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What to do When Your Adoption is Failing: A Parent's Guide to Adoption Disruption &...

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~ Nancy Ashe

One of the saddest - and most controversial - occurrences in the world of adoption is when adoptive parents feel compelled to disrupt or dissolve an adoption.

Views surrounding disruption and dissolution are widely divided. Many believe adoptions should never be allowed to disrupt or dissolve; some think disruption or dissolution is the answer at the first sign of trouble; and others believe disruption or dissolution can be the best solution for families and children in certain extreme cases.

Whatever our position, it's prudent to remember that:
  • the risk of arriving at the point of disruption or dissolution can be minimized if full disclosure is made to prospective adoptive parents, and if parents take advantage of every learning opportunity to understand what challenges may be encountered;

  • the child's well-being and best interests must be paramount.

The sad fact is that some adoptions do reach the point where parents consider disruption or dissolution, and the lack of guidance, procedures, support, and compassion can throw families already stressed to the breaking point into chaos, not knowing where to turn or what steps to take. There is a shockingly small amount of information on this topic available to the general public. Disruption statistics are easy to find, but a guide to the before, during, and after of the process? This is a first.

Disruption is not a topic of general conversation - possibly because no one wants to anticipate the failure of an adoption, or because it seems to imply that the people involved (agencies, parents, professionals) have failed a child. The topic can generate accusatory and negative comments and, as a result, many who face the prospect of disruption or dissolution often take their discussions to private groups where they may try to find their own solutions. It is time to bring disruption discussions out into the open.

The author of this adoption disruption Guide writes:

"For years, I never mentioned the fact that I had suffered through two disruptions. Emotionally, they felt like miscarriages or even abortions, and no one wants to hear about loss. But over the years, I have learned that I have every reason to feel pride about my personal stats. I have attempted to adopt 11 times, all high risk children with special needs, most of them older children who had spent a lot of time in the system. Some of these were highly questionable matches that the adoption agency should have steered me away from, in favor of a child whose needs I could better meet. But I trusted the agency too much. I expected it to be infallible. From what I have learned about disruption risk and large family dynamics, it is almost miraculous that 9 of these adoptions have been successful and only 2 disrupted. I believe that adoptive parents who try everything before giving up, and who only give up when safety concerns force them to, should have no regrets either. They should hold their heads up high. Supermom, after all, is a mythical being."

This Parent's Guide is intended as a non-judgmental source of information for parents who may be considering this serious step. I am greatly indebted to Dr. Rita Laws for her work on creating it, and it is our hope that it will not only provide accessible, reliable, plain-language information, but also increase understanding of the challenges that face families in extreme crisis.

The Guide is divided into chapters:
  • Introduction
  • Before: Answers to parents' first questions
  • During: The process
  • After Disruption: Now what?
  • Reading Resources for Parents Facing Disruption

Each section of the Guide can be printed for personal use and one-time reprint in newsletters of non-profit support groups and non-profit agencies. Use the "Printer-friendly version" link at the top right for this purpose.

A Parent's Guide to Adoption Disruption & Dissolution

~ Rita Laws, Ph.D.


  1. What is disruption and how common is it?
  2. Which adoptions are at highest risk of failure?
  3. How can disruption be prevented?
  4. When is disruption really necessary?

What is disruption and how common is it?

The vast majority, between 80 and 90%, of all adoptions are successful. However, sometimes a poor match is made or circumstances arise that make it impossible for an adoption to continue. When an adoption ends before it has been legally finalized in a courtroom, it is called a "disruption." When a judge overturns an adoption after finalization it is called a "dissolution," (although "disruption" is often used interchangeably to label both processes.) In either case, it is an extremely painful experience for the child, the family, and the adoption agency workers. Parents who face the prospect of disruption need guidance. These frequently asked questions about disruption are a starting point.

Which adoptions are at highest risk of failure?

