Special Needs Adoption

The meaning of "special needs" and who may adopt children with special needs.

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In the United States, tens of thousands of children with special needs are waiting for permanent homes. Traditionally, children with special needs have been considered harder to place for adoption than other children, but experience has shown that many children with special needs can be placed successfully with families who want them. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-89) has focused more attention on finding homes for children with special needs and making sure they receive the post adoption services they need. Congress enacted the law to ensure that children in foster care, who cannot be reunited with their birth parents, are freed for adoption and placed with permanent families as quickly as possible.

What does “special needs” mean?

For many people the term “special needs” means a child who receives or needs special education or who has a disability of some sort. In adoption, the term is defined differently and may include the factors listed below. Guidelines for classifying a child as “special needs” vary by state. Children with special needs range in age from infants to 18 years. In general, children with special needs are those who:

  • Have physical or health problems;
  • Are older;
  • Are members of ethnic or racial minorities;
  • Have a history of abuse or neglect;
  • Have emotional problems;
  • Have siblings and need to be adopted as a group;
  • Test positive for HIV;
  • Have documented conditions that may lead to future problems;
  • Had some form of prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol.

Almost all children who meet the special needs guidelines and who are available for adoption are currently in the public foster care system. Some have moved through several different foster placements.

Who may adopt a child with special needs?

Almost any prospective adoptive parent who has the commitment, skills, and preparation to parent may adopt a child. Agencies differ in their specific requirements for adoptive parents. Age and marital status requirements for adopting a child with special needs tend to be less restrictive than requirements for adopting a healthy infant. Agencies will consider both single and married applicants, ranging in age from 18 to 50, or sometimes even older. The consideration of an adoptive parent’s age many times depends upon the age of the child, if the state has age restrictions, or the individual’s situation. Most agencies require couples to be married a minimum of 1 to 3 years. Divorce, physical challenges, or a history of personal counseling do not necessarily disqualify an applicant from adopting. Applicants need not be wealthy or own a home.

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