Assessing the suitability of new adoptive parents

Political initiatives in the UK have long encouraged the greater use of adoption as a solution to the care of children who cannot live with their birth families.

As part of this, there have been many debates about good practice in recruiting and assessing the suitability of new adoptive parents. As the media continues to give attention to high-profile international adoption cases, it is important that UK adoption remains high on the children and families agenda.


Agencies, local authorities and central government have all tried various methods to recruit adoptive parents including print adverts, TV and radio features, information videos and stalls at community events and markets. The biggest drive to recruit is the annual National Adoption Week, which will take place in November this year. There is not a lot known about the evaluation of each recruitment method.

A follow-up study to National Adoption Week in 1999 found that only 11 per cent of enquirers were still involved at some stage in the adoption process a year later. More needs to be known about the cost-effectiveness of this form of recruitment and what proportion of enquirers recruited in this way finally gain an adoption order.

Of the many aspects of recruitment that could be researched, the nature of the initial contact with the agency should be investigated to discover which factors are associated with follow-through (for example, warmth of reception, time to talk, experienced receptionist and appropriate amount of information).

Lack of such information hampers the drive to engage all those enquirers who show a serious interest and to find adopters who could potentially meet the needs of the children. Many couples without children will wish to parent healthy infants, and to do this some will take the route of international adoption, and potential adopters approaching local authorities may also hope for younger children.

Traditionally, this has left a shortfall in families prepared to take on the large number of older and “hard-to-place” children or sibling groups. This calls for a broadening of previously restricted application criteria. However, extending the traditional criteria has led to disputes about the suitability of various groups including single parents, unmarried couples, gay/lesbian adopters, and people with disabilities. As the number of adoptive parents in these groups rise, more research should be done to compare long-term outcomes.

Assessment of applicants

Screening of prospective adopters must clearly exclude those who may pose a risk to children, or whose motivation is not child-centred. Beyond securing these essential safeguards is the question of what is known about the family and personal characteristics of adopters that have been shown to be associated with positive and negative developments in the placement.

Such knowledge needs to be used in any assessment. Some factors like age, experience, education and religious affiliation of the adopters have shown an association with outcome but not consistently so.

Various parent characteristics have been proposed and are currently used as good indicators for selection of prospective adopters. These include: child-centredness warmth consistency flexibility tenacity a sense of humour and capacity to reflect on problems and their origins.

No evidence has been gathered, however, that possession of any of these characteristics independently predicts a successful placement. It is likely that a complex interaction of factors is responsible for which placements disrupt and which survive.

To date, no studies have collected data at the point of assessment and related it to placement outcome. One study showed that certain adoptive parent characteristics such as “warmth” assessed immediately after placement, had an influence on one-year outcomes.

However, it was shown that positive or negative patterns of interaction developed between new parents and a particular child and it was the nature of the relationship that determined outcome rather than specific parent characteristics. The implication is that only so much can be gained from the pre-placement assessment, and it then becomes particularly important for adoption workers to be able to detect the first signs of relationships running into difficulty and establish effective means of heading off trouble.

Further information
Knowledge review 02: The adoption of looked after children
Adoption information: Every Child Matters
Adoption UK 


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