Disruption and Dissolution

Terms and Definitions

Adoption Disruption – an adoption process that ends after a child is placed in an adoptive home and before the adoption is legally finalized.  The disruption results in the child returning to foster care or another placement with new adoptive parents.

Adoption Dissolution – an adoption that ends after it is legally finalized.  The dissolution results in the child returning to foster care or another placement with new adoptive parents.

While there is a legal distinction between disruption and dissolution, many researchers and professionals use the terms interchangeably.  The emotional impact may be identical even though the process is different.

Reasons for Potential Disruptions/Dissolution 

A longitudinal study on adoption disruptions conducted with public agency adoptions in Illinois between 1976 and 1994 found just over 12% of adoptions disrupted.  This does not include disruptions among international and private adoptions when the children did not end up in the child welfare system.  Other research studies show:

  • an older child is more likely to disrupt;
  • the higher number of placements experienced by a child, the higher their risk of disruption;
  • foster to adoption placements have a higher success rate, and
  • post-permanency services have a positive impact on the rate of dissolutions.

Some of the reasons why parents decide to terminate a permanency relationship with a child are:

  1. Parents believe the child is a negative influence on other children in the family.
  2. Stealing from the family.
  3. Suicide attempts or fear the child will harm themselves or other family members.
  4. Failure of the child and parent to form emotional attachments with the family.
  5. Inadequate preparation of the child and the parent for the child’s placement in the family.
  6. Mismatch between parent and child.
  7. Lack of support services for the family after the child’s placement.
  8. Stressful life events such as divorce that may be caused by the child’s placement.
  9. Poor communication and coping skills of both the parent and the child.

Warning Stages of Disruption/Dissolution

Before the true stages of a disruption are the “warning” stages.  If adoption competent professionals are involved with the family at this point, intervention might prevent the disruption.  Professionals working with the family should not only help them through the current crisis but also assist them in connecting with ongoing support systems such as parent and peer support groups.  These groups can normalize the family’s experiences, give the family hope that things will eventually get better and may provide respite for them.

The Honeymoon

During this stage the child is perceived as a dream child, perfect in every way.  On the other hand, some families may not experience a honeymoon stage.  During this time post-placement visits with the child and family are crucial.  If the family is experiencing a honeymoon phase, they may need help recognizing a child’s challenges to prepare them for the difficult times that may come in the future.

If the honeymoon phase was skipped, the family may need help recognizing a child’s positives among their other behaviors.  Support at this stage should encourage the family to create the community connections that will help them throughout their adoption journey.  Connections that can help families include adoption support groups and organizations that focus on specific issues such as autism and reactive attachment disorder.  These organizations can help parents by providing information and connecting them to adoption competent professionals.  While the post-permanency worker may be able to provide the support the family needs at this time with regular post-placement visits, the worker should also help the family get the support in place without being dependent on the worker.

The Denial

During the denial phase, a family will attempt to rationalize the child’s behavior.  They will start to make excuses for the behavior such as peer influence on the child or the child’s cultural differences.  During this time the professional may need to work with the family to help them recognize what behaviors are not related to the child’s adjustment in the family.  The family needs to be encouraged to continue educating themselves on attachment issues and the specific needs of their child as well as maintaining their outside support system.

Loss of the Dream

This phase is getting close to the beginning stages of disruption or dissolution, as the family starts to realize the child’s behaviors exceed what is normal.  They might begin to realize they did not fully understand the impact the child’s past would have on their present behavior.  A professional working with the family can help them understand what is happening and begin to address the issues.  Teaching the family to journal behaviors and interventions that worked or did not work and seeing patterns in behavior can also be very helpful.  It is also important that the family doesn’t withdraw from their outside support system and become isolated.  Parents receiving help at this time usually become more successful in parenting the child and prevent the disruption/dissolution.  If the family is not successful, they start into the stages of disruption.

Stages of Disruption

Diminishing Pleasures

Parents frequently start their adoption journey understanding things may be rough at the beginning and they need to have patience.  For some parents that means things will be “normal” in six to eight months.  They believe that is enough time for a child to understand they are safe in this house and abuse is behind them.

