Beyond the Adoption Order: Challenges, Interventions and Adoption Disruption

Researchers examine the rate of adoption disruption and the stability of adoptions as opposed to residence orders and special guardianship orders.


Authors: Julie Selwyn, Dinithi Wijedasa, Sarah Meakings, University of Bristol School for Policy Studies, Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies

Published by: Department for Education


There have been no national studies on adoption disruption in the UK or the US, with estimated rates of disruption ranging from two per cent to 50 per cent. Funded by the Department for Education, the researchers aimed to find out the rate of adoption disruption following an adoption order, how long after the order adoptions tend to break down and the stability of adoptions as opposed to residence orders and special guardianship orders.

For this study - Beyond the Adoption Order: Challenges, Interventions and Adoption Disruption - the researchers conducted a national survey of adoption managers and combined this information with government figures on children subject to adoption, special guardianship and residence orders, as well as data from other sources such as family court judgments. They surveyed adoptive parents from 13 local authority agencies and members of Adoption UK who had adopted a child from care, with 390 responses. They interviewed a range of adoptive parents, social workers, adoption support managers and children and young people who had experienced adoption disruption.

Over a 12-year period, using national data on 37,335 adoptions and information supplied by adoption managers on 565 disruptions, the rate of adoption disruption after an adoption order was established at 3.2 per cent. There was significant variation between local authorities, ranging from zero to seven per cent. The survey of adoptive parents found a disruption rate of eight to nine per cent - the researchers suggest the discrepancy might be caused by parents being more likely to respond to a survey when things are going badly.

The most important indicators of adoption disruption were the child's age at the time of the disruption, the child's age at placement, and a longer waiting time between placement and securing the adoption order. Teenagers were 10 times more at risk of disruption than children under four. The child's gender and ethnicity had no effect and neither did whether the child was adopted by a former foster carer or a stranger.

Compared with children on residence orders or special guardianship orders, adopted children were more likely to be white, younger at entry to care and placement, and have experienced more moves in foster care. Adoption disruptions were more likely to occur five or more years after the order had been made, while residence orders or special guardianship placements were more likely to disrupt within two years. Over a five-year period, 147 residence orders in every 1,000 were likely to disrupt, 36 special guardianship orders and seven adoptions.

Just over a third of adoptive parents surveyed reported few or no difficulties, while a similar proportion said there were some challenging times, but things were mainly good. About a quarter of parents reported major challenges, including physical and mental exhaustion and a negative impact on their marital and family relationships. The nine per cent whose adopted children had left home said the move was triggered by challenging behaviour, inadequate support and feeling blamed by professionals for the child's difficulties.

The interviews with adoptive parents found high levels of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties among the children whose placements had disrupted (97 per cent) and those for who the adoption was proving challenging (82 per cent). Even those families in which the adoption was going well had 23 per cent of children above the cut off point for clinically significant difficulties.


The authors make recommendations, including giving young people leaving adoptive families the entitlement to leaving care services, especially support for further education. They say social workers should continue to work on improving parent-child relationships after a disruption, and reunification with the adoptive family should not be discounted. Support should be put in place for adoptive families based on need rather than services available, and it should be available around the teenage years rather than just at the start of a placement.


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