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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 1, No. 4
Summer 1996

Why Do Some Adoptions Fail?

Adoption disruption: the words alone bring up feelings of rejection, failure, and hopelessness. While nationally only 11% of adoptions disrupt (Barth, 1990), they are costly and heartbreaking to all concerned.

What are the realities surrounding adoption disruption and what can be done to prevent it?

Dolores Schmidt and her colleagues have attempted to answer this very question. In 1988, they conducted in-depth interviews with parents whose adoptions of special needs children had terminated prior to final legalization. The resulting article, Parents' Views of Adoption Disruption, provides rich insights.

Failure to Attach

According to the parents with whom they spoke, the roots of disruption often lay in the difficulty many children have becoming attached to their adoptive families. Accustomed to the physical and emotional abuse they suffered in their families of origin, these children were often confused and overwhelmed by displays of affection and concern. Many of these children had become used to the structure of group homes or other residential settings and could not adjust to the increase in freedom and choices in family life. Unable to cope with their new environment, these children struck out at themselves and those around them.

Parents reported extreme behavior problems, including fire setting, defecating inappropriately, cruelty to people and pets, destroying property, extreme temper tantrums, self-abuse (e.g., head-banging), and suicidal threats. Some felt that when they looked to the placing agency for help with these problems, they were disbelieved until the child "acted out" in front of the social worker.

Some families also reported that time lines for the agency and the courts were not conducive to allowing parents and children to get to know one another prior to the adoption. Pinderhughes and Rosenberg (1990) likened the adoption of an older child to "getting married on a blind date."

One of Schmidt and her colleagues' most unusual findings concerned the role of unresolved fertility issues. Several families described the disruption as reawakening feelings about their infertility. The authors are quick to point out that these issues did not cause the disruption but may contribute to it. When a child cannot return the warmth adoptive parents offer, feelings of rejection can arise, interfering with both parties' ability to adjust.

Other Predictors

In 1988, James Rosenthal and his colleagues matched pairs of special needs children who had been successfully adopted with special needs children whose adoptions had failed, in the hopes of finding out what differences existed between these two groups.

They found that although attending to medical concerns or living with a mentally low-functioning child was difficult, it was seldom the greatest strain on the parent-child relationship. More significant were the child's emotional and behavioral difficulties--these predicted disruption at a much higher rate than did cognitive or physical disabilities.

This study also found that social workers' ratings of parents' capacities were highly predictive of an adoption's outcome. If they had doubts about parents' ability to deal with an emotionally nonresponsive child, the adoption was more likely to disrupt.

Middle-class, professional life-style did not predict whether adoptions held together. In fact, working-class parents seemed to have more appropriate expectations for the children coming into their families than did middle-class parents.

Children Who Reject Adoption

The findings from both studies highlight the idea that adoption is not the answer for every child. Certainly children who want to be adopted should be given every opportunity, but there are those who do not want to be adopted. Schmidt and colleagues quote from an unpublished manuscript that says that there are some children who, although free for adoption, "do not wish to be adopted, and do not wish to become exclusively attached to their foster parents. It seems that these children are prepared to tolerate some ambiguity in their relationship with their foster parents because they wish to retain some links with their own families...For these children...casework pressure to choose a permanent outcome...threatens the useful, though impermanent, compromises they had worked out for themselves." So, for older children, it may be useful to keep an open mind as to whether adoption or long-term foster care is the best outcome.

Innovative Matching

Obviously, children's services cannot legally or ethically give up on adoptive placements. Detailed matching strategies could prevent adoption disruption. In Matching to Prevent Disruption, Gail Valdez and Regis McNamara note that traditional matching strategies focus mainly on demographic characteristics--race, sex, age, and intellectual functioning or other special needs status. However, with increasing numbers of children that have experienced abuse or neglect becoming available for adoption, they advocate for evaluation of matches based on other points as well.

Valez and McNamara believe that using several existing instruments could more adequately prepare adoptive parents for the realities of the child coming into their life. They recommend the Child Behavior Checklist by the child's preadoptive caregiver so that preadoptive parents will have a thorough knowledge of the child's behavior. They also believe that the DOTS-R, a temperament evaluation instrument, should be given to both adoptive parents and the child.

Additionally, Valdez and McNamara cite research from the foster care arena that has shown that successful caretakers are confident, accepting, able to use consequences for positive and negative behavior, and believe their parenting will have an effect on the child's behavior. These are the qualities, as much as demographics or socioeconomic level, that workers should look for when seeking successful match.

Support Groups

In addition to matching strategies, Richard Barth and Marianne Berry recommend support group activity both before and after adoption. Since many older children coming into adoption will not attach as quickly or as completely as adoptive parents might expect, these authors believe that adoptive parents must be made aware when their expectations are too great. Other adoptive parents are uniquely suited to tell them.

Barth and Berry believe support groups should continue after a child is placed to normalize experiences and provide support during difficult times. An alternative or addition to a support group for parents might be a buddy system for experienced adoptive parents and new adopters. This type of one-to-one relationship would allow between-group support and provide mentorship as new adopters adjust to their lives as parents.


Barth, R. P., & Berry, M. (1991). Preventing adoption disruption. Prevention in Human Services, 9 (1), 205-222.

Pinderhughes, E.E., & Rosenberg, K. F. (1990). Family bonding with high risk placements: A therapy model that promotes the process of becoming a family. Journal of Children in Contemporary Society, 21, 204-230.

Rosenthal, J. A., Schmidt, D. M., & Conner, J. (1988). Predictors of special needs adoption disruption: An exploratory study. Children and Youth Services Review, 10, 101-117.

Schmidt, D. M., Rosenthal, J. A., & Bombeck, B. (1988). Parents' views of adoption disruption. Children and Youth Services Review, 10, 119-130.

Valdez, G. M., & McNamara, J. R. (1994). Matching to prevent adoption disruption. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 11(5), 391-403.

1996 Jordan Institute for Families