In a nutshell, the older the child is at placement, the higher the risk of adoption disruption. It is extremely rare, at less than 1%, for an infant adoption to disrupt. Depending on the group being studied, the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse says that the disruption rate can range from 3 to 53 percent.
However, age alone is not a reliable indicator. If a family is well prepared to adopt a 17 year old teen, for instance, and the agency has offered full disclosure and supportive services, the adoption has an excellent chance to succeed in spite of the child's age. Adoption failure risk increases when proper adoption practices are not followed, and especially when the children being placed are older, troubled, and have been through one or more adoption disruptions before.

How can disruption be prevented?

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure says the old expression, and when it comes to adoption, these words ring true. Adoption failure is avoidable when:
  • The adoption agency is licensed, recommended by adoption support groups, and maintains high standards of service and ethics;
  • Families are well-prepared to adopt and raise the child(ren) who is being placed;
  • The match between child and parent is sound, bearing in mind the needs and boundaries of all parties;
  • Full disclosure is given to parents about the child's history, diagnosis, and special needs;
  • Post-adoption services and when available, financial assistance, are in place to support the family;
  • Crisis intervention services are available if needed, and
  • According to research, if the parents have ongoing access to the help of the social worker who made the match and placed the child, success is more likely.

When it comes to adoption, there are no guarantees of success, of course, because every situation is unique. However, when the factors listed above are present, the likelihood of adoption failure is very low.

When is disruption really necessary?

Adopting children is not like buying shoes. You can't try a pair on for size, discard it if the fit or appearance isn't perfect, and go on to the next ones. But sometimes, no matter how hard a family tries, an adoption fails anyway. Sometimes, disruption is unavoidable.

So how does one know when an adoption has failed or should end?

Safety is the primary consideration. Parents considering disruption should ask themselves two questions, and proceed with disruption if the answer to both is "yes":

  1. Is any member of the family in physical or psychological danger if the adoption continues? (This applies to human members only, not pets.)

  2. Have we tried everything possible to keep the family intact?

These are not simple questions to answer, as there are many ways to safely parent a child with dangerous behaviors if a family is willing to work with the agency to find solutions. In some cases, residential treatment allows the adoption to continue while keeping everyone safe. Parenting from afar is still parenting, and is a positive alternative to disruption.

For example, a child who runs away frequently at night and is gone for days at a time is at high risk of being hurt or even killed while away from home. Working with the agency and the child's counselor or therapist, the family may wish to try some or all of these potential answers before considering disruption:

  • medication or a change of medication,
  • a new therapeutic strategy,
  • group therapy in addition to individual sessions,
  • motion alarms placed on the child's bedroom door and windows,
  • inpatient treatment in a mental hospital, or
  • residential treatment in a secure lock-down center.

Disruption must always be the last resort. Everything else that can be safely tried should be tried first.


  1. What are the steps of a disruption process?
  2. What about international adoption?
  3. How do I prepare my child?

Sometimes, no matter how creative they are or how many possible solutions are tried, parents will arrive at the conclusion that an adoption cannot be safely continued. This decision should be made with the help of the adoption agency, if possible, and with professional input from doctors or therapists.

What are the steps of a disruption process?

The agency will take you through the legal steps.

If the adoption has not yet been finalized, the process is quite simple. Papers may be signed declaring that the adoption has been reversed and that the adoptive parents are no longer responsible for the child's welfare. Adoption subsidy will stop as of the day the child moves out. No court involvement is needed for the adoptive parents.

If the adoption has already been finalized, parental rights must be terminated and court involvement will be required. Sometimes, child support payments will be assigned until the child is adopted by someone else or turns 18 years old. I have heard of cases where child support was required past the age of 18 and until high school graduation.

Under no circumstances should a disruption be considered without agency involvement.

  • Returning the child to the country of birth, if internationally adopted, is morally repugnant, unless the agency has made arrangements for the child to be adopted there by a qualified family or relative.

  • Moving your child to the home of another family without agency help is very risky. The new family has no legal rights and will have difficulty obtaining medical care or enrolling the child in school without official adoption papers.

  • Moving a child across state lines without the involvement of the ICPC officers of both states is illegal. The Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children is charged with monitoring the movement of all children across state lines when their legal parents will not accompany them permanently.

