A comparison of foster care reentry after adoption in two large U.S. states
Background and Purpose: Between 2000 and 2013, the number of children in foster care decreased by about half (290,000 v. 159,000), while the number of children in adoptive homes nearly doubled (228,000 v. 432,000). This was largely a result of federal policies that emphasized the movement of children out of foster care and into legal permanence where it was presumed that they would live ‘happily ever after.’ Extant research suggests that the vast majority (about 85%) of families do not experience post-permanency discontinuity. However, for the approximately 15% who do, it is often a difficult experience for the entire family. This study examined longitudinal administrative data from Illinois and New Jersey to examine these outcomes.
Methods: Using data obtained from two state-wide child welfare agencies, this study examined long-term outcomes for a population of former foster children (N=26,199 in Illinois and 12,230 in New Jersey) who exited care through adoption between 2000 and 2010. Survival analysis examined pre-permanency factors associated with post-permanency return to care up to the age of majority.
Results: Descriptive analyses showed that of children adopted from the public child welfare system in Illinois and New Jersey, 6% and 4% experienced a return to care respectively. Multivariate survival analyses indicated that, controlling for other characteristics, children adopted at the age of six or older were 2.3 times more likely to reenter foster care after adoption finalization than younger children. Hazards for reentry increased with each move a child had in foster care (HR=1.11) and children who spent long periods of time in foster care (three or more years) were more likely (HR=1.13) to reenter foster care. African American children were more likely to reenter care (HR=1.29) in the overall model; this difference remained statistically significant for children in Illinois (HR=1.35) but not in New Jersey (HR=1.17). Children adopted by relatives were no more likely to reenter care (HR=0.96).
Conclusions: This study found that children in adoptive homes experience lower placement instability than is commonly feared by many practitioners and policy-makers. A unique aspect of this study was the ability to compare results from two states, with different policies and practices. While there were similarities in the findings from both states, there are some notable differences that require additional research to better understand the practice and policy implications. A key difference is in the rate of post-adoption reentry into foster care: 4% in New Jersey and 6% in Illinois. While a 2% difference may seem like a small difference, in the context of an event that occurs rarely, and given the large sample sizes, this difference has greater meaning. By including data from two large, diverse states, the current study provides information that can be helpful to policymakers and practitioners when determining preventive services.