A First, But Incomplete, Measure of Adoption Success

2016 could be the first year that America has clear, nationwide information about the success rate of adoptions from foster care. But the game plan for tracking this at the federal level might not capture the whole story; maybe not even half of it.

Last year, President Obama signed H.R. 4980, the The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act. One of its less-heralded components was an instruction regarding the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), the case-level data collection process that connects county and state child welfare agencies to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Going forward, the law decreed, AFCARS must note the number of youth entering foster care with a prior adoption in their history.

It was hardly a central provision of the bill, which included new requirements for tracking and addressing sex trafficking of minors, while also recalibrating federal adoption incentives for states.

But this seemingly lesser provision, which aims to track the outcome of adoptions, may prove to be a watershed moment in child welfare policy.

The resulting numbers will cast a light on one of child welfare’s biggest blind spots: the rate at which adoptions of foster youth do not result in a stable, permanent life for the child.

One recent report on the matter, and there have only been a few in the past 30 years, estimated that up to 20 percent of adoptions could end without permanence for foster youth.

H.R. 4980 mandate will result in the first look at adoptions in more than 20 years. But experts assessing HHS’ proposed process for data collection share concerns that the process for collecting this information may undercount failure in some regards, while overcounting it in other ways.

“The question that AFCARS can answer is quite a narrow one with regard to the true outcomes of adoption and guardianship,” said Dr. Richard Barth, dean of the social work school at the University of Maryland, in an email to The Chronicle. “I certainly think that this represents progress, but it only partially addresses the issue of how many permanent placements we are making via guardianship and adoption and what we could do to increase those.”

The Law

H.R. 4980 included a section entitled “Data Collection on Adoption and Legal Guardianship Disruption and Dissolution.” The instruction to HHS reads:

“To promote improved knowledge on how best to ensure strong, permanent families for children, the Secretary shall promulgate regulations providing for the collection and analysis of information regarding children who enter into foster care under the supervision of a State after prior finalization of an adoption or legal guardianship.”

As mentioned above, this cements into law the first ongoing effort to assess the rate at which adoptions fail for those youth who are adopted out of the foster care system. The largest concerted efforts to track this – two studies done in California and Illinois, both more than 20 years ago – found that about 14 percent of adoptions disrupted.

The Process

The HHS instructions, which were published this year in the Federal Register, instruct caseworkers to, “Indicate whether the child experienced prior legal adoption(s) before the current out-of-home care episode.” Workers would then check “yes” in a box to note a prior adoption.

If a case worker establishes a prior adoption, he or she must also include the following information:

  • Prior adoption date (month and year the adoption was finalized)
  • Prior adoption type (inter-state, intra-state, tribal or international)
  • Prior adoption jurisdiction

This process is also now required for notation of prior guardianships as well. That is not surprising, since H.R 4980 also authorized the first-ever federal incentive award to states for finalizing guardianship placements.

Will It Work?

The process is based on one key supposition: That a caseworker involved in the removal of a child will easily come to discover if said child had ever been adopted. Will it really be that easy for caseworkers to discover a prior adoption, verify it, and trace its origins?

Barth, the social work dean at the University of Maryland, said that the existence of a prior adoption would be evident in many cases. Barth led the failed adoption study in Illinois 30 years ago, and said that less than 10 percent of adopted children come back into foster care because of maltreatment.

“Most come in when the parents can no longer cope, or the child has run away…and the parents don’t want to take them back,” Barth said.

In those situations, he added, identifying the prior adoption won’t be difficult. Additionally, in most states, the vast majority of adoptive parents (about 90 percent) receive some sort of payment through the federal-state partnership for adoption subsidies, according to the National Council on Adoptable Children.

Dawn Post, who leads the Broken Adoptions Project at The Children’s Law Center in New York City, is more skeptical.

“Data may be lost because of the simple fact that children’s names are changed and they re-enter foster care under a different case number with a different respondent parent,” Post said in an e-mail to The Chronicle. “There are no instructions on how the caseworker is to identify that there was a prior adoption placement, and I anticipate that a large number will fall through the cracks at this point and the number in foster care will be under-reported.”

According to Voices for Adoption Executive Director Nicole Dobbins, there needs to be “a lot of training done” to ensure that caseworkers are correctly documenting prior adoptions for the new federal count.

Potential for Overcounting

Dobbins voiced concern that adding up the number of kids returning to care from prior adoptions would tell a misleading story about the actual number of adoptive families that had failed, per se.

That is because many adoptive parents are forced to place their children back into foster care in order to affordably access critical health services, particularly for those youth with serious mental health issues.

