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Journal Issue: Children, Families, and Foster Care Volume 14 Number 1 Winter 2004

When Children Cannot Return Home: Adoption and Guardianship
Mark F. Testa

The Stability of Permanency Arrangements

The importance of permanent attachments and relationships to healthy child development is widely recognized. At the same time, the push for permanence through adoption and guardianship has raised concerns that families are being forced into making ill-considered commitments that will result in the rupture of placement. However, evidence suggests that ruptures of permanency arrangements are rare.

Adoption Ruptures

The best available evidence suggests that the percentage of adoption displacements amounts to only a small fraction of entries into foster care. Adoption ruptures are difficult to track because of policies that conceal the identity of a child after finalization of the adoption. Nevertheless, data from AFCARS indicate that only 1.5% of entries into foster care between federal Fiscal Years 1998 and 2000 represented children who had been displaced from adoptive homes.34 Although the percentage jumped to 2.6% in Fiscal Year 2001, this rise is related more to the drop in foster care entries than to a rise in the incidence of displacements.

The perception that the incidence of adoption displacement is increasing is related to the fact that the ruptures are occurring among a vastly larger pool of completed adoptions. This situation gives the false impression of a growing problem, even though the incidence of displacement is constant or declining. The components of this statistical illusion can be illustrated with displacement estimates from Illinois.35 Figure 1 shows that the estimated number of adoption displacements doubled in Illinois from 1990 to 2002. This statistic suggests a growing problem. But during this same period, the number of active adoption-assistance cases increased nearly sevenfold, so the ratio of displacements to active adoption cases has declined from 4% of active cases in 1990 to 1.3% in 2002. Thus, although the absolute numbers of displacements are rising, the underlying incidence of displacement is dropping in Illinois.

The small number of adoption ruptures may soon change, however, as a larger share of adopted children age into early adolescence. Studies indicate that adoption ruptures (including adoptions that end before and after finalization) increase with the child's age at adoption. 36 Research on Illinois adoptions indicates rupture rates of 9% to 12% among foster children adopted between ages 5 and 15.37 Whether these past displacement rates apply to current adoptions is unclear. In the past, most adoptions were made by families unrelated to the child. Today, many adoptions are made by kin. Research suggests that placement ruptures are two and a half times less likely among kin than among families unrelated to the child.38

Kinship Care and Guardianship Ruptures

In recognition of the greater stability of kinship arrangements,39 some have advanced the notion that kinship care should be favored as a permanency option in its own right.40 Indeed, ASFA recognizes placement with "a fit and willing relative" as an acceptable permanency plan. Some jurisdictions routinely discharge foster children to the custody of kin, who merely act in loco parentis, without the full legal authority that adoption or guardianship confers. Although many relatives are willing to step in as substitute parents, either informally or formally, it is important to recognize that kinship care is not an unconditional safety net. Research on the stability of kinship care in states without subsidized guardianship programs suggests that rates of disruption are sensitive to both the level of financial support and the availability of postdischarge services to families. For example, in Texas, which does not have subsidized guardianship and where little in the way of postdischarge services are provided,41 a study found disruption levels as high as 50% for children discharged from foster care to the physical custody of kin.42

In contrast, available data indicate that there are relatively few ruptures when states formally appoint kin as legal guardians and provide families with financial subsidies and postpermanency support services. In Illinois, for example, administrative records show that of the 6,820 children who entered subsidized guardianship starting in 1997, only 3.5% were no longer living in the home of the original guardian as of March 2002. Approximately one-third of the guardianship ruptures were attributable to the death or incapacitation of the guardian. The remaining two-thirds occurred because the caregiver no longer wanted to exercise parental authority, and the guardianship was legally dissolved. In total, only 2% of subsidized guardianships awarded starting in 1997 resulted in dissolutions requiring the reappointment of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (IDCFS) as the public guardian.43 Even though a longer period of observation is necessary to assess the overall stability of guardianship arrangements in Illinois, at the present time, the rates of guardianship ruptures are similar to adoption ruptures, controlling for differing ages at entry.

In Washington state, more than 80% of children interviewed in a guardianship survey indicated that they were happy with their guardianship arrangements.44 Moreover, administrative data indicated that about 86% of Washington children placed in guardianships remain with their guardians until age 18.