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Adoption Disruption

“Failed” adoptions from foster care arise out of complex situations and can happen for many reasons, but no matter what, it’s imperative that the adopting family exhaust all available support resources before they consider “returning” a child. In extreme situations where an adoption must be disrupted or even dissolved, everyone involved feels the heartbreak, but the child will bear the most trauma.

Most foster care adoptions succeed. An estimated 10 to 25% of foster adoptions are disrupted, and about 1 to 5% are dissolved, with consistently observed factors that place an adoption at higher or lower risk for “failing.” If you’re hoping to complete a foster care adoption, don’t be discouraged. There are ways to set yourself (and youth in foster care) up for success, and support options to utilize if your family encounters struggles.

The best way to prevent failed foster adoptions is to gain a better understanding of:

  • The difference between disrupting and dissolving an adoption
  • Why some adoptions disrupt or dissolve
  • When these are and aren’t legally possible for a family
  • What to do if you’re thinking about disrupting or dissolving your pending adoption
  • How to prevent disrupting or dissolving an adoption whenever possible

Here’s what you should know about dealing with disruption in fostering and adoption placements:

Adoptions that Disrupt Before Finalization

A “disruption” happens before an adoption is finalized. After experiencing a disruption within their foster or foster-to-adopt family, the child is typically returned to institutionalized care or a different temporary foster family.

In many situations, the disruption of an adoption is out of the adoptive parents’ hands. Losing a foster child you were supposed to adopt can occur when birth parents or other biological family members return to parent the child. The foster care professional may also disrupt the process over some concern or if there are legal hangups. 

However, in some situations, the adopting parent may be the one to disrupt the adoption process and request that the adoption not be legally finalized. The adopting parent may experience a change in their situation, like a move or a family member moving in; there may be issues within the family related to the adoption; or the parent may realize that they did not previously understand the full scope of the individual child’s needs and decide they’re not able to provide for those needs.

How to Prevent Disrupted Adoptions Whenever Possible

In every situation, the first line of defense for the prevention of disruptions is more education and support for everyone involved. There will be some circumstances where a disruption must occur, no matter how well-prepared, educated or supported the families involved. But before you even begin the foster adoption process, you should always consider it your personal responsibility to ensure you’re ready and educated, so that you’re less likely to be the cause of a “failed” foster care adoption.

What to Do If You’re Thinking About Disrupting a Pending Adoption

If you’ve been fostering a child and you were planning to adopt him or her, but you now think that you may no longer be able to follow through with the legal adoption, contact your caseworker immediately.

Ask for any available support services that may make the adoption possible for you and to avoid a foster care adoption disruption, and speak honestly and openly with your caseworker to assess whether or not adoption is the best path for the child in this situation. 

If you mutually decide that moving forward with the adoption is not an option for you, work closely with your caseworker to support your foster child as they transition back to looking for a permanent placement. Their emotional needs are the first priority.

Adoptions that are Dissolved After Finalization

Again, these are very rare. Returning a child to foster care after adoption is a last resort, and is usually mutually determined to be the best course of action for the safety and wellbeing of everyone involved. 

The legal possibility of this option will often depend on state laws and that state’s child welfare policies. In some cases, children have returned to an institutionalized foster care setting or a temporary foster family, with the adopted child placed back into foster care. In other cases, a “family-to-family” adoption has occurred, where the “sending” family finds a “receiving” family that is able to re-adopt the child. 

The option that is determined to be best for an individual family will depend on the child’s caseworker’s recommendations. Closely following the state foster care agency’s instructions and working together with experienced adoption attorneys is necessary. Otherwise, state laws may charge the “sending” family with child abandonment.

How to Prevent Dissolved Adoptions Whenever Possible

Again, education and support is what prevents situations from becoming severe enough to consider legally dissolving a foster care adoption. Part of that education will be learning about a child’s individual needs, and the adopting family deciding honestly what they can and cannot handle.

However, even with the best of intentions and with every effort to prevent an adoption from dissolving, some families have had to make that difficult choice. As this is a last-resort option, it’s assumed that the family has done everything within their power to make the adoption work, including months or even years of specialized counseling and support.

More research and work is required to prevent the occurrence of a “failed” adoption. Foster care agencies throughout the U.S. must be encouraged to continually improve their support and education services to help adoptive families prevent dissolutions as much as possible. 

What to Do If You’re Thinking About Dissolving a Legal Adoption

If you’ve reached the point where you’re seriously considering ending a legal adoption, you’ve likely exhausted all available resources and options. Adoptive families must explore all possible alternatives before considering this option. 

Balancing the safety and needs of your adopted child as well as yourself and the rest of your family can be complex and painful in these rare situations. Reach out to your caseworker immediately, and talk through the issues within your family honestly. Your caseworker will help you review any support options that you may not have previously found, and they’ll be best-qualified to assess next steps. 

If your family and your caseworker mutually decide that legal dissolution is the best way to ensure everyone in your family (especially your adopted child) is properly cared for, you’ll next need to reach out to a qualified adoption attorney as well as an adoption-competent therapist. You and your child will need a lot of support during this time.

Communicating and working closely with this team of professionals will be vital for a number of reasons:

  • Your own legal protection
  • Preparing yourself and your child for this transition
  • Your child’s best chance at a successful and permanent placement in a new home
  • Making the transition as smooth as possible for your child and the rest of your family
  • Continued support for your child and the rest of your family before, during and after dissolution

Do not attempt to “rehome” your child on your own without the guidance of these professionals, and do not attempt to surrender your child without their legal and emotional guidance. There is often a lot of red tape involved in dissolving an adoption, which can put adoptive families in legally difficult situations where options are limited. However, for the safety of everyone involved, always follow the advice of your caseworker, attorney and therapist.

In adoption through foster care, disruption and dissolution is fortunately rare, but these situations are always extremely difficult for everyone involved — most of all for the child. Families who must disrupt or even dissolve a foster adoption are not monsters — they do so to ensure that everyone involved is safe and their needs are appropriately met after they’ve exhausted all other options.