Sometimes even those sympathetic to adoption express caution
because of what they see as a worryingly high level of adoption
breakdown. They are right to be concerned: a breakdown in
adoption simply adds to the instability which can be so damaging
to a child.
I would not advocate adoption for many more children if I
believed that amongst the additional number there would be a
high proportion of breakdowns. But the truth is that when
adoption takes place early in a child’s life the chances of
breakdown are genuinely minimal. But even adoptions taking
place when a child is older break down less frequently than is
Sometimes the competitiveness of the voluntary adoption agencies
can be unhelpful. ***********, for example, claim on their website
that the breakdown rate for *** adoptions is just 3% but they
compare that with an average breakdown figure of between 25%
and 30%. The Guardian recently estimated adoption breakdowns
as running at 20%. In Adopting A Child, a key BAAF publication
and just re-printed, the 20% figure is quoted. I believe there is
significant evidence that estimates of 20% and more may
exaggerate the reality of adoption breakdown.
Evidence from Romanian adoptions
The reality is that we do not know, with any certainty, what
proportions of adoptions break down, and, as with so much
debate around adoption, anecdote sometimes dominates
discussion. However, two recent studies of long term outcomes
following the adoptions of highly challenging children suggest
that the breakdown rate may be lower than traditionally quoted.
Over some years and as Chief Executive of Barnardo’s I was told
frequently of the tragic experiences of children adopted from
Romanian orphanages and the very high breakdown rates as
damaged children wore out parents unable to compensate for the
harshness of the treatment experienced by these babies and young
children while in public care in Romania.
These children’s treatment in Romania was certainly harsh. As
Professor Michael Rutter described in 1998, this was the
experience of children in Romanian orphanages which was
exposed by the fall of Ceausescu in 1989:
In most instances the children were mainly confined to cots; there
were very few toys or playthings ,and sometimes none at all; there
was very little talk from caregivers; no personalised caregiving;
children were fed gruel by bottles using teats with large holes, often
left propped up without any caregiver being involved; and there
was a variable, but sometimes harsh, physical environment. The
children were often washed down by being hosed with cold water.
Professor Rutter followed the fortunes of 165 of these children
adopted into the UK and aged up to three and a half years of age
but concentrated on those (98 of the sample) who had lived in
these appalling conditions until at least the age of six months.
They were followed until they reached their fourteenth birthday.
It is significant to point out that at the time these adoptions took
place that their failure was widely predicted. Many local
authorities did all they could to prevent them taking place and in
the event some of these children, immensely challenging as they
were, became adopted by parents who would not have been
approved for the adoption of a UK child, perhaps because they
were too old or they had children already. This encouraged the
dire predictions of catastrophe and – as I experienced
subsequently – confident assertions that the predicted breakdowns
had indeed occurred.
When arriving in the UK the children provided an immense
challenge. Rutter described the children as having a
developmental level which was severely impaired. But while other
studies followed the fortunes of those children who remained in
Romanian institutions and whose psychological impairment did
continue, Rutter found that in all cases the children adopted into
the UK caught up developmentally and of the 165 children studied
there were only two breakdowns. That is not to say that some of
the adoptions had not been difficult, particularly for children who
experienced the emotional poverty of Romanian care for more
than six months, half of whom experienced psychological
problems as they grew up in the UK. But contrary to popular
opinion their parents had not given up and those problems had
been managed. Very significantly for wider adoption policy,
Rutter found psychological problems in children who left the
orphanages before they were six months were negligible, leading
him to conclude that psychological deficits are uncommon even
after profound institutional deprivation, as long as that
deprivation lasts only some months.
UK breakdowns after older adoption
The second study which places some doubt on estimates of up to
30% for adoption breakdown was of older and more challenging
children placed for adoption in the UK. If a general adoption
breakdown rate of 20% or 30% were accurate we might expect the
breakdown rate for this group to be much higher, perhaps 60%.
But in 2006 Rushton and Dance published research into a group of
children, all adopted between the ages of five and eleven, a very
high risk group. The children were followed until their fourteenth
birthday by which time only 23% of adoptions had broken down.
This suggests that the overall adoption breakdown rate may be
rather lower than the 20% to 30% figure which is quoted so often.
It may be much nearer to 10%. I found BAAF’s consideration of
this thoughtful and convincing and they suggested that the
breakdown rate for the over five group might be generally around
the 23% figure discovered by Rushton and Dance. But they believe
that the figure for those adopted between one and five might be
nearer to ten percent and for those adopted under 12 months just
three percent. All this reinforces the point that adoption, compared
to almost any other sort of social work intervention is dramatically
successful. Even for those adopted after five, success is achieved in
nearly 80% of cases. For younger children and babies the chances
of disruption are genuinely minimal.
From The Times, July 2011