When things don’t improve and may actually get worse, the parent starts to understand that the hardships involved in raising a child with a background of trauma may never really end.  For some of these parents, any joy in parenting and appreciating the small improvements their child is making is overtaken by the loss of their dream of what their family life would be once they found a child to adopt.  Parents start to question why they ever adopted the child, and this question may become very prominent in their lives.  They become very angry towards everyone – the agency, social workers, the birth family and the child.  To the parents the child has made the whole family miserable and the social workers lied to them.  Anger takes over and without outside intervention to help them let go of their anger, they won’t be able to focus on more positive interventions that will help them learn to meet their child’s needs and become an integral part of their family.

Child Perceived as Major Problem

As the anger takes over the, child is seen as a major problem the parent can’t cope with; they want the behaviors to change but the child either cannot or will not change them.  The parents are completely overwhelmed by the child’s needs. Dealing with the child becomes all-consuming, and the family can no longer participate in normal activities without chaos ensuing.  Parents often start to emotionally separate from the child; they are resentful of the chaos and no longer trust the child.  The parents are beginning to assume they are unfit parents and are embarrassed to have professionals working with them because they believe the worker blames them for the problems.

Parents Openly Complain

At this point parents begin to complain openly to others, including strangers, about the problems they are having raising their child.  Frequently, the parents receive confirmation from others about their feelings toward the child.  Others will go a step farther and suggest the parents “give the child back.”

What the parents need now is concrete help from adoption competent professionals and a solid support system.  Other permanency families should be part of the support system.  These are the people who can normalize the family’s experiences and emotions.

The Turning Point

At this stage a critical event occurs and the parents believe they can no longer accept the child’s behavior under any circumstances.  They reach the conclusion they are no longer willing, or even able, to accommodate the child’s needs and no longer want to parent the child.  Even if the parents have reached out to the professional community or other permanency families, the child may still be cruel to other family members, might continue to run away and might have exhausted all therapeutic attempts to change his or her behavior.  The parents start to picture life without the child in the home and no longer actively assimilate the child into their daily life.  There is now an emotional separation between the parents and the child.

Disruption is Happening

The parents have given up on parenting the child and have decided to return him or her.  They believe they have done everything they can and can no longer cope with the child’s behaviors.  The deciding factor for this decision is probably their realization that the child’s behavior is at the point of causing physical or emotional harm to other family members.  The family absolutely cannot meet the needs of the child any longer and do not even want to attempt to meet them.

Turning a Disruption/Dissolution into an Interruption

A child may need more help than a family can provide and may need temporary placement in a treatment facility.  This is frequently viewed by the adoptive parents – and workers – as a failure on the parents’ part, and the focus changes to identifying another permanency family for the child.  With effective, timely interventions a disruption or dissolution can be turned into an interruption.

Workers need to put the same focus on family preservation and reunification with permanency families as they do with birth families.  During the time a child is in a treatment facility, a worker needs to encourage the family to be involved with the child’s treatment program and spend time helping them answer some important, relevant questions.

