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How do we start preventing adoption and guardianship disruption?

Smiling father and son sitting together in the forest
Smiling father and son sitting together in the forest

A true story of broken promises of permanency

Meet “Alex.” He entered foster care at the tender age of five. Unable to reunify with his first family, Alex was adopted at the age of ten. Everyone thought that would be the happy ending to his story.

Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond his control, Alex found himself back in foster care as a teenager after a dissolved adoption. At 15, he had been promised permanency twice—by his birth family, and by his adoptive family—only to have adults fail him.

As time passed in foster care, he connected with his foster parents and felt safer than he had in many years. His foster parents wanted to take guardianship of Alex. At first, he was reluctant. He had seen versions of this before and did not want to get his hopes up. But the continued reassurance of his foster parents and social workers helped Alex see that things would be different this time.

But, yet again, adults failed Alex. After months of arguments about house rules and medication compliance, his foster parents asked for his removal.

After this guardianship disruption, 16-year-old Alex is now resigned to aging out of foster care. He is understandably distrustful of any adult who claims to have his back and is angry at a system that failed him so many times.

Sadly, Alex’s story is not unique. He is one of so many youth whose trauma was compounded when “permanent” families turned out to not be so permanent after all. As you read this article, we hope you remember the very real children, like Alex, who are most affected when relationships break down and adoption or guardianship placements dissolve.

When permanency isn’t permanent

Achieving permanency for children and youth is crucial for all people working in child welfare. You have many reasons to celebrate in this field, like when you make an adoption match, see an adoption finalized, and help a child find guardianship with a relative. However, as you see far too often, those milestones alone don’t ensure that children and families experience stability and true permanency. 

Numbers on how often adoption disruption and dissolution happen are hard to come by. But, we know that they occur far too often. Researchers estimate that between 5 and 20 percent of all children who leave foster care to either guardianship or adoption experience some form of post-permanency cutoff, according to a study in the Journal of Public Child Welfare. When these families disrupt, we increase the trauma experiences for children who have already experienced such significant losses in their young lives.

Factors in disruption and dissolution

Various child, parent, and systemic factors affect discontinuity in adoptions and guardianships, as described in the 2021 publication, “Discontinuity and Disruption in Adoptions and Guardianships,” from Child Welfare Information Gateway. These include:

  • Child factors: age of the child, number of placements, amount of time spent in foster care, behavioral challenges, race and ethnicity, and placement with siblings
  • Parent factors: caregiver commitment, unrealistic expectations, parental relationship status, and kinship relationship with the child
  • Systemic factors: lack of sufficient post-adoption services, training, and support; information sharing; parent-child matching; and subsidy

Notably, disruptions and dissolutions are not due to a single cause. Instead, a combination of risk factors and missing protective factors may lead to a child reentering foster care. We, therefore, need a robust approach to addressing post-permanency discontinuity. The approach should remove risk factors, when possible, and bolster protective ones.

Below, we highlight strategies, including examples from child welfare systems.

Note: As you review the above risk factors that harm permanency, note that many of these attributes cannot be “removed,” such as a child’s age at the time of adoption, their race/ethnicity, or if they are parented by a single parent. This is why it is more effective to use multiple approaches to prevent foster care reentry. You will need multi-pronged solutions—ones that include more enhanced support for individual families with increased risk and systemic changes that address why that family is at-risk in the first place.

Strategies you can use to address this problem

Child factors

Children who are adopted over the age of six are at increased risk of adoption disruption and dissolution. Therefore, an essential strategy for promoting stability is to ensure that families caring for older children are connected to meaningful support.

Strategy: Offering preventive check-ins, following a “dental model”

We head over to the dentist twice a year. Why would we need family support less often than a teeth cleaning? As part of multiple post-adoption and post-guardianship support strategies, North Dakota implemented an approach to check in with families post-permanency every six months for the first two years. Following the model of preventive visits to the dentist, North Dakota connects with families to see how they are doing, highlights services and other forms of support, and maintains a connection as families adjust. This support is available to families who have adopted from foster care and through private or international adoption.

Here’s how it works: Before an adoption is finalized, North Dakota staff warmly hand families off to post-adoption support staff at Catholic Charities, their post-adoption support contracted provider. There, families meet their post-adoption workers and receive information about a range of support services.

A vital part of this approach is building a relationship with each family. Workers aren’t simply providing lists of available services. Instead, they are developing an understanding of how the family is doing, normalizing the idea of accessing support and helping the family know where to go when they have questions or need assistance. Workers focus on getting to know the families and devote time to learning about their dynamics. This way, families don’t have to repeat their stories and details of their child’s experiences time and time again.

Strategy: Using information about risk and protective factors

Vermont created a Permanency Project Database to track 35 child, family, and community risk and protective factors from finalization until the child’s adoption subsidy ends. They recognized the research base about risk and protective factors for adoption discontinuity and used this information to strengthen placement practice and adoption stability.

The database tracks factors covering a wide range of areas that workers can use when:

  • making placement and matching decisions,
  • assessing the strengths and possible challenges of specific placement options for children,
  • and identifying services and supports to help reduce the risk of disruption or dissolution.

Vermont has integrated these risk and protective factors into their worker training and materials to support good practice. The state added a section to its training for all new child protection staff, providing information about the risk and protective factors and a case study to help them learn how to apply the factors in making adoptive placement decisions. Vermont also included a section in its manual for resource coordinators about how to use these factors to support good matching.

Read more about Vermont’s use of these risk and protective factors, including the complete list of 35 factors they track, on the North American Council on Adoptable Children website.

Parent factors

Effectively preparing adoptive parents and guardians is one of the most important things we can do to prevent disruptions and dissolutions. When parents know how to care for a child who has experienced trauma and know what to expect as the youth gets older, they are better positioned to support their child and maintain a stable relationship with them.

Relationships between children and their parents are critical to long-term adjustment and healing in a new family. When there are struggles to build a solid and healthy relationship, we see a significant increase in the likelihood of disruption. Among the supports offered to families, we must remain mindful of those supports that look to strengthen the parent-child relationship.

Strategy: National Training and Development Curriculum for Foster and Adoptive Parents (NTDC)

NTDC is a comprehensive, free curriculum that addresses separation, loss, grief, trauma, and differences of race and culture in adoption and foster care. Developed through a federal grant from the Children’s Bureau, the curriculum has three components—self-assessment, classroom-based training, and right-time training. All are equally important in providing families with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they need to effectively parent children who have experienced trauma, separation, and loss. Plus, the variety of training formats helps families gain initial knowledge and insights. It also provides access to shorter, highly relevant training when they need it, such as to help them address specific parenting challenges.

Strategy: Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI)

TBRI is an emerging intervention model, developed by the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development. It keeps the importance of connection at the center of its practice. The intervention provides a family-based model of support designed for children who have experienced relationship-based trauma.

TBRI works from a belief that trauma creates changes in a child’s body, brain, and belief system, which requires a whole-person approach to helping that child back to their natural developmental path. Parents who need help developing a nurturing and trusting relationship with their children may find TBRI effective. This model is in use across many jurisdictions, including in Colorado’s and Nevada’s post-permanency support services operated by Raise the Future, and in respite camps for foster and adoptive families in Virginia operated by Newfound Families.

Systemic factors

It’s important for agencies to provide a range of post-permanency services that are trauma-responsive and accessible to families. Services range from supporting families in helping their children feel safe, avoiding escalations, and stabilizing families when they need more intensive services or are experiencing a crisis.

Strategy: FosterAdopt Connect’s Behavioral Interventions program

Offered in Missouri and Kansas, FosterAdopt Connect’s Behavioral Interventionist™ program provides intensive in-home services for children experiencing behavioral or emotional challenges that put their placement at risk. The interventionist offers respite to the parents while working one-on-one with the child on neuro-developmental activities to improve self-regulation, helping children break the cycle of continually living in flight, fight, or freeze mode. As part of the program, direct care staff also provide services to parents and caregivers, such as role modeling, coaching, de-escalation training, and attachment education.

Strategy: Improving parent-child matching and information sharing

When workers make thoughtful, appropriate matches between adoptive parents or guardians and children awaiting permanency, this increases stability. Although it is helpful to broaden prospective parents’ thoughts around the ages and levels of need of children they would consider adopting, pushing them to stretch beyond what they believe best fits their abilities can set the family up for disruption or dissolution.

Further, parents are in a better place to make informed decisions when they have detailed information about a child’s needs and the support offered to meet those needs. It is equally important to share detailed information with the child so that they can make an informed decision based on knowledge of the family’s culture, values, expectations, and the caregivers’ abilities to meet their needs.

See the description above for Vermont’s use of risk and protective factors to help build workers’ skills for better parent-child matches.

Strategy: Gathering and reviewing data to better understand why disruptions and dissolutions happen in your system

Georgia conducts deep-dive case file reviews when a child reenters foster care, as part of several efforts to prevent disruption and dissolution. These reviews help staff learn more about the issues involved and the history of the child and family’s experience leading up to the dissolution.

As part of these reviews, staff look at whether the family accessed—or attempted to access—post-adoption services before the child reentered foster care, including whether the family experienced any barriers in accessing services. These insights help Georgia explore challenges that may affect other children and families, identify gaps in needed services, and gain a deeper understanding of how the child welfare system can prevent future family breakdowns.

Related federal research and tools

From 2017 to 2022, the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE), within the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, conducted a project, “Understanding Postadoption and Guardianship Instability for Children and Youth Who Exit Foster Care.” This project produced multiple reports and a Post Adoption and Guardianship Instability Tracking Toolkit that child welfare systems can use to create ways to track post-adoption or post-guardianship instability for children who were in foster care.

Find out how AdoptUSKids can support your efforts

If you are considering ways that your child welfare system can strengthen its efforts to prevent foster care reentry and placement disruption, AdoptUSKids may be able to help you! Contact our Capacity Building and Engagement Team at to talk with us about your needs.