Adopting a Child with Special Needs

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What Prospective Adoptive Parents Need to Know

Key Points

  • Over 100,000 children are waiting to be adopted right now out of the more than half million US children in foster care. The rest will eventually be reunited with birthfamilies or will "age out" of the system while waiting to be reunited.

  • Of the waiting children with special needs who are younger than school age, many are of minority race, and all of them are members of sibling groups, or have mild to severe disabilities, or are at risk of developing disabilities later due to risk factors. Some children have correctable problems. Others will "outgrow" their challenges. A few are remarkably resilient and will not develop expected problems. However, adoptive parents must be ready to face and deal with all types of outcomes, from the bleak to the near-miraculous.

  • Of the four ways to adopt a child with special needs, two are recommended and two are risky:

    • Parents should avoid using attorneys for placement instead of agencies as this could result in the legal loss of adoption assistance benefits for the child.
    • It is also not a good idea to adopt children with moderate to severe special needs from other countries, especially older children, unless the parents are extremely experienced or using a highly experienced agency with an excellent reputation (of which there are not many). In addition to the typical special needs challenges, these children face the additional problems of having spent time in orphanages, institutions, and sometimes living in the streets, they also have ESL (English as a Second Language) issues, and there is no ongoing medical and financial adoption assistance available for these children after finalization. If the adoption disrupts, the parents may be charged with paying child support to the state.

    The two means of adopting special needs children that are recommended are through public and private licensed adoption agencies. Children adopted through private licensed agencies are entitled to the same adoption assistance benefits as children who come through public adoption agencies. But to simplify matters, parents should be sure that a private agency they choose is licensed and non-profit. Some states will refuse to write adoption assistance contracts for children placed through for-profit agencies.

  • Many new parents don't take the time to learn about adoption assistance issues because they don't understand how expensive raising children with special needs can become. Every single American considering the adoption of a waiting US child should take a moment to call this number at some time during the homestudy process: 800-470-6665. This is the Adoption Subsidy Hotline of NACAC, the non-profit North American Council on Adoptable Children. NACAC sends out thousands of information packets each year, at no charge; they publish and disseminate financial assistance information that can be difficult to obtain, called state subsidy profiles; and they publish a newsletter with updates on federal legislation affecting special needs adoption medical and financial adoption assistance. A must read.

  • Once the homestudy is complete, parents may choose to be passive, waiting for the agency to match them to a child (and wait and wait), or self-directed, actively seeking their own match. The basic steps are to:

    • obtain an unofficial copy of the homestudy,
    • obtain access to a fax machine (or make copies to snailmail),
    • find several (up to nine or ten) photolistings of children that are possible matches using online resources such as Faces of Adoption or photolisting books like CAP,
    • fax a copy of the study to the social worker of each child,
    • follow up with a phone call to make sure the SW received your homestudy,
    • if not chosen for one of these children, ask the SWs if they will soon be listing similar children for whom your study could be considered, and
    • if none of the faxed or mailed homestudies result in a match, begin the process again with a new batch of photolistings.

    Supplement these regional or national efforts with local efforts to find a match, such as
    • attending matching parties or picnics sponsored by adoption agencies,
    • subscribing to the state photolisting book,
    • checking the newspaper for waiting child columns, and
    • attending support group meetings for parents in the matching phase of the adoption process.

  • Finally, if it seems like adoption is tougher, more complex, stressful, time-consuming and expensive than it should be, there are reasons for this. Even though there is a great deal of room for improvement in the US special needs adoption process, (especially in the application of ethical practices), the current system is a result of the need to protect children from the possibility of being adopted by unfit or even dangerous parents. It is also the result of a public adoption system that is low in manpower and resources. Parents must be determined and stay tough because the kids can't come to them. The parents must go to the kids.

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Note: Our authors are dedicated to honest, engaged, informed, intelligent, and open conversation about adoption. The opinions expressed here may not reflect the views of

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