  • What interventions need to be put into place for my child so he can live in our home?  This is the time to evaluate what happened that led to the child being removed.  What kind of support might have helped the family, and how can the family access those supports in the future if they are needed?
  • What interventions were in place for the rest of the family?  What additional help will they need?  What other supports are available that might be appropriate?  How can the family access them?
  • What has the parent done to educate themselves about the needs of their child?  If parents don’t understand how the child’s past impacts their thought process and behavior, they tend to view the behavior as a personal attack by the child against them.
  • What has the parent done to accommodate the needs of their child?  Were most of their efforts geared toward integrating the child into their family by having the child act like the other children?  Did they receive help to understand how their child’s needs may have made that impossible?  What are other options?
  • Has the parent tried to modify their lifestyle or parenting techniques for the child?  What are other parenting techniques that might work?  What lifestyle modifications might help?
  • Has the parent made every possible attempt to attach and bond to the child?  Many parents believe that attachment and bonding to the adopted child will happen automatically and it will be a two-way street.  The worker may need to go over the family preparation training on bonding and attachment, but now they can personalize the information for the family by talking about their child.
  • Is the parent taking the behaviors the child is exhibiting personally?  Is the parent able to accept that the behaviors are based on the child’s past?  The child may be focusing their anger on the adoptive mother, but is she just a substitute for the birth mother who didn’t protect them?
  • What supports were in place for the adoptive family?  What supports need to be in place for the family moving forward?
  • Were the parents’ expectations realistic?  If they weren’t, what are realistic expectations for their child?
  • Have the parents talked to other parents who have parented a child like theirs? Have they joined a support group – either online or by attending the local meetings?  Did they ask the placement agency if they could recommend a family they could contact?  Did the agency give the family contacts of families who have adopted children with similar issues?
  • Is there anything the parents have not tried that may help?
  • Is this a temporary crisis or have all interventions failed?
  • What is best for my adopted child and my family?  This is an emotional discussion the parent has already had with themselves.  After helping the parent work through all of the previous questions, the worker needs to help the family work through deciding if this is an interruption or a dissolution of the current permanency plan.  This is a really tough, emotional, decision for the parent.  By working through all of the previous questions the worker has helped the family look at all of the points they should consider in this decision.  The worker should not be judgmental as they support the parent through this process, nor should they take it personally if the parent decides to proceed with dissolving the union.


Most families and children will go through stages of grief and loss that are similar to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. With the help of therapists, counselors or agency workers who understand the perspective of adoption on the grieving process, both the adoptee and the family can heal.

The Adoptee

Most children who have disrupted are older children.  They know what is happening but they usually don’t understand why it happened.  They learned a pattern of behavior that helped them survive before they joined the permanency family, but that became a self-fulfilling prophesy of not feeling lovable after they became part of the new family.  Other feelings adoptees may experience after a placement is dissolved are:

  • Grief
  • Depression
  • A desire to draw attention to themselves
  • Anger
  • No longer interested in things and activities they once enjoyed

Adoptees need the help of an adoption competent therapist to help them address their feelings and to learn better coping skills that will allow them to be successfully placed in another family.


Other children in the permanency family – whether birth or adopted – also experience loss when an adoptee is removed from the family.  They start to question their own place in the family, whether they could also be sent away.  Some children feel pressured to be “good” all the time.  All siblings should receive help from an adoption competent therapist to discuss their feelings and fears.

The Parents

Even when parents make a decision that is in the best interest of a child to dissolve the adoption, the parents experience an enormous sense of grief, loss, failure and self-blame.  Parents who dissolve the placement don’t feel very good about the decision.  They need support as they deal with the loss of losing a member of their family.  Support can come from being part of a parent group where it is safe to openly discuss feelings or working with an adoption competent therapist.

Many parents who go through a disrupted placement are able to successfully adopt again after they do some soul searching about what happened during the first placement.  These parents are more aware of their strengths and their limitations and have learned to have more realistic expectations.

The Worker

Workers are also affected by the disruption or dissolution of a placement.  They invested a lot of time and energy into saving the placement and it still failed.  Even if a child is successfully placed into a second family, the worker may feel failure they could not save the original placement and may feel they are being judged by coworkers.

Workers may be able to work through their issues of grief and loss by talking to a trusted coworker, supervisor or another professional within the agency trained to provide support services to agency staff.  Some workers may need to turn to an adoption competent therapist outside the agency to help them work through some of the same questions that they helped the families answer.


“Everyone who is intimately involved in a disruption or dissolution bears the weight of tremendous guilt, grief, loss and trauma.  Parents’, workers’ and children’s confidence in their abilities and even their intrinsic worth may be badly shaken.”[1]

With the proper support most children who have gone through a disruption or dissolution are successfully placed with another family.  Many families successfully adopt again, and workers are able to continue their work supporting permanency families.


[1]Diane Riggs and Mary Boo. “Disruption Support Is Crucial.”Adoptalk.Retrieved February 14, 2014. <http://www.nacac.org/adoptalk/disruptionsupport.html>