Finding adoptive parents is less important for children in care in Northern Ireland than securing a long-lasting and stable place to live, new research has indicated.
While adoption has long been considered the best outcome for children in need of carers, the study by Queen's University found that the type of placement is not as significant as how long it lasts.
The Care Pathways and Outcomes Study followed a group of 374 children in care in Northern Ireland over a 10-year period from 2000 to 2010.
The university said it is one of only a small number of studies worldwide that has taken a long-term comparative approach, thus providing vital information for practitioners.
A new book reports on the most recent phase of the study, which involved interviews with 77 children aged 9-14 and their parents or carers in adoption, foster care, on residence order or living with their birth parents.
Dr Dominic McSherry, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Child Care Research at Queen's School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work, is the lead author of the book - Comparing Long-Term Placements For Young Children In Care
"This study reveals a number of crucial insights and patterns about the lives of young children in care," he said.
"They are important signposts for the professionals involved in the sector, and for parents and guardians.
"For example, until now adoption was considered the gold standard in long-term care placements. One of our key findings, however, is that from the children's perspective, it doesn't appear to matter significantly what the placement is, be it fostering, adoption, kinship care, residence order or returning to birth parents.
"It is the longevity of placement that appears to be the most important factor in achieving positive outcomes for these children, so long as they enter long-term placements at an early age."
Stormont Health Minister Edwin Poots commended Dr McSherry and his research team.
"As minister with responsibility for children and young people who are in the care system, I want to be assured that the quality of care provided for them is of the highest standard; that we are offering them the best chance of permanence and stability; that they are being enabled and facilitated to take part in decisions about their care and that they are being afforded the same opportunities as children and young people outside the care system," he said.
"I want to congratulate the research team at Queen's University for undertaking this important study. It is vital that we carefully consider the key messages emanating from such research to inform future policy and determine best practice on how to meet the long-term needs of children in care."
Other findings in the book, include:
:: Within Northern Ireland, the Southern and Northern Health Trusts have the highest numbers of adoptions, the Western has the highest number of children in foster care and the South Eastern Trust, the highest levels of children returning home to their birth parents.
:: Despite a positive level of openness between parents/carers and their children across placement types, adoptive parents and some foster and kinship carers found it difficult to talk to children about their birth families and past history. Birth parents also found it difficult to talk to their children about the past.
:: Many adoptive parents highlighted a sense of being isolated after the adoption order, without access to a formalised support mechanism.
:: Eight of the 77 children interviewed had been diagnosed with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), and five of these were in the adopted group.
The book is funded by the Public Health Agency (PHA) in Northern Ireland.
Professor Bernie Hannigan from the PHA said: "While this study provides a positive contribution to the experiences and outcomes of looked-after children, it also focuses on those areas which require significant attention from policy makers; service managers and practitioners.
"It provides an evidence base for decision-making in relation to the health and well-being of young children being looked after."
Priscilla McLoughlin, from the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), the organisation that published the book, said: "The study is hugely important because those who make decisions about looked-after children's long-term care need to understand how the children fare in each of the long-term care placements.
"It is also crucial in that it follows a group of children in Northern Ireland and takes account of our unique demographic, social and structural issues. Its longitudinal nature is also important, providing an opportunity to consider the long-term implications of care options for children and for their parents and carers."