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June 2023Vol. 24, No. 5NSCAW Adoption Study Examines Postadoption Instability

Many children and youth who enter the child welfare system and cannot safely reunite with their families end up pursuing permanency through adoption. However, some experience postadoption instability and do not remain with those adoptive families, which can hinder a young person’s well-being.

Much of the research available about postadoption instability is based on formal reports, such as reentry into foster care or termination of parental rights, but there are multiple types of informal instability as well, including running away, leaving home before age 18, or informally living with another adult. There is a need for more research on postadoption instability so that child welfare leaders, agencies, professionals, and policymakers can understand the types, rates, and causes of postadoption instability.

In response to this need, the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW) conducted an adoption follow-up study of 383 young people who exited foster care to adoption. Surveys were conducted from June 2021 to March 2022 with participants, all of whom also took part in prior NSCAW data collection studies.

The study was built around research questions exploring the following topics:

  • The rate of formal and informal instability
  • Risk factors and protective factors for postadoption instability
  • The quality of adoptive parent-child relationships
  • The availability of and barriers to accessing support services

Using online and phone surveys, researchers collected data about young people who experienced adoption and their adoptive families. The participants who experienced adoption ranged from 15 to 36 years old.

The following are key findings from the study:

  • Almost 10 percent of participants experienced formal postadoption instability.
  • About 30 percent of participants experienced informal postadoption instability, with 18 percent running away, 17 percent leaving home prior to age 18, 9 percent living with a nonrelative adult, and 8 percent experiencing homelessness.
  • Less nurturing adoptive family relationships was a risk factor for both formal and informal instability.
  • Risk factors associated with informal instability include being older at the age of adoption, being assigned female at birth, and having less child-parent closeness.
  • Most participating adopted persons and adoptive parents described close relationships and sense of belonging, including many who experienced postadoption instability.
  • Participants more commonly reported services needed than services received.

The study’s findings report also features several implications for the child welfare system, including opportunities for agencies and professionals to provide additional support. The study highlighted a need for improved knowledge of and access to postadoption services and supports, support for nurturing family relationships, and increased preadoption and postadoption support for families adopting older children.

Read the full report, National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW) Adoption Follow-Up Study: Findings Report, for more information.