Some parents may be advised by well-meaning friends not to pick up a troubled child from a shelter, mental hospital, or residential treatment. Refusing to do will probably result in charges of legal abandonment of a child made against the adoptive parents. Even when it is unsafe for other family members to bring a troubled child home, the District Attorney will not approve of disruption by abandonment. Parents are expected to go through proper legal channels.

How does this work?

Let's look at a worst case scenario. The adoptive parents have been told they must pick up a child from a residential treatment program either because the child has "graduated" the program or is being "terminated" from it due to violence against staff or other children. The parents believe that it is unsafe for the child or other family members to bring the child back into the house, but no other facility will accept the violent child.

Adding to the stress is the financial problem. Perhaps the insurance has run out or the insurance gatekeeper will not approve payment for continued care, the house has three mortgages, and the parents cannot afford to keep the child in a residential treatment program any longer.

  1. Rather than risk injury to a family member or being charged with abandonment, parents should educate themselves in advance about the laws in their state regarding such situations. State adoption code (laws) can often be found on the web.

  2. It is also time to hire an experienced adoption lawyer to represent your family's welfare in court. The attorney can ask for an emergency hearing before the "pick up" date arrives. If the lawyer can prove to the judge that it is unsafe for any member of the family if the troubled child returns home, the judge can choose to dissolve the adoption.

Some judges are very reluctant to do this except with very young children who are likely to be re-adopted. Instead of dissolution, these judges may order that the child be placed into the physical custody of the state for purposes of receiving further treatment. The parents will retain parental rights but no responsibility for the day-to-day care of the child. If the state takes physical custody in this way, the parents will not be held responsible for the cost of treatment, but in most cases, they will have to pay child support until the child is 18. The amount of child support might be determined using the same method utilized in divorce cases. A chart that takes into account what the parents earn and how many people are in the family might be used to come up with a dollar figure. If a child is receiving an adoption subsidy, a percentage of that amount can be negotiated. Parents can appeal child support payment amounts if they think they are too high.

These outcomes will vary according to state laws (and state laws change) so it is strongly recommended that parents seek the counsel of an attorney early on, even before the first placement in out-of-home care.

What about international adoption?

Passage of a federal law in the year 2000 that made citizenship faster and easier for internationally adopted children also created new ramifications surrounding disruption. People who adopt children from other countries and bring them back into the USA must sign a form pledging to be financially responsible for the child. Form I-864, the Affidavit of Support, requires that adoptive parents reimburse any government or private agency that provides their child with any means-tested public benefit, such as food stamps or welfare.

In the case of an adoption dissolution, the parents will usually be required to pay child support, based on their income, until the child is adopted by another family or turns 18 years old. This can be financially devastating, not only because of the payments themselves but also because these parents often have tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt for medical and therapeutic costs for the child. Private insurance is notoriously stingy when it comes to mental health benefits for children.

International adoption agencies that place high risk and special needs children with American families should make sure that each family understands the tremendous financial risk they assume when they adopt such children from other countries. There is no automatic Medicaid or adoption subsidies for these kids, and private insurance may not be up to the task of covering all of the health care costs. One month in a residential care facility can cost $10,000.00 or more. And these families often begin the adoption already deeply in debt for the adoption process expenses.

At one time, adoption disruption before finalization gave families some financial protection because another family could step forward and adopt the child right away. However, changes in federal law mean that most internationally adopted children's placements are finalized before they arrive back in the United States, or shortly thereafter. This increases the risk to the adoptive parents that they will have post-dissolution financial responsibilities for the child.

The bottom line is that since the year 2000, adopting high-risk children from overseas has carried increased financial risk for parents, risks they may not even be aware of. People of modest means who are interested in adopting children with special needs and risk factors will find subsidized domestic adoption a much safer prospect, financially speaking.

Cindi Lash, a staff writer for the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh, wrote a series of articles in 2000 about international adoption and disruption. They give an excellent overview of the problems: "Overwhelmed families dissolve adoptions: More American parents find they can't cope with troubled Russian children."

How do I prepare my child?

