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 Article of Interest - Special Needs Adoptions

Special Needs Adoption FAQ


Part 1: What Prospective Adoptive Parents Need to Know

About 134,000 children are waiting to be adopted right now out of the half million US children in foster care. The rest will eventually be reunited with birth families or will "age out" of the system while waiting to be reunited.

Part 2: Eight frequently asked questions

Here is a special needs adoption FAQ, and some brief answers.

Part 3: Special Needs Adoption Advocacy Resources

This listing contains adoption-related resources with an emphasis on legal issues, advocacy, parent support, adoption links, and much more.


Mother cuddling her child.


Part 1: What Prospective Adoptive Parents Need to Know
Compiled by Rita Laws, Ph.D.

Key Points

About 134,000 children are waiting to be adopted right now out of the half million US children in foster care. The rest will eventually be reunited with birth families 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 issues (English as a Second Language), 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 book "Adopting and Advocating for the Special Needs Child" details the self-directed approach, but, briefly, 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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Part 2: Eight frequently asked questions

From the book "Adopting and Advocating for the Special Needs Child", by L. Anne Babb and Rita Laws, 1997, Bergin & Garvey, Westport, CT, copyright (c) 1997 by L. Anne Babb, Ph.D, and Rita Laws, Ph.D. Reprinted by permission

On the Internet, discussion and information sites called newsgroups have FAQs, or computerized files listing all of the "Frequently Asked Questions" that people have about that topic. Borrowing from this concept, here is a special needs adoption FAQ, and some brief answers. See corresponding topics throughout the book for more detail.

1. Are there any babies available for adoption?

Yes, there are adoptable infants with special needs. They are usually of mixed and minority race. Many have challenges associated with pre-natal drug exposure. Some of them are at risk of developing disabilities later, or have been exposed to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Unlike adopting healthy or low-risk babies, adopting infants with special needs usually requires a shorter wait, modest or no cost, and includes financial assistance programs for both the adoption, and for the cost of raising the child. Healthy U.S.-born Caucasian toddlers, pre-schoolers and small pre-school aged sibling groups of two members are just as rare as healthy Caucasian infants and are usually not considered to have "special needs."

2. Can I adopt transracially?

Yes. Ideally, children are placed with same-race parents, but until recruitment of minority families improves, transracial adoption will remain an option for those children who would not otherwise have found permanency.

Transracial adoption is not illegal anywhere in the U.S. In fact, it is illegal to use race as the only factor in matching. When reasonable efforts to obtain a same race family have failed, transracial placement may be considered. Prospective adoptive parents who know of a child of a race different from theirs who has been waiting for a family should be sure to inquire of the social worker when transracial placement can be considered.

3. Can I adopt an American Indian child?

The federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) requires adoption agencies to try to place children with American Indian blood within their extended family and tribes first, within other tribes next, and then with non-Indian families who would raise the child in a culturally aware environment. Tribes may elect to be involved in adoptions involving their children, or they may choose to allow the adoption agency a "free hand." Either way, the tribes must be given the opportunity to have involvement.

Waiting American Indian babies are rare. Most of the American Indian children in photolisting books who are able to be adopted transracially are older, have siblings who must be placed with them, or have significant disabilities.

When a waiting Native American child has special needs, the tribe to which an adopting parent and the amount of Indian blood he or she has are less important than in situations where young and healthy children need families. If a person has even one Indian ancestor, he or she should try to obtain documentation of that fact, and then contact the appropriate tribe for more information about waiting children.

4. Will the birth parents change their minds?

Many adoptive parents are concerned about placement reversals in light of all the publicity some overturned independent adoptions have received. However, it is very rare that special needs adoptions entail significant legal risk. Unlike healthy infant placements, children with special needs have usually been in the child welfare system for months or years, and their birthparents' rights are already terminated or can be quickly terminated. Custody battles, when they do occur, are resolved before the child's availability becomes known and the photolisting is made.

There is less ongoing birth parent-adoptive parent contact in special needs adoption because many waiting children were removed from their birth parents due to abuse or neglect, and ongoing contact would not be in the child's best interests. When birth family contact is mandated or sought in special needs adoption, it usually occurs when foster parents have adopted the child, and involves birth family relatives other than the birth parents, such as grandparents, siblings, aunts, or uncles.

5. What will an adoption cost?

The cost varies from place to place but the good news is that with careful planning, special needs adoption can be a low-cost or no-cost process. Most expenses involved in most of the authors' domestic special needs adoptions were reimbursed to them.

State or public adoption agencies do not usually charge for any special needs adoption service. Fees at private adoption agencies for adoption services vary widely from no charge at all to several thousand dollars, or more.

When a domestic special needs adoption takes place in a state offering "Purchase of Services", the state with custody of the child may pay some or all of the private adoption expenses for the adoptive parent or parents. This is how a private agency can afford to operate without charging the family a homestudy or placement fee. Adoptive parents should be sure and ask a private agency about "Purchase of Service adoptions."

In the U.S., up to $2,000 of a family's one-time special needs adoption expenses are refundable for children who meet the requirements under the federal law. States may allow up to $2,000 per child, or less, but not more. The expenses are reimbursed after the adoption has been completed. Adoptive parents should keep receipts for all expenses from the homestudy to the cost of photolisting book subscriptions. They should be sure their agency participates in this refund program, and then be sure and request the necessary forms after placement has occurred but before the adoption is legally finalized. State and federal programs are also available to help parents with the cost of raising adopted children with special needs. Such assistance is discussed in the chapter about Finances.

6. How long will an adoption take?

The time involved differs from place to place, and adoption to adoption. The authors have both had adoptions that took only 40 days from application to matching. Anne experienced the equivalent of a one day adoption when she and her husband legally adopted their 18-year-old former foster daughter. Rita's adoptions averaged three months each after she understood the process. The first adoption application for Rita, though, did not bear fruit for several years. Anne's first adoption took over 18 months.

The important thing to remember is that special needs adoption is not a passive process. A person who sits by the phone and waits can sit there for a very long time. There are concrete things a person can do to hasten the process.

7. Why does the adoption process take so long?

Another way of asking this question is, "If so many kids are waiting, why is adoption so difficult?" The answer is simple and two-fold: Agencies must screen people who want to adopt children. This takes time and requires paperwork. The homestudy is designed to protect the child from adults who would abuse children. A second reason is that we don't have enough social workers, and the ones we do have tend to be overworked.

Everyone agrees that adoption generally takes too long and can be immensely frustrating and complex. But there are ways to successfully work within the system. This book is designed to help streamline the adoption process and minimize frustration. There are many ways to make the process an easier one.

8. What is a subsidy?

An adoption subsidy, also known as an Adoption Assistance Payment (AAP), is a monthly check that is paid to adoptive parents until their adopted child with special needs is grown. The AAP is intended to help parents with the expenses of raising the child. The idea behind subsidies is that no child should be denied permanency because of money, and no family should have to sacrifice their standard of living or face bankruptcy to adopt a waiting child with expensive special needs.

The national average basic AAP rate is $328 per child. Subsidies have made special needs adoption affordable for tens of thousands of Americans who otherwise could not have adopted a waiting child. Since subsidized adoptions are less costly than long-term foster care, AAP has saved the American taxpayers a great deal of money, too.

A helpful book is: "Adoption Assistance: Tools for Navigating the Bureaucracy" by Tim O'Hanlon and Rita Laws.

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Part 3: Special Needs Adoption Advocacy Resources

Adoption Policy Resource Center, maintained by Dr. Tim O'Hanlon of Adoption Advocates.
Adoption Advocates provides:
direct advocacy for individual adoptive families;
systemic advocacy for adoption organizations and coalitions;
technical assistance, including case law, to legislators, administrators at all levels of government and lawyers representing the interests of adoptive families;
policy research and analysis, disseminated through the Adoption Advocates newsletter, Issues in Adoption Advocacy.
the online Adoption Policy Resource Center, which offers access to a variety of useful information resources on adoption to a wide audience.
Established by Steven Humerickhouse and Timothy O'Hanlon in 1995, this site supports adoption through direct advocacy for individual adoptive families and provides technical assistance to organizations and professionals.

Adoption Information, Laws and Reforms
Many helpful links from the Adoption Ring. The Adoption Ring is a public service ring dedicated to the best interests of adoption triad members. It is an ever expanding group of over 300 pages designed to allow web surfers to navigate educational adoption sites just by clicking the "Back and "Next" buttons found on each page. 

FindLaw is dedicated to making legal information such as state laws and adoption laws on the Internet easy to find. Maintained by Martin Roscheisen, Tim Stanley and Stacy Stern. Features include:
The FindLaw Guide to Internet legal resources. This comprehensive guide includes links to resources in over 30 practice areas, case law and codes, legal associations, law schools, law reviews,and more!
The LawCrawler - an innovative search tool powered by the AltaVista™ search engine and database that provides precision by enabling searches to be focused on sites with legal information and within specific domains. Cases & Codes - search our growing library of case law, including Supreme Court Decisions, and selected state codes. Law Review Search & Services from FindLaw you can search law reviews with full text articles online, and this is just the beginning.

North American Council on Adoptable Children
NACAC is not a placement agency, but a national nonprofit that researches adoption issues, educates members of the adoption community and the general public about adoption, and advocates for every child's right