The numbers on this are murky and somewhat dated. But here is what is certain:

  • Some states, likely less than a dozen, have laws that prohibit a child welfare agency from requiring parents to relinquish custody in order to access mental health services. The rest of the states either require it or have no set policy.
  • A Government Accountability Office study published in 2003 found that in just 19 states, 12,700 children entered either the child welfare or juvenile justice system children “so that these children could receive mental health services.” The majority of states could not provide information on the subject.

“My concern is that the process for counting adoption dissolution might miss or misinterpret counting families who seek out mental health services from the state,” Dobbins said, in an e-mail.

A 2014 report from the Donaldson Adoption Institute, which synthesized state surveys on re-entry, estimated that 10 percent of youth adopted into foster care would re-enter care at some point. But, the report notes, “this number is likely to be lower when there is access to residential care without relinquishing parental custody.”

Potential for Undercounting

The HHS-established collection process is guaranteed to capture some significant portion of the kids coming into foster care with a prior adoption. But there’s an important group that will not be captured at all through this process: kids whose adoptions fail, but never return to foster care.

What proportion of kids from broken adoptions fall in that group? Both Barth and Dobbins suggested that this could be a significant number. The Donaldson Adoption Institute report estimates that 10 percent of children adopted from foster care “leave their homes…for either short- or long-term periods other than through the child welfare system.”

Even the children who return to public custody don’t always enter through foster care, Post of The Children’s Law Center points out. Often in New York, she said, it happens through the juvenile justice side of the court.

“When a new guardian assumes custody of the child, the child is placed on a delinquency because the adoptive parent refuses to take them home,” she said.

And one group that will likely forever elude annual tracking are the youth whose connection to an adoptive parent or guardian ends shortly after the government support checks stop coming.

In a 2014 edition of “The Roundtable,” a publication of the National Resource Center on Adoption, researcher Alfred Perez discussed his small-sample study of 31 Chicago-area youths who had been adopted or placed into a subsidized guardianship. He interviewed the youths well after they became adults, and the average age at which his cohort received an adoption or guardianship was 15.

Twelve of the 31 youths either severed the relationship with the caretaker, or the caretaker cut off the relationship with them. Of the other 19 interviewees, Perez described the relationship as “enduring” for 11 of them and “ambivalent” for the other eight.

Perez concludes that, too often, legal permanence is achieved but “relational permanence” is not for foster youth who are adopted or placed with guardians.

Missing a Key Question

Post said one disappointing omission from the collection process is that it will not produce any data on what went wrong.

“To improve outcomes, as this is intended to do, there must be data not just on how long the adoption lasted but why the adoption broke,” Post said.

Destiny Reid, a participant in this year’s Foster Youth Internship Program on Capitol Hill, voiced a similar concern.

“Congress needs to better understand adoption disruption and dissolution in order to protect future adopted children from the trauma I faced during and after my dissolved adoption,” wrote Reid, in a policy brief published this summer.

Reid concurs with Post that the reason for a dissolution or disruption should be recorded, and suggests four other data points for collection:

  • Reason for dissolution
  • The length of time it took for the adoption to finalize
  • The length of time the adoption lasted
  • The specific agency responsible for the adoptive placement
  • The child’s case plan after re-entry and any relevant information on siblings

What’s at Stake?

At the very least, the nation will have an approximate count of the children who re-entered foster care in 2015 after having previously experienced an adoption. It will not be perfect, but it will be an official count with the imprimatur of the federal government on it.

If 10 percent of foster youth who are adopted end up back in care, as most previous research attempts suggest, that would mean 25,798 adoptions from foster care have gone wrong to some extent in the past five years.

If the Donaldson Adoption Institute projections are correct, and another 10 percent disrupt without a re-entry, we are talking about 51,596 former foster youths whose adoptions had either disrupted for fallen apart.

The reason why this data is most important? Funding, of course.

It is not surprising, given the lack of clarity, that a paltry amount of money is spent on post-adoption services, the kind that could help keep an adoptive family together in tough times. Dollars for those programs are dwarfed by expenditures on awareness and recruitment services, or long-term subsidies for adoptive families.

Another provision in H.R. 4980 requires states to spend 30 percent of their adoption incentive bonuses on post-adoption services. At The Children’s Law Center, Post and colleagues surveyed states last year to see how they were currently using their adoption incentive funds.

Just six reported using it for post-adoption services.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1212 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.


  1. If only 6 states used the funds for post adoption services, do tell.. What did they use it FOR? Why is foundational stability not a priority in this country? Heart-breaking.

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