Academic journal article Family Relations

The Characteristics and Well-Being of Adopted Stepchildren

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Characteristics and Well-Being of Adopted Stepchildren

Article excerpt

This study draws upon 22,680 children from the 2002 National Survey of America's Families to investigate the demographic and family characteristics and well-being of stepchildren who have been adopted by a stepparent (n = 140) relative to children with 2 biological parents, children with 2 adoptive parents, and children with 1 biological parent and 1 nonadoptive stepparent. Five percent of all stepchildren and one quarter of all adopted children have been adopted by a stepparent. How the characteristics of adopted stepchildren compare to those of other children depends on the child's age-whereas younger adopted stepchildren are most similar to children with 2 biological parents, older adopted stepchildren are most similar to nonadopted stepchildren. Adopted stepchildren of all ages have significantly more behavior and emotional problems than children with 2 biological parents, but have similar levels of school engagement. There were no significant differences between children with 2 adoptive parents, nonadopted stepchildren, and adopted stepchildren on any measure of well-being regardless of the child's age. Implications for practice and policy include increasing awareness of adopted stepchildren and paying greater attention to the legal context under which stepchildren are adopted.

Key Words: adopted children, adopted stepchildren, adoption, stepchildren, stepfamilies.

Although the exact numbers are unclear, the adoption of a stepchild by a stepparent is thought to be one of the most common forms of adoption in the United States (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2008; National Adoption Information Clearinghouse [NAIC], 2006) and Europe (Ball, 2002; Loftus, 2003). Yet, very little is known about adopted stepchildren (Chambers, 1990; Fisher, 2003; Ganong, Coleman, Fine, & McDaniel, 1998). One reason is the inconsistent handling of these children by researchers. Although some studies placed adopted stepchildren in the same category as biological and/or adopted children (Bray & Berger, 1993; Stewart, 2001), other researchers treat adopted stepchildren just as they would treat stepchildren (Hamilton, Cheng, & Powell, 2007; Moorman & Hernandez, 1989; Norton & Miller, 1992). Still, others treat the adoption of stepchildren as "special case" within the stepfamily (Ganong et al.) and adoption (Appell, 2000; Feigelman, 1997; Fisher) literatures or are vague as to how they were handled in the analysis (Cebello, Lansford, Abbey, & Stewart, 2004).

Another reason for the lack of information on adopted stepchildren is that there are no specific estimates of this practice. Government reports do not distinguish children adopted by stepparents from children adopted by relatives, also referred to as "kin adoption" (Kreider, 2003). Relative adoptions are estimated to represent about 40% of all adoptions nationally, and adopted stepchildren are thought to make up the largest percentage ofthat (Flango & Flango, 1994, cited in Adoption Statistics, 2006). Relative adoptions have been rising in recent years, and researchers have attributed the increase to stepchild adoption (Chandra, Abma, Maza, & Bachrach, 1999). Despite this growth, because of their relatively small numbers it is difficult to find a large enough sample of adopted stepchildren for detailed analysis. On the basis of one previous estimate from the National Survey of Families and Households, roughly 1 in 1 0 married stepparents with resident stepchildren had legally adopted at least one of them, but this amounted to only 33 cases (Stewart, 2007). Other studies yielded less than 30 such cases (Lamb, 2007; Schwartz & Finley, 2006). Because findings that are based on such small sample sizes can be dubious (Cheng & Powell, 2005), researchers have had no choice but to lump adopted stepchildren in with other groups of children. Thus, for quite some time we have not had a good understanding of the sociodemographic characteristics of adopted stepchildren, nor do we know how these children compare to other children with respect to socioemotional outcomes. …

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