Assessing the Field of Post-Adoption Services: Family Needs, Program Models, and Evaluation Issues. Analysis of Secondary Data. 2.3.2 Adoption Dissolution and Displacement in North Carolina


Older children and minority children are the ones most likely to experience dissolution.

We used two lines of analyses to examine adoption dissolution in North Carolina. First, we tried to track our cohort of adopted children to see if they experienced an out-of-home placement after the final decree. Second, we looked at all children who had entered out-of-home placement since July 1, 1998, to determine whether a child was previously adopted. Although neither line of analysis was entirely satisfactory, both provided information about possibilities for further research. Each is described below.

Cohort analysis. Because names of children were not included in our analysis files, we had to rely on the ID numbers to determine whether a child experienced a subsequent out-of-home placement after adoption. For a reentry to placement by a child receiving cash assistance payments to be considered an adoption dissolution, three conditions had to be met: (1) the date of entry to out-of-home placement occurs at least 90 days after final adoption decree date, (2) adoption assistance was no longer being received after this placement, and (3) if permanency was achieved at end of this placement, it was achieved with someone other than the primary caregiver at the time of the previous adoptive placement. This is the closest semblance we have to being able to define a dissolution, without having court records to establish the final outcome of the adoption. Of the 8,647 children in the adoption assistance data file, 2,217 were also in the placement data file, indicating that these children could have experienced a dissolution. Further analyses identified 70 children who met the adoption dissolution criteria that we established for these analyses. The remaining 2,147 placements, which did not meet all three criteria, represent out-of-home placements that did not result in dissolutions.

Delays and inconsistencies in assigning new client identification numbers for adoptive children who are receiving cash assistance resulted in the original overestimate of potential dissolutions. This is an indicator of the challenges of using administrative data for studying this issue. There were 2,217 children whose child welfare system ID numbers were in the placement data file but the identified child did not meet one of the three criteria that we set out for an adoption dissolution  i.e., placement date after the adoption, no longer receiving adoption assistance after the placement, or exit reason suggests reunification with primary caregiver at time of placement. These cases are difficult to interpret. They underscore the importance of treating these analyses as preliminary work that demonstrates the use of data to study post-adoption experiences and services rather than presenting firm conclusions about the number of dissolutions/disruptions in North Carolina.

Exhibit 7 summarizes age at adoption, race, gender, and year of adoption for the approximately 1 percent of children who experienced a dissolution  by the aforementioned criteria  compared to those who did not. Even these criteria are not airtight, however, as a child who is still adopted could  in very rare instances  be placed into guardianship with another member of their family.

Exhibit 7.
Characteristics of Children Who Experienced an Adoption Dissolution and Likelihood of Dissolution
  No dissolution Dissolution RR
Age at adoption
  Birth to 5 4,381 (99.6%) 17 (0.4%) 1.0
  6 - 11 3,231 (98.8%) 38 (1.2%) 3.2(1)
  12 - 15 809 (98.2%) 15 (1.8%) 6.2(1)
  16 - 17 156 (100%) 0 (0.0%) .1
White 3,815 (99.4%) 24 (0.6%) 1.0
Black 3,870 (99.1%) 37 (0.9%) 2.0(2)
Other 892 (99%) 9 (1.0%) 2.2(3)
Male 4,402 (99.4%) 28 (0.6% 1.0
Female 4,175 (99.0%) 42 (1.0%) 1.5
Year of adoption
  1990 - 1995 2,124 (98.5%) 33 (1.6%) 1.0
  1996 - 1998 2,639 (98.8%) 31 (1.2%) .65
  1999 - 2000 3,809 (99.8%) 6 (.2%) .35
1p < .001
2 .001 < p < .01
3 .01 < p < .05

Older children (current age) and minority children appear to be slightly more likely to experience an adoption dissolution. While statistically significant, these analyses are based on a small number of cases and should be viewed with caution.

Using Cox Proportional Hazards Models, we estimated the risk of adoption dissolution, shown in the final column in Exhibit 7, by age at adoption, race, gender, and year of adoption. Older children (current age) are significantly more likely to experience dissolution than younger children. Children who are 6 to 11 years old at adoption are three times as likely to experience dissolution than infants while young teenagers are over six times as likely. The risk of adoption dissolution in North Carolina is low for all children. However, compared to white children, black children are twice as likely as white children to return to placement after an adoption.

The following chart (Exhibit 8) provides a summary of the number of days between the final adoption decree and subsequent placement into out-of-home care for the 70 children that we identified. It shows that about 50 percent of these dissolutions occur within three years of adoption.

