The term “special needs adoption” can and does mean many different things in different social circles; within government and private agencies and organizations; and across different states and even countries. While some children with special needs may face what many people would consider “traditional” physical, emotional, or mental developmental delays or challenges, that’s not the case for all special needs children. And while many people may equate special needs as requiring future and long-term special education and therapy, that’s not always the case either. Of course, in many cases, special needs can and does mean long-term dedication and commitment associated with caring for a lifetime of challenges no one person should have to face alone. Regardless of the specifics, special needs adoption encompasses quite a range of issues from experiencing a medically correctable/curable condition, to the child’s age (most older child adoptions fall into the special needs category), to being a member of a sibling group, to transracial or intercultural adoption, to having spent any amount of time in an orphanage or other institutional-type setting.
Families considering special needs adoption should do extensive research in order to better understand what special needs will mean for them, what children are available for special needs adoption, what they can expect initially and long-term, and how to prepare for special needs adoption in order to be most effective for the child. While healthy doses of love, patience, and understanding should be anticipated as being part of the special needs adoption equation, you should be making sure you are as prepared and educated as possible when considering such an important and special journey.
Are You Ready?
The Adoption.com “Special Needs Adoption Guide” is a valuable resource for those considering special needs adoption as it provides the reader with an overview of all that is involved in the process as well as some challenges prospective parents need to consider about special needs adoption, not just in theory, but how pursuing this path will physically play out in their world. For example, understanding that no matter how thorough you may be in requesting medical information about your child ahead of the adoption, you may not receive every detail and some information may not be available or included in your child’s case file, especially when considering international adoption. The guide also discusses trauma as a special need. It is important to note, and as the guide points out, chances are that “trauma” will not be listed in your child’s file; however, it is widely accepted at this point that trauma can and usually does impact all adopted children in some way—whether it happens in utero, as a result of separation from a caregiver, or other factors and issues such as neglect or abuse.
While all of that may sound scary, as author Elizabeth Curry points out in the Adoption.com article, “Adoption Parenting and Secondary Trauma,” “No one sets out to adopt a child expecting to also experience trauma. That’s just not part of the happy adoption scenario. But adoption is also born in loss. Loss and pain actually are a part of the adoption story, though the degree to which they influence an individual and a family will vary. Because loss and pain are present, the possibility of trauma is always hovering in the wings. Knowing ahead of time that this is true, adoptive parents can be proactive in both self-care and getting the help they need before a family reaches the crisis point.”
How to Adopt
For an overview of how to adopt a child, visit Adoption.com’s “How to Adopt a Child Guide” for information on everything from your initial decision to consider adoption as a way to grow your family, to helpful reading resources about adoption, to choosing the type of adoption you would like to pursue, to finding agencies and completing the required steps.
As with all adoptions, special needs adoption requires adopting families to complete a home study. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, “The laws of every state and the District of Columbia require all prospective adoptive parents (no matter how they intend to adopt) to participate in a home study conducted by a licensed social worker or caseworker. This process has three purposes:
- “Educate and prepare the prospective family for adoption;
- “Evaluate the capability and suitability of the prospective family to adopt; and
- “Gather information about the prospective adoptive family that will help a social worker match the family with a child or youth whose needs they can best meet (applicable to adoptions in which public child welfare agencies are involved).”
“10 Things You Need To Know When You’re Preparing for a Home Study” provides helpful information on how to best prepare for your home study, explains what you can expect during your home study, and how to find a home study professional. It also describes the differences between a domestic home study and international home study, as well as potential differences with a foster care home study.
How to Prepare for Special Needs Adoption
Research. The online research library Questia offers an expansive list of books and articles spanning a variety of issues involving special needs adoption here.
Talk to Other Adoptive Families. One of the best ways to really research what special needs adoption will mean for your family is to get to know other adoptive families who have researched, pursued, finalized, and are living the life. In the article “Considering Special Needs Adoption?” author Ellen Haws talks about what it’s really like to have a child with special needs in your life.
Consult with Professionals. One of the first things you should do when considering adoption—special needs or otherwise—is to inventory your area for pediatricians, specialists, school staff, and community services geared toward the adoption community. In order to properly diagnose and understand a child’s condition and prepare a treatment plan and prognosis, it is important that prospective parents speak with a doctor or specialist. And while you don’t have to choose a doctor who is familiar with adoption, you can see why it may hold some advantages. Similarly, depending on what type of special needs issue(s) your child may have, you will want to know the professionals most familiar with his condition ahead of time.
Special needs medical conditions (small and large) can range from prenatal risks to developmental issues to congenital conditions. Some special needs conditions may require therapeutic or medical interventions for just a short period or during the child’s entire life. Some non-correctable conditions can include:
- Genetic Disorders
- Brain Anomaly
- Neurological Disorders
- Rare Syndromes
- Cardiac and Pulmonary Disorders
- Shortened Life Span
- Drug and/or Alcohol Prenatal Exposure
- Psychiatric Disorders
The Types of Adoption
The process to adopt a child with special needs is identical to adopting a child domestically or internationally. Some families choose foster to adopt as well. There is no right or wrong way to adopt a child, but rather what works best for your family.
Foster to Adopt
With more than 400,000 United States children living in foster care, and over 20,000 children aging out each year, there is an ongoing and definite need for families willing to not only be foster parents but adoptive parents as well. As can be expected, children who have spent any amount of time in foster care may have faced many ups and downs from medical to physical to emotional and mental. Special needs kids need homes just as much as any other child. It will be important to ask questions and work with your social worker to make sure that you are equipped and ready to handle the challenges ahead—but know that in choosing to adopt a child from foster care, you are greatly increasing his chances of reaching his full potential and filling a very special role in his life.
Domestic vs. International Special Needs Adoption
According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, although “the federal government doesn’t formally define special needs, states often define the term ‘special needs’ differently for purposes of children’s eligibility to receive Federal Adoption Assistance when adopted from the U.S. foster care system.”
Most international adoptions are considered by adoption professionals to be, to some extent, special needs, due in part to the fact that the adopted child has spent a certain amount of time in an orphanage or institutional setting where he is less likely to have had one-on-one time with a caregiver and in some cases, experienced less than ideal living conditions, including lack of food, clothing, shelter, medicine, as well as basic interaction and age-appropriate education. It should be noted that what is considered to be special needs in a foreign country may not fit the criteria of special needs in the United States. Some countries have separate adoption programs with different guidelines specifically for children with special needs.
Just like in the United States, the definition of special needs, when combined with the word adoption, is sometimes vastly different than would be a regular special needs diagnosis according to a country’s law (the exact definition depends on the country itself). The internationally adopted child may be classified as special needs in his country of origin, but would not be classified as such in the United States foster care system.
Some of the items that tend to play a part in categorizing a child as special needs, depending on the country, include:
- Emotional, physical, or developmental disabilities or delays
- Sibling group
- Condition(s) that require medical attention (large or small)
How to Find Children Waiting for Adoption
You can find a listing of all waiting children, including United States foster care and international children at Adoption.com here.
Special needs adoption is available across state lines as well as internationally. Visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway for information on your state and go to the Country Page at Travel.state.gov for detailed adoption information on specific countries.
Adoption can be expensive, especially for families who choose to take the private domestic and international routes where costs range anywhere between $30,000 to $50,000 or more. Typically, it is less costly to adopt a child with special needs. Prospective parents should work with your agency to see if a sliding scale is available. Special needs children also may be eligible to receive subsidies to cover medical expenses and other related expenses. An adoption subsidy is a monthly payment from your state that may be available to you based on the needs of your adopted child. Oftentimes, children who are considered to have special needs are eligible for programs such as Early Intervention Services, Social Security Disability, Adoption Subsidy, and Medicaid. Additionally, adopting a child from foster care costs very little to nothing, depending on the state.
Prospective parents may want to look into the grants and loans available adoptive families. Several organizations offer assistance to families based on adoption status, expenses, and other related issues. These include:
Adoption Tax Credit
Yet another financial resource prospective parents should consider is the adoption tax credit. According to the North American Council on Adoptable Children, “families who finalized the adoption of a child who has been determined to have special needs in 2019 can claim the full credit of $14,080 regardless of their adoption expenses. The credit for all other adopted children is based on the family’s qualified adoption expenses.” The website further explains that to be considered (for the 2018 tax credit) a child with special needs, the child had to meet all three of the following characteristics:
- “The child was a citizen or resident of the United States or its possessions at the time the adoption effort began (US child).
- “A state (including the District of Columbia) has determined that the child cannot or should not be returned to his or her parents’ home.
- “The state has determined that the child will not be adopted unless assistance is provided to the adoptive parents. Factors used by states to make this determination include… the child’s ethnic background and age, whether the child is a member of a minority or sibling group, and whether the child has a medical condition or a physical, mental, or emotional handicap.”
Not all disabled children are considered special needs and children who have been adopted internationally are not considered special needs for the adoption tax credit. Statistically, “about 10 percent of children adopted from foster care do not receive adoption assistance support.”
Making the Decision
The fact is, there are a lot of kids waiting for their chance at a forever home and although the special needs adoption process may add a few more twists and turns to your adoption journey and the road won’t always be smooth, the opportunities for shared love and learning and growth can be rewarding to the right kind of parent.
By doing your research, asking yourself important questions, and reaching out to those who are living with special needs you will develop a clearer picture of what to expect and know for sure if special needs adoption is right for you.