Previous life experiences and vulnerabilities of children adopted from care in Australia: Research findings and implications for practice
Purpose: This paper describes research on the level of trauma experienced by children adopted from welfare care. The findings assist in understanding the emotional, health and behavioral difficulties that children may confront in adjusting to their new family, and, how best to support adoptive parents. It is hoped that this research will reduce the potential for breakdown and support decisions about contact between children and their birth parents.
Methods: This study is part of the Australian Open Adoption Outcomes research being undertaken by Barnardos Australia’s Centre for Excellence in Open Adoption in partnership with the Universities of Oxford and Loughborough in the United Kingdom. The study is a unique follow-up of the life trajectories of 210 children adopted from out-of-home care in New South Wales between 1987-2013. This element of the study involved examination of administration files and adoption records to gather details about the children’s characteristics and experiences before entering their adoptive homes.
Findings: Many of the children had encountered a high rate of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) within their birth families. These included significant abuse and neglect and are known to be associated with poor life outcomes. Furthermore, many had subsequently experienced protracted periods between first notification and entry to care, failed restorations, disrupted kinship care placements and multiple moves between foster placements, which had increased their vulnerability. A high proportion had significant emotional or behavioural problems and more than half had at least one diagnosed health condition or disability. All of the children had at least one experience that was significantly related to poor outcomes, with most having had three or more; more than half the children were assessed as being at high risk, and 15% at extremely high risk of adverse outcomes in adulthood.
Analysis of data collected about birth parents found a high prevalence of substance abuse, mental health issues and domestic violence, often in combination. Such issues are known to have an adverse effect on parenting capacity and may also have implications for ongoing contact through open adoption arrangements. Adoptive parents were found to be in stable relationships, financially secure and well-educated. Their primary motivation for adoption was infertility.
Implications:The study provides practitioners and policy makers with a profile of the traumatic life experience of many of these children prior to entering their new families. We know that adoptive families can be recruited to care for children damaged by abuse, neglect and very poor early life experiences. However, this paper presents us with the practice implications of preparing families for the task of caring for children who have experienced abusive, chaotic and stressful early lives, and, provides evidence to assist consideration of long-term, post adoption support.