Until recently, the scant numbers that existed about the impact of the 1996 federal law encouraging more adoptions supported a hopeful view.
In 2002, researcher Trudy Festinger found that only 3.3 percent of children adopted from New York's child welfare system in 1996 had been placed back into the foster care system four years later, often so that parents could obtain services for emotional and behavioral problems they felt unable to manage in their own homes.
But this spring, a report published in the Capital University Law Review by two lawyers representing children and parents in New York City's child welfare system, "The Revolving Doors of Family Court: Confronting Broken Adoptions," suggests that the number of adoptions out of foster care that fail to provide a permanent home to children may be far higher. In a survey of dozens of New York City Family Court lawyers and judges, Dawn Post of the New York Children’s Law Center, and Brian Zimmerman, a children’s and parents’ attorney in Kings County Family Court, found that one third of those surveyed reported that greater than 5 percent of their cases and as much as 25 percent or more of their cases involved adopted children returning to family court and re-entering out-of-home care.
What the authors of the report say they have seen over the years are large numbers of children coming back 5 or 10 years later, when they have grown into traumatized and troublesome teens.
In their report, there are teens who enter the system as juvenile delinquents (JD) when their parents decline to take them home and others who are placed in the system on a PINS petition (person-in-need-of-supervision) because their parents say they will no longer tolerate their rebellious behavior. Some adopted children are placed back in foster care voluntarily because parents say their children need a higher level of care than they can provide. Others are left on their own after an adoptive parent falls ill or dies. Some teens find other places to call home, often with the families they were originally taken from, sometimes with the help of the child welfare system, sometimes without ever renewing contact with the child welfare system.
But Post and Zimmerman’s report have also raised questions about just how many broken adoptions there actually are.
New York City Children's Services provided statistics to City Limits showing that from 1993 to 2003, a range of 3.6 percent to 6.1 percent of children adopted in any given year returned to out-of-home care, because their parents placed them voluntarily, because of an abuse or neglect charge, or on a JD/PINS petition.
Those percentages fall dramatically starting in 2004—with ACS finding that no children adopted in 2011 have yet returned to care—likely because children return to care more often as they grow older, and because, due to lengthy court proceedings, cases take time to appear in statistical data.
ACS Commissioner Ronald Richter suggests that not all children captured in these statistics represent a broken adoption. Some parents might relinquish their parental rights "voluntarily" in order to obtain residential services, though they may remain an active part of a child's life. Other children may be placed against their parent’s will, while the parent actively works to have that child returned home.
But the authors of the report say they believe ACS' numbers fail to capture the full extent of the problem. They say all the cases in which ACS helped another adult file for custody or guardianship, or helped teens find alternative living arrangements informally, elude these statistics. Teens who find other homes on their own are also not captured in this data.
The authors also question whether the statistics fully capture the extent of children returning to out-of-home care for each of the specified categories.
Anecdotal evidence points to problem
Post and Zimmerman's claim that broken adoptions is a problem of troubling proportions is supported by others, who say the report reflects what people in the field have been seeing for years.
Dianne Heggie, downstate associate executive director of the Council of Family and Foster Caring Agencies, which represents all agencies that contract with New York's child welfare system, estimates that between 10 percent and 20 percent of children in congregate care were formerly in adoptive homes. (Congregate care includes group homes, residential treatment centers (RTCs), and rapid intervention centers (RICs), where many children first come when they are entering, or re-entering, care.)
While some research suggests most adoptive parents continue to be involved in their children's lives even after they place them back into the system, Heggie, recalling the years she spent working at a diagnostic reception center (now an RIC), says that's not what she witnessed. "What I saw more often than not was that parents didn't want to be considered resources for the children. They didn't want to maintain contact," she says.
Jeremy Kohomban, the president and CEO of Children's Village, which runs one of the largest residential treatment centers in New York state, agrees with Heggie's estimate. Kohomban says about half the teens on Children's Village's Dobbs Ferry campus come to them directly from home. The other half have generally been in the system for years, and on average have lived in eight or nine foster, group or adoptive homes before Children's Village.
Kohomban often walks around campus and talks to the boys who live there, and hears mention of the homes they once lived in. From those conversations, Kohomban says, he estimates that 20 percent or more of the boys who have "grown up in the system" were once in an adoptive home.
Commissioner Richter says he doesn't doubt the numbers Kohomban and Heggie are seeing, adding that ACS is currently piloting an evidence-based model to support foster parents with the kinds of trauma-based problems that often lead to placement disruptions. It's a model he hopes will eventually help stabilize the families of all children who come through the child welfare system.
But he adds that children in congregate care generally represent the "most high-end kids we have" and that "the overwhelming majority of kids [who are adopted]…go on to have successful lives with their families."
Still, Kohomban believes the numbers of children returning to care after being adopted are too high. "When we choose to sever the relationship that a child has with his biological family, we have taken on an awesome responsibility of making sure that kid doesn't become statistic."
"We're not saying adoption is not an appropriate result for any number of children," says Zimmerman, "but we have to make better decisions, so children don't suffer second and third losses."
READ MORE: Adoption: From an option to a mandate
Adoption is a good outcome for many children in foster care. But not every adoptive parent-child combination is meant to be. Click here to read chapter 3.
City Limits coverage of child welfare issues is generously supported by the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation.