My husband and I sat in a long (sometimes boring) foster parent training class. We listened to speakers discuss the minimum standards for foster parents’ residences. We took notes on TBRI, types of therapy to consider, and important phone numbers. It was . . . a lot. Which, granted, isn’t a bad thing when one is considering parenting or adopting children who are in a difficult situation. 

During the training sessions, the caseworkers discussed the types of foster care and adoption. I used to work as a paraeducator in a special education classroom. I was very familiar with the difficulties presented when helping kids who have been othered by society and require different levels of supervision, education, and interaction from the average middle-school-age child.  

Because of that experience when parenting a child with special needs was mentioned as an option, I thought I had a handle on what that meant. I was actually shocked to realize I was wrong. Or at least, I was sort of wrong. It turns out that according to the department of child welfare, special needs, is a much broader term than one might think. From the DFPS website the definition is as follows: 

The child must be younger than 18 years old and meet one of the following criteria when the adoptive placement agreement is signed:

  • The child is at least 6 years old;
  • The child is at least 2 years old and a member of a racial or ethnic group that exits foster care at a slower pace than other racial or ethnic groups;
  • The child is being adopted with a sibling or to join a sibling; or
  • The child has a verifiable physical, mental, or emotionally disabling condition, as established by an appropriately qualified professional through a diagnosis that addresses: (a) what the condition is; and (b) that the condition is disabling.
  • The state must determine that the child cannot or should not be returned to the home of the parents.

So, we adopted twice and both were considered adoption of children with special needs because we adopted sibling groups. It turns out that many kids who are waiting to be adopted meet the definition of special needs. A sibling group is considered special needs because finding a family willing or able to take a sibling group of four kids as opposed to adopting just one can be more difficult. 

Why might this matter to you? Well, if you, like me, hear special needs and think of cerebral palsy, wheelchair, mental illness, etc., you might dismiss the concept out of hand. Those circumstances may be beyond your level of comfort. Even going in eyes wide open, it can be scary thinking about a kid who will likely need specialized care for the rest of their lives. It’s a big ask for families to adapt to a child with different needs than others. 

I wonder if more people understood that adoption of children with special needs doesn’t mean what mainstream ideas of special needs are. Would it mean that more kids would have homes? It can be an intimidating term to consider. I wouldn’t suggest anyone simply ignore the label and move to adopt four kids at once. 

Let’s revisit the concept of children with special needs in society. Kids who have emotional disturbances are grouped in with children who have physical disabilities. A 14-year-old throwing a violent tantrum because he’s mad he’s not allowed to play xbox is miles away from a kid who needs a wheelchair. ADHD can be considered a special needs situation. Having both first and secondhand knowledge of ADHD—yeah, it’s not a picnic. I’m glad there are required accommodations for my people that need them through the ADA. I feel better knowing my kid can’t be punished because their brain is wired differently. 

My point is, special needs can mean almost anything. If you are considering adoption, and I sincerely hope you are, you might care to consider asking about adoptions considered to be special needs. So many families of kids with physical or mental disabilities don’t know what they are getting into. Choosing to adopt a child with special needs means you can prepare because you know (mostly) what you’re signing up for. 

I can’t lie and pretend that my life is easy peasy lemon squeezy. Even though my kids are mostly typical physically and mentally, they were placed in foster care because they were being abused and neglected. That takes a toll on a child. It takes a toll on a family. All of my kids, my husband, and I are in counseling to help cope with what is truly a tremendous loss for a child. My kids will probably struggle for most of their lives with feelings of rejection on some level. They have emotional issues that sometimes feel like too much. One of my kids can scream for hours. Another throws things when she’s mad. There are tears, rage, and frustration on a regular basis. But some of my mom friends who have biological children tell me their lives can look similar to mine. Children are their own little selves and they act in ways that make perfect sense to themselves while sometimes leaving the adults completely confused. 

So, I hope that if you are considering adoption you would at least consider adopting a child who may have special needs. Special needs are not a euphemism for mental or physical disabilities. In the context of adoption, it is often a label placed on children who may be difficult to place for different circumstances. It’s an 8- and 9-year-old boy and their tiny baby sister. It’s a 16-year-old and her 5-year-old brother. It’s a group of six kids whose parents died in a housefire and no family is left.  And yes, it’s kids who are on the autism spectrum, need a wheelchair, or throw outrageous tantrums when they’re angry.