve the child’s later life and part in society, are they functioning adults after being adopted with a family life and support structure, if not there was no point them being adopted).

    The researchers are not really the researchers,the adoptive parents are. The descriptive part of the research’s observation is not naturalistic observation it has been manipulated and created by the observer (adoptive parent).

    Its also based on KNOWN to have disrupted, hmm we all know how good the LA’s are at keeping records or loosing them, they do not even know how many children are missing at any given time from their own “care” system,plus how many disruptions have never been reported?

    Also from research carried out in Australia, adopted children suffered higher rates of physical and sexual abuse in their placements (not all perpetrated by the adoptive parents but by “family” members), would the observers (adoptive parents) report this? NO so what else would they have not reported?

  8. forcedadoption

    Some of the adoptions break down because the children resist the advances of the monstrous paedophiles who have adopted them ! The family courts notoriously give unwitting support to paedophilia and incest by protecting the perpetrators at the expense of their accusers !
    The “cover up” and suppression of prosecutions for child abuse still goes on ! Countless mothers have approached me complaining of sexual abuse of their child by the father ,but I can only name one “Vicky Haig” since she was named in parliament !The result has been the same every time ! The complaining child has been isolated, stopped from testifying in court, and given to the exclusive care of the alleged abusive father . ALL CONTACT between mother and child has been forbidden (though on some occasions “strictly supervised phone calls have been permitted).Police refuse to even take statements from mothers complaining with hard evidence of further sexual abuse and the judges complicit in supporting paedophilia have jailed any mothers who have so much as sent a birthday card to their abused child ! Such is the UK today……..

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