It was very clear in the discussions surrounding the NBC News, Today Show and Reuters reporting on what they called

How often do adoptions fail.

You would think that the number of failed adoptions in the US would be easy to find out. Well, guess again.

“re-homing” of children once an adoption fails that we don’t really know how common this practice, nor how many adoptions fail.

In my blog yesterday, I pointed out that their report, while accurately pointing out the potentially horrifying results when parents go online to find homes in which to “dump” their problem children, implied that it was a common practice based on their review of postings in several online groups. A closer look at a sample of the actual postings did not support their implication since many of the posting were by adoption agencies, and families working with agencies, and would have required all the legal safeguards of a standard adoption.

However, even though I don’t think the NBC News/Reuters report supports their implication of frequency, I also can’t say it isn’t common. They focused on one couple that was going online to find kids from disrupted adoptions for questionable purposes, and if there is one, there are likely more. Not only do we not know how often adoptive parents try to find a new home for their child without the help of child protection services or adoption agencies, we don’t even know how often there is a need for this–how often adoptions fail.

The Elusive Number

The number of failed adoptions would seem to be a number that would be easy to find, but alas, the US does not even have a way to track the total number of adoptions completed each year. If we don’t know how many adoptions are completed, it is hard to know how many fail.

Keep in mind that what we are looking for are the number of adoptions that fail after finalization (known as “dissolving”), since that is what the NBC New/Reuters report focused on, and would lead to the situation where parents may be trying to find homes for their children without involving child protective services or adoption agencies. When an adoption fails before finalization (known as “disrupting”), the parents were never the legal parents of the child, and the agency or CPS is responsible for finding a new home.

In order to develop estimates of the number of failed adoptions researchers must rely on samples of the adopted population. The population samples differ with each study, so each estimate is slightly different. Further, many of the sample sizes are small, thus making the results less reliable. Some research lumps adoption disruptions and dissolutions together, and some of the research summaries do not make a clear distinction between adoption disruption and dissolution.

Most research indicates that the vast majority of adoptions are permanent. The best I’ve been able to find is about 1% to 7% of US adoptions fail after finalization range (Coakley & Berrick, 2008).

Age Matters

When broken down by age, as you might expect, adoptions fail more often when the children are adopted at an older age. One study found a disruption and dissolution rate of 24 percent for children ages 12 to 17 (Berry and Barth, 1990), but the sample size was small (99 adolescents) and included disruptions prior to finalization. These same researchers reported a disruption and dissolution rate of 10 percent for children older than 3 years in a sampling of 1000 adopted children (Barth and Berry, 1988)

How Often Do International Adoptions Fail?

The Child Welfare Information Gateway reports the following:

  • For Federal fiscal year (FY) 2011, the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the U.S. Department of State (2011) reported that six adoptive placements made in the United States from another country through the Hague Adoption Convention were disrupted. There were 9,320 completed intercountry adoptions that occurred through the Convention.
  • For FY 2010, States reported to HHS that there were 33 cases of disruptions and dissolutions involving 41 children who were adopted from other countries and subsequently entered state custody (U.S. Department of State, 2011). These cases may be of children placed or adopted through the Hague Adoption Convention, through non-Hague countries, or before the Convention was ratified by the United States in 2008.

I have not had time to do a really thorough review of the online literature on the rate of adoption dissolutions. (One of the major distinctions between blogging and journalism is the inability to devote all your resources to the task, as I’ve found out today while trying to prep for the Creating a Family show and get this blog researched and posted.) I will continue to look for information, and we hope to do a Creating a Family show in the near future on failed adoptions. We plan to interview a top researcher on adoption disruptions and dissolutions to get a better feel for the numbers and the risk factors. Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more information on this show.

Image credit: TroyBensonPhotography

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