Exhibit 8.
Length of Time Until Dissolution

Exhibit 8. Length of Time Until Dissolution.

These merged data may or may not provide valid estimates of children who return to placement after being adopted. The findings of a less than 1 percent dissolution rate in North Carolina must be viewed cautiously. Since the population of adopted children who we are able to include in these analyses is limited to those receiving cash assistance payments, it is possible that the dissolution rate is low because these are among the most stable adoptive relationships. This would suggest that the study population did not include a substantial group of adopted children who are the most likely to disrupt. However, this seems unlikely for a few reasons. First, conversations with state officials in North Carolina indicated that they believe most adopted children in the state receive cash assistance payments and, thus, would be in our study population. In addition, comparisons of the number of children adopted in North Carolina over the past several years and the number of children receiving adoption subsidy payments during the same time period supports the conclusion that these analyses represent the appropriate universe of adopted children.

It is also possible that these data and our linking algorithms do not validly identify all adoption dissolutions. It is likely that most children who reentered placement subsequent to adoption did so under a different ID number, either the foster care number or a newly assigned number. Since the policy in North Carolina is not specific in terms of which ID number to use for a reentry following an adoption, it is not surprising that these data are not definitive, at this point in time, for these analyses.

A third possibility is that these data actually represent what is going on in North Carolina. The state's rate of reentry to foster care is far better than the national average, suggesting that a low rate of adoption dissolution may also be plausible.

Even though this line of analysis did not produce the results that we expected, if new ID numbers were systematically and consistently assigned to all children in the state who were adopted, this approach could be useful in understanding the course of an adoption that ultimately fails.

Older children and white children are more likely than others to reenter care after adoption

Entry into foster care. The North Carolina longitudinal placement data files provided the source of data for the second line of adoption dissolution analysis. In July 1997, as part of the AFCARS enhancement, North Carolina added a data element to the placement data files that recorded whether a child who was entering out-of-home placement had been previously adopted. Newly updated longitudinal data files created in April 2002 contained information on placement experiences of children who had entered placement through December 2001, providing a minimum of four and a half years of data for the new AFCARS data elements.

Of the children entering placement between July 1997 and December 2001, 318 had been previously adopted. Exhibit 9 summarizes the characteristics of legally adopted children who entered placement. Over half were teenagers; 58 percent were white; and 51 percent were female. Compared to the characteristics of children not previously adopted who initially entered placement during the last 10 years, previously adopted children entering placement were more likely to be white (56 percent versus 47 percent) and teenagers (66 percent versus 26 percent).

Exhibit 9.
Characteristics of Children Entering Placement Authority after July 1997 by Previous Adoption
  Children with previous adoption entering care Children not previously adopted entering care
# % # %
Age (yrs) at entry to placement following adoption
  Birth to 5 25 9 10,943 46
  6 - 11 83 26 6,487 27
  12 - 17 210 66 6,253 26
White 185 58 11,158 47
Black 111 35 9,669 41
Other minority 22 7 2,888 12
Male 155 49 11,870 50
Female 163 51 11,842 50

Not all legally adopted children who entered placement authority experienced adoption dissolution, as shown in Exhibit 10. About one-third of the children were reunified with their primary caretaker or exited placement to a parent other than the parent who originally lost custody of the child, a guardian, or a court-appointed caretaker; 17 percent left for unknown reasons or miscellaneous other reasons; 16 percent were adopted; and 10 percent were emancipated; leaving slightly over one-fourth still in placement in April 2002.

Exhibit 10.
Terminal Reason for Placement Following Adoption
  Reason Frequency Percentage Valid
Valid Still in placement 149 36.4 26.4 26.4
  Reunification 142 25.1 25.1 51.5
  Adoption 88 15.6 15.6 67.1
  Emancipation 54 9.6 9.6 76.6
  Other 31 5.5 5.5 82.1
  Unknown 30 5.3 5.3 87.4
  Relative guardian 17 3.0 3.0 90.4
  Missing data 11 1.9 1.9 92.4
  Custody nonrelative parent 11 1.9 1.9 94.3
  Court-appointed guardian 10 1.8 1.8 96.1
  Transfer to other agency 6 1.1 1.1 98.2
  Runaway 6 1.1 1.1 98.2
  Court-appointed caretaker 5 .9 .9 99.1
  Interstate Compact Agreement 5 .9 .9 100.0
  Total 565 100.0 100.0  

Although these analyses do not provide sufficient data to calculate a dissolution rate, they suggest a higher level of dissolution than seen in the cohort analysis. The analyses provide some insight into the number of adoption dissolutions that occur per year and the characteristics of children who are reentering placement following an adoption.

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