Time for New Numbers on Adoption Disruption

Youth Services Insider was able to attend a recent roundtable discussion on prevention the disruption of adoptions involving children in foster care. The conversation started on that subject, but grew to include discussion other aspects of adoption policy.

Following are a few thoughts from the discussion, which was led by former foster youth and child welfare researchers.

How big is the problem? Who knows?
Twenty-eight years ago, University of Maryland School of Social Work Dean Richard Barth completed a study in California aimed at projecting how many adoptions of foster children are disrupted. There’s a few ways a disruption occurs, but the majority of times it entails new contact with the child welfare system or a youth running away from home.

“In California, we went to each county and asked them if they could give us a list or some information about what the disruption rates were,” Barth said in an interview the week after the roundtable. “Some counties had spreadsheets ready, and some didn’t have a clue.”

Barth and his colleagues then asked if the agencies could contact the families where disruptions occurred, and ask if they’d agree to an interview with researchers. Ultimately, he said, just over 100 families agreed to discuss their experiences.

Barth’s team found that about 14 percent of adoptions disrupted. Since then, two studies in Illinois, conducted in the 1990s, found similar rates. And while the federal government helped spur a rise in adoptions out of foster care with financial incentives in the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997, it has never required states to report on the success of those adoptions.

Illinois is generally considered to be one of the better states at handling adoptions. But even if we assume the national rate is really been steady at 14 percent since the 1980s, that means there are a whole lot more adoptions disrupting than there used to be.

The number of adoptions from foster care exploded during that time period – from 28,000 in 1996 to 50,000 in 2011. So now, it would be 14 percent of a much bigger pie.

Barth called at the roundtable for a new study to get underway this year and to be ready in time to mark the 30th anniversary of his initial venture.

How would he structure this iteration, we asked Barth on the phone a week after the discussion? He said the best approach might be to find between six and ten states that have some capacity to track children post-adoption. Massachusetts and Illinois are pretty much able to do so now, he said.

The trick would be finding a common way to follow an adopted child out of, and then back into, a system. A big challenge to that, said Barth: in most cases, “their names change” when they get adopted.

YSI mentioned that the Chronicle had, in a recent Knight Foundation grant competition about data, pitched the idea of using social security numbers to follow adopted youths. The theory being: only a youth who was adopted and then had a new child welfare case initiated afterward, would have a SSN show up twice.

“Social security numbers are not in all the [state] databases,” said Barth. “If you got adopted, say you’re 17 now and adopted at 3 in 1998, it is very unlikely that your SSN was entered” before the adoption.

Social security numbers are “much more routinely used” now by agencies, he said, but they are loath to divulge them and risk youths falling prey to identity theft.

Medicaid numbers are issued to most youths in the system, he said, so that might be a better or safer way to use data as a trace on adoptions.

Regardless of the trace identification method, Barth points out that this would only reveal the youths who made further contact with child welfare systems after an adoption. It would not include some of the youths who run away from adoptive homes or children who were placed into residential treatment directly by their adoptive parents.

Either would constitute a disruption, he said; following ID numbers would capture neither.

What is being espoused now might not be working
Barth expressed a similar dim view of the knowledge base around what works to keep adoptions from disrupting.

“Casey Family Services did a big study on its post-adoption services” in Maine, Barth said. “They couldn’t come up with any real evidence that the services had an impact.”

Residential placements are an option that adoptive parents will often pursue on their own, said Barth; indeed, he mentioned at the roundtable that he put his own adoptive daughter in a residential care facility after she threatened his wife a number of times.

Years later, he said, he commiserated with other adoptive parents about how foolish a choice it was. The data on “residential care is pretty bleak, there’s almost no evidence it works and some evidence that some kids get worse.”

Actually, the more accurate take is that the net effect of residential care is zero, Barth said in the phone interview: some adopted foster kids do thrive in the setting. So it may be worth examining what factors into successful residential programs: what are the characteristics of youths who thrive there? What type of program components have the greatest benefit?

Barth also said that efforts should be made to establish a standard, national home visitation screen. James Williams, a former foster youth from South Carolina, agreed. He discussed his experience being adopted by unstable parents that would quickly abuse him, landing Williams right back in foster care.

“Whenever youth go into adoptions, there should be more adult visits,” said Williams. “My adoptive parents had a record of domestic violence. It’s insane when you think about how badly systems want to get kids out. They’re willing to put [youth] with anyone.”

Inform Kids
Based on the experiences of the four former foster youths on the panel, systems generally listen to children’s views on adoption. The problem, according to 23-year-old Tawny Spinelli, is that very little is done to shape the view of children about the possibilities of adoption.

“When I was approached about adoption, I was 13,” Spinelli said at the roundtable.  “I had already had seven different placements with seven different families, some relatives some others. If I don’t belong with other families, why would an adoptive family work?”

But nobody helped her think through that quandary, and her initial reaction was to say no. And nobody brought up adoption with her again until her foster parent mentioned the prospect casually when she was already 17.

Connection to birth family: option, not mandate
Marchelle Roberts, one of the foster care alumni who spoke at the roundtable, said  that little effort was made to keep her connected to relatives when she was still in foster care, and then after her adoption was finalized.

“My adoptive family made me who I am today,” Roberts said, “but I want relationships with any fellow siblings or uncles, etcetera, that I can.”

Ashley Lepse, also a former foster youth, said she was forced to visit with her biological mother even though she did not want to and was on a path from foster care to adoption. Lepse said the mandate was what she disliked, and agreed with Roberts that every foster and adoptive youth should be able to find and seek out their biological family members if they choose to do so.

John Kelly is the editor of The Chronicle of Social Change

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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 1213 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.