Children cannot wait. The urgency of clearing hurdles and forging connections for children who need families keeps adoption professionals firmly focused on the present. Still, as we do what is necessary to help children waiting for adoption today, we can learn from the history of adoption over the last several decades.

As of September 2012, and according to the Children’s Bureau and Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS), there were 399,546 children in out-of-home care.  In 1976, however, there were roughly 500,000 U.S. children in out-of-home care. Many remained in care longer than five years, and some children changed foster homes 18 or 20 times. A disproportionate number were children of color and sibling groups, and children with a variety of disabilities, such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy, and Down’s syndrome.  Just six years later, in 1982, there were roughly 275,000 children in out-of-home care. The number had been reduced significantly. Why did this number fall so dramatically? And why did it rise again, beginning in the 1980s?

Until the 1960s, adoption professionals and the general public both thought of adoption almost exclusively in terms of healthy infants. For older children and children with disabilities, there was family foster care or group residential care. But a handful of determined Michigan foster parents changed all of that.  In the early 1960′s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Peter and Joyce Forsythe entered the world of adoption.  Already biological parents of two, they applied to their public adoption agency for a child who was, in Joyce’s words, “past the supply and demand curve.” Then the Forsythe’s waited four long years. Meanwhile, they met other “room-for-one-more” families stalled in the same holding pattern. One day in 1967, they saw documented evidence that the agency keeping them waiting had 889 waiting children. Soon after,  the Council on Adoptable Children (COAC) was formed in their living room.

As one of COAC’s first projects, the Forsythes and other parent advocates organized the historic Frontiers in Adoption conference, which took place early in 1968 under the auspices of the Michigan Department of Social Services. Interest generated by the conference led to the establishment of Spaulding for Children in Michigan, led by Kathryn S. Donley, to other Spaulding agencies around the country, and then to the national Family Builders’ Network. In 1969, Homes for Black Children was established in Detroit. Meanwhile, local Councils for Adoptable Children were springing up around the country, and by 1974 the group became the North American Council on Adoptable Children.  It took time for this new way of thinking to percolate through the many systems involved in adoption.   By the mid-1970s, dramatic changes were underway and a network of adoption professionals with the same philosophy, knowledge, and skills came together.

When the number of children in care began falling significantly, many thought the problem was well on its way to being solved. But in 1980 there was a fundamental shift in national priorities away from children and families.  Adoption program budgets were slashed and staff turnover rates soared. In subsequent years, the recession, the increase in homelessness, the substance abuse crisis, and the dramatic increase in child abuse and neglect resulting from all three diverted attention and resources away from adoption.   Adoption rates plummeted, and children in need of homes sat…and waited.

Adoptive parents play a leading role in the field of special needs adoption.  Any solution that does not include them is doomed to fail.  Adoption advocacy needs a focal point.  If the children are visible– no matter how serious their problems are– families will almost always come forward. Photolisting books; state, regional, and national exchanges; and “A Child is Waiting” television, newspaper, and social media features are all highly effective recruitment tools for special needs adoption.

Adoption is a lifelong experience. An adoption isn’t completed when the legal papers are signed; it is just the beginning. Families need access to ongoing post-adoption services.  Adoption subsidies are essential to support adoption of children with special needs. Many families who can provide loving, nurturing homes have modest or moderate incomes.   They are in need of financial support to make the adoption of special needs children a reality.  Losing the federal adoption assistance program would derail our best efforts to increase adoptions.  Successful adoption practice requires a multidisciplinary approach. Legal and legislative barriers must be overcome, funding problems must be solved creatively, and the various parts of the child welfare system must work in harmony.

Thousands of special needs children are waiting for families today.  We know a great deal about the technical aspects of adoption and what works for children and families. We know how to recruit, prepare, and support adoptive families. But we need to keep the lessons of history before our eyes. We need strong national leadership, a national commitment to do what it takes to give youngsters the chance to grow up in loving families, and a national consensus that adoption is the best alternative for the great majority of those children who cannot remain with biological or extended families.