Measuring the Workplace Climate for Open Adoption Practice

tanyabretherton_headshotThis guest blog post was written by Dr. Tanya Bretherton. She is a Sydney-based research consultant, sociologist and writer with 20 years of experience in the fields of early childhood development, education and care, organizational culture and professional development. She has published both domestically and internationally on a wide range of issues that impact the safety and security of children and young people. Follower her on Twitter @TanyaBretherton.

Open adoption practice: is it a case of workplace “weather permitting?”  

Australian research to emerge from the Department of Family and Community Services in New South Wales (NSW) sheds new insights on the link between practitioner attitude and adoption. The findings suggest a more meaningful understanding of the challenges faced by practitioners is needed, particularly when seeking to progress open adoption of children from out-of-home care (OOHC) settings.

Over the last decade, attitudinal data has been used to inform the understanding and development of open adoption practice regimes in many jurisdictions. This research has clarified how practitioner perceptions of open adoption are important in identifying the best interests of the individual child and in influencing professional behavior and decision-making regarding permanency (Ryan 2011 et al; Brown et al 2007).

In child protection circles, it is often assumed that understanding frontline worker attitudes to adoption can offer valuable insights to administrators in their professional development planning. Like a thermometer, attitudinal data on practitioner beliefs is often touted to offer value as a measurement instrument.  For example, low rates of adoption may indicate that practitioners are “lukewarm” on adoption as a permanency option for children, and this could constitute an institutional barrier which needs to be addressed through training.

However, recent research findings to emerge from NSW suggest that open adoption practice needs to be understood using a diverse range of observational instruments. While open adoption practice remains work of the heart and the attitudes of the people involved are indeed paramount, a number of systemic factors must also align to create the preconditions for high quality practice to manifest. Local units may need to take a workplace “weather check” to assess whether a range of conditions are favorable for open adoption practice and to ensure the workforce is well mobilized and remain appropriately skilled for this undertaking.

Understanding the adoption “climate” in Australia

Australia has a complex and conflicted adoption history with which the country is still coming to terms. The deep personal losses experienced by Forgotten Australians (those impacted by a closed or forced adoption) and the suffering of the Stolen Generations (Australia’s first peoples forcibly removed and separated from family and community) continue to resonate. While the modern system of adoption is open and represents a clear break from the closed adoption system of the past, the pain and sensitivities surrounding the idea of adoption remain very real for many Australians.

Adoption rates from OOHC in Australia remain low. In the year 2014-2015, only 94 children were adopted by their carers, with 87 of these adoptions occurring within NSW. While the state of NSW is clearly a leader with regard to open adoption practice in Australia, the number of adoptions from care remain at record level lows. This is particularly concerning when contextualized by other data on children’s experiences in OOHC. The number of children entering statutory care continues to grow. The most recent data available indicates that 43,399 children are in OOHC in Australia, with 16,843 of these children in NSW alone.  Prolonged time in OOHC is also of great concern. Almost half of all children in OOHC in NSW (47 percent) have been continuously in care for five years or more (AIHW 2016: 52).

Key insights from NSW on open adoption practice

The research findings to emerge from NSW suggest that the relationship between attitude and practice is far less direct and causal than was once believed. Despite the low levels of adoption from OOHC in NSW, frontline practitioners maintain strong in-principle support for the concept of open adoption and exhibit high levels of understanding of what open adoption means. In addition, the research findings argue that the challenges faced by practitioners in undertaking open adoption work remain poorly understood. As it stands, a gap exists between knowing and valuing the importance of communication work on one hand, and feeling confident in the act of doing this work on the other.

Understanding workplace climate and open adoption – a new conceptual framework needed?

While perception and attitude of practitioners are undoubtedly important, so too are practical considerations. An array of workplace factors shape the propensity for practitioners to undertake open adoption work. The research analysis concludes that a four-pillar structure appears universal to open adoption practice work.

  1. Capability: The progression of open adoption requires a labor force of skilled and experienced people ready to assume the complex responsibilities associated with the work.
  2. Capacity: Many facets of the child protection sector must operate in concert in the interests of open adoption.
  3. Communication: Transparency and openness in adoption require a different profile of communication abilities than those used historically by child protection workers.
  4. Culture: Individual workers can exhibit personal and cultural characteristics which mean they are receptive to the open adoption concept. Workplace culture too, is salient.

A significant finding of this research study identifies that these factors are deeply interconnected and must be present to some degree in order to achieve the open adoption of children from OOHC.


The role of legislation in impacting adoption “climate change”

Adoption can be formally legislated as “open.” Legal provisions can be used to strengthen the quality of services provided to children and young people, and offer greater assurance and compassion for adoptive families and birth families in negotiating the terrain of ongoing contact. Where open legislation goes, innovation and adaptation to facilitate open practice can follow. However, this can only occur when child protection authorities also implement workforce development measures capable of supporting the implementation of high quality open adoption practice regimes.

Checking the forecast – are conditions favorable for open adoption practice?

The four-pillar model to emerge from the NSW study is important for two main reasons. Firstly, the research offers a unique systemic perspective on emerging open adoption practice and the realities of working life in OOHC environments. Secondly, this model for high quality open adoption practice could serve as a diagnostic tool for other agencies. By using the model as an analytical tool, organizations can take a “barometer reading” of the frontline to assess whether workplace weather conditions are favorable for the undertaking of open adoption practice work in the long term.


More information

The Gap Between Knowing and Doing: Developing Practice in Open Adoption from OOHC in New South Wales” was written by Dr. Tanya Bretherton and Senior Practitioner Ms. Tracey Webb as part of the NSW OOHC Adoption Research Initiative. A full copy of these research findings is available at:


Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2016). Child Protection Australia 2014-15, AIHW, Canberra.

Brown, D., Ryan, S. & Pushkal, J.T. (2007). Initial Validation of the Open Adoption Scale: Measuring the Influence of Adoption Myths on Attitudes Toward Open Adoption. Adoption Quarterly 10, 3-4: 179-196.

Ryan S., Harris G., Brown, D., Houston D., Livingston Smith, S. & Howard, J. (2011). Open adoptions in child welfare: social worker and foster/adoptive parent attitudes. Journal of Public Child Welfare 5, 4: 445-466.


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One Comment on “Measuring the Workplace Climate for Open Adoption Practice

  1. Extremely helpful to my studies in this sector and very interesting. Thank you !

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