The child's best interests must be kept uppermost throughout the process of disruption or dissolution. "Best interests" has been legally defined as "safety first," which includes psychological safety. The child must be gently informed that he or she will not be living at home anymore, but that he will have a place to live with enough food, and people to care for him. A therapist can help you find the right words that are honest, age-appropriate, and framed as kindly as possible. For example, it is much better for the child to be told that continuing the adoption is not safe for everyone, than to say that the adoption is over because the child starts fires. There will be a time later to deal with the behaviors that caused the disruption. Right now, the child needs to know that he will continue to be cared for and that the decision is difficult but necessary.

When it actually comes time for the child to leave, parents should pack the child's belongings in suitcases and backpacks, not garbage bags and sacks. Garbage should go into garbage bags, not a child's possessions. Care should be taken to remember all of the child's belongings, including the adoption lifebook or scrapbook. You are part of the child's past forever, and he will want to have mementos of his time with you, including photographs. Give these personal items to the child's social worker who will decide when it is appropriate to give them to the child.

Make sure the child eats a good meal before the social worker arrives to take him to his next placement. Make the good-byes short, simple, and as calm as possible. The final words should be honest, positive, and recognize the feelings that are present. For example, you might say something like, "Susan, I am sorry that the adoption cannot continue. I know you are sad. We are sad, too, but we believe that this is the best thing to do. I hope that you are very happy in your next home. You have a beautiful smile so let your new family see that smile everyday. Good-bye, Susan."


  1. What will happen to my child after disruption?
  2. How is adoption subsidy affected?
  3. What should I do after the disruption?
  4. Will I be able to adopt again?
  5. What is wrongful adoption?

What will happen to my child after disruption?

The child is placed in a foster home, treatment center, or shelter while long-term plans are made by the agency. If the next adoptive family has been identified, the child may go there directly. In most cases, efforts will be made to return the child to the last foster home where things are familiar.

Disruption is the death of an adoption and the end of a dream, but it is not necessarily the end of love. Adoptive parents often anguish over the future welfare of the children who were once theirs. With most agencies, it is standard policy to give the parents no information at all on the children after disruption. In some states, privacy laws leave the agency no choice; however, when it is possible to give the parents some information, this should be done. It can ease their minds to know what happened to the child, help them in the grief process, and contribute to closure.

The good news is that most children who have experienced a disruption will go on to have a successful adoption with another family.

How is adoption subsidy affected?

Adoption subsidy, also called adoption assistance or Adoption Assistance Payments (AAP), is a package of services and monthly cash assistance that follows many children with special needs into adoption. These benefits and Medicaid coverage are made available based on the child's needs, not on the income of the adoptive parents.

As part of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 (Public Law 105-89), a child's eligibility for federal adoption assistance continues even if the adoptive parents die or the adoption dissolves. Adoption advocates cheered this change because it encourages the re-adoption of children with more severe disabilities.

In the case of teens and severely emotionally disturbed children, a judge will sometimes refuse to grant a dissolution and opt for an alternative that allows the family to remain intact but live apart. In many states, the judge can order the state to take physical custody of the child until age 18 for purposes of obtaining outpatient treatment that is unavailable to the family privately. The family can visit and remain involved with treatment decisions.

When this option is used, the judge will usually require the parents to make child support payments. Federal law allows parents to retain adoption assistance as long as they have parental rights, and contribute in some way to the child's support. Therefore, most families will use a portion of the monthly subsidy to make the child support payments as long as the child is in the physical custody of the state. In one case, the family was required to make two trips a month to the facility and to supply all of the child's clothing. The family retained 35% of the AAP for this purpose and paid the state the other 65% in child support. When the child returned home at age 17, they were allowed to stop paying child support and retained all of the AAP for his expenses.

When figuring what percentage to keep and what to pay, parents should bear in mind the cost of maintaining contact and any income lost because of this contact, the cost of the child's needs for which they will be responsible, and the cost of maintaining the child's place in the home even when he is away. For example, part of the van and house payments, the cost of maintaining the child's bedroom, payments made on the child's band instrument, etc. should all be kept in mind.

What should I do after the disruption?

Give yourself time to grieve. The emotional pain of a disruption has been compared to that of a miscarriage or stillbirth. Obviously, no one dies as the result of a failed adoption, but something dies: the parent-child relationship. The dream of raising this son or daughter evaporates. In one moment, the future is changed forever. You were a parent and now you are not. Worse still, you may be subject to harsh criticism from people who do not or cannot understand the situation, even one or two from your own adoption support group. You may be accused of not being "committed" enough, or of quitting too soon. This is so much salt rubbed in the wound.

Parents, grandparents, siblings, and all family members must grieve the loss after a disruption. Knowing it was best for all concerned does not change the fact that a loss has occurred. There will be feelings of sadness, disbelief, anger, relief, and guilt. It will take time to work through these feelings.

Keep the lines of communication open, especially with the other children in the home. Reassure them over and over that the disruption is not their fault. They need to hear this. Explain to them in simple and honest ways why the disruption was necessary. They may wonder if their adoptions might be disrupted next, so assure them that this is not the case.

Kids can assume strange things so it is important to listen to their feelings and answer their questions. A few months after I adopted a 5 year old, his new big sister moved out of the house to go to college. That night, as I tucked Geoff into bed, he became very upset and began crying. He said he never wanted to get tall. When I asked him why he replied, "Because if I get tall, I'll have to go to a dorm, too, without you!" Needless to say, we had a nice long talk after which he was able to laugh at his tears.

Will I be able to adopt again?

Many parents assume that a disruption or dissolution in their families will prevent them from ever adopting again. This is not true! Adoption agencies approve adoption applications based on the outcome of the adoption homestudy or assessment. If the assessment shows that the disruption was necessary, that the parents acted responsibly, and that they are capable of providing a good home for another child, the application will be approved. Obviously, a family that has experienced more than one disruption will be more carefully scrutinized, but even then, it is important to remember that each case is considered individually. You cannot know if you will be approved or not until you try.

In many cases, surviving a disruption makes a family an even better candidate for a successful adoption on the next attempt. Why? Because this family has been through a painful process of self-examination. They know what they can handle and what they can't. They have experience and are better able to determine if they are the right match for any certain child.

What is wrongful adoption?

In some cases, parents will decide to take legal action against an adoption agency after a disruption by claiming "wrongful adoption." This means that the parents believe that the agency was negligent in its duties in some way, i.e., that they made a poor match, failed to prepare the parents adequately, failed to inform the parents fully about the child's problems, or failed to take corrective action soon enough when problems arose. Some wrongful adoption lawsuits seek to recover compensation for financial losses and for emotional pain and suffering.

To find out more, see information on this site about "Wrongful Adoption" and the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys (also known as "Quad-A") at


Parents and children who have been through adoption disruption describe it as a nightmare and one of the worst experiences of their lives. On top of the emotional toll, it can be financially devastating, especially for people who adopted internationally.

When disruption cannot be prevented or an alternative found, it should be approached with the child's best interests at the forefront. Sensitivity to the feelings of the child who leaves and the children who stay must be the first priority.

There is life and joy after disruption, but parents must take time to grieve and to heal. They should seek to minimize stress as much as possible as they have likely been under a great deal of stress for months or for years. They should take life one day at a time and make use of support groups and any help offered by their agency. Talking with other parents who have experienced and survived a disruption can be especially helpful.

It has been my privilege to successfully adopt 9 children but along the way, I have also experienced two disruptions: one after 3 days, and one after 4 months. These were older children who had experienced other disruptions and were at high risk due to dangerous behaviors, so there was a strong statistical probability of failure.

Unfortunately, being statistically predictable did nothing to alleviate the intense emotional pain of these two losses. Even though they occurred almost twenty years ago, I still think of them with sadness. But then I remember the nine adoptions that have worked, and my three grandchildren, and I realize that this is part of the risk we have to take to open our hearts and homes to certain children.

Is older child or special needs adoption worth it, even with the risk of disruption? Each individual parent must find the answer to this question for himself or herself. For me, the answer is yes, times nine.

Reading Resources for Parents Facing Disruption

  1. Article: "A boy they couldn't raise: After he assaulted siblings, his family decided they had no choice but to give him up for another adoption."

  2. The North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) offers a Fact Sheet called, "Adoption Dissolution and Death of Adoptive Parents," with important information for parents who adopt children with special needs from the US foster care system.

  3. The National Adoption Information Clearinghouse's information sheet on Disruption and Dissolution offers basic statistical information and has been widely quoted all over the Internet.

  4. Information from the State Department about international adoption and disruption, called "International Adoption Safeguards."

  5. Sample of official Disruption Policy from a state adoption policy manual, in this case, CT.

  6. Boys Town USA provides support to troubled children and families in crisis. Offers program details including classroom management and crisis hotlines. Has a crisis and suicide hotline for parents and kids: 800-448-3000.

  7. Health Information Resource provides objective help in choosing between residential treatment programs.

  8. A popular book on the topic: Barth, R.P., and Berry, M. (1988). "Adoption and Disruption: Rates, Risks, and Responses." New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

  9. Dr. Nancy Spoolstra's personal story, "When to Hold and When to Fold," offers excellent insight into a family setting.
Visitor Comments (5)
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GJP - 6 months ago
0 0 4
Have you ever adopted a child with special needs that can’t form an attachment? Have you ever dealt with violent behavior that everyone in your family, including pets, that are at risk? Have you ever tried seeking help for this child and everyone telling you that he is fine and that there is nothing they can do for him yet on a daily basis you deal with such turmoil? Until you have faced these problems, like many of us have, including myself, then you can throw your judgments. There is a HUGE difference when you give birth to your own child with special needs because you have already made a connection and an attachment before that child has been born than when you get a child that comes to you who is unable to make attachments which causes you to be unable to make an attachment to that child. Please stop being so judgmental on adoptive parents when you have NO idea what these people have gone through. Please come live my life with my adopted son and then we will see how much YO #1
J - 6 months ago
0 0 3
Jeff and Teri, "I want to know what those poor children felt" and "what gives adoptive parents the right to change their mind?" my answer: in one family, the sexual abuse of a 3 yo sister by a newly-adopted 14 yo boy made the 3 yo victim "feel" terrible, as she will for the rest of her life. In another family, being told by 3 counselors that the dangerous emotional abuse (and possible physical and sexual abuse) of a newly adopted 11 yo girl by her newly-adopted 16 yo sister meant that the girls couldn't live in the same house. period. Other children in that home were in physical danger from a very angry teenager, something that demanded a painful "change of mind" by parents. In both cases there were other siblings' needs and safety to consider. Both families researched, spent time with the kids, adopted in love and spent tens of thousands of dollars from meager savings. So here's my question: How dare you two judge others in homes you haven't experienced and don't understand? #2
Katy - 4 months ago
0 0 2
I am an adoptive parent who has been blessed with a wonderful experience stretching over many years. However, I have a sister who adopted a small child many years ago also. Both our children are 15 now. Her story has been heart wrenching. Their family is torn apart on a daily basis; other children are in constant danger; every service heard of and available has been tried and failed. For the safety of all and the success of the family members, there needs to be a dissolution. Please don't compare this to a "birth child" situation... it in no way means we don't love the child. This child has FAS, RAD, ODD, split personality... and on, and on. Sadly, few people are willing to face the dissolution need. My sister cannot find a lawyer willing to take on this case, a judge to support it, and the State refuses to give any kind of financial assistance to their family so they are paying for the medical and mental "solutions" themselves. None have worked. #3
Jeff K - 7 months ago
0 4 2
"For years, I never mentioned the fact that I had suffered through two disruptions. Emotionally, they felt like miscarriages or even abortions, and no one wants to hear about loss. But over the years, I have learned that I have every reason to feel pride about my personal stats." Are you kidding me? Is this some kind of sick joke? Who cares about what you "feel?" I want to know how these poor children felt, who you obviously adopted because of your ego. They did not go away, and I guarantee the pain they feel after being abandoned twice is far more than whatever "embarrassment" you felt. #4
Teri - 7 months ago
1 8 0
Why is adopting a child different from giving birth to one?! When you give birth, you are required to take care of that child, no matter what. What gives adoptive parents the right to change their mind simply because the "going got tough"? If you gave birth to a child with special needs would you give that child up too? Sickening!! #5
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