SCIE Knowledge review 02: The adoption of looked after children
By Dr Alan Rushton
Published: November 2003
In the UK, political initiatives have encouraged the greater use of adoption as a solution to the care of children who cannot live with their birth families. This drive for 'permanence' has been welcomed by many, but has also given rise to debate. Where children have lingered uncertainly and for too long in the care system, 'permanence' is clearly the top priority. But not all children need the same solution. They may be 'children who wait', but they may not be waiting specifically for adoption. It is also argued that this concentration on adoption may discourage practitioners from taking an integrated view of all the available placement choices, to ensure that the best plan is made for each individual child.
This review was designed to indicate the scope of contemporary adoption research, and to suggest what further studies are needed to provide a better evidence base for policy and practice.
This review is intended for policymakers, practitioners, managers and researchers.
Messages from the knowledge review
- More research is needed (among many topics) on:
- the cost-effectiveness of major recruitment drives, and other forms of recruitment
- the nature of the initial contact with the recruitment agency and its relationship with follow-through
- comparative outcomes of placements with traditional and non-traditional groups.
- The rates, causes and some of the immediate consequences of adoption disruption have been researched, and have found very positive outcomes for healthy infants who are adopted. But the outcomes for very young children adopted after neglect or abuse need further study.
- Most studies of longitudinal data confirm that the factors associated with disrupted placements are:
- older age at placement
- the child's adverse experiences in previous environments
- the level of behavioural difficulties at placement
- placement of a child in an established family with a resident child of similar age.
- Research has not shown the sex and race of the adopted child to be associated with greater risk of placement instability, and disability carries less risk of disruption than emotional and behavioural problems.
- Although it is likely that adopted children may have problems, three groups stand out both in the children, and in the new parents' descriptions of the difficulties which are hardest to handle:
- behavioural and emotional problems
- relationship difficulties
- educational problems.
- There have been some studies about contact with birth family, but no research has comprehensively examined the short- and long-term effects on the children and the others of various forms of contact with the birth family. The design for such a study would need to produce evidence on the effect of contact itself while accounting for the many possible and confusing variables. It would have to examine a representative sample prospectively, not just those cases currently known by an agency to be in contact.
- The views of adoptive parents and service providers have been much more frequently canvassed than the views of children or birth parents and the views of black and minority ethnic adopters have only been gathered in small-scale research. Filling the gaps in service user research will increase the prospect of adoption services being much more carefully tailored than in the past.
- The planning of longer-term prospective, longitudinal studies needs to be considered now to make best use of all the activities generated by the government's adoption agenda.
All SCIE resources are free to download, however to access the following downloads you will need a free MySCIE account:
- The adoption of looked after children
- The adoption of looked after children: Summary
- The adoption of looked after children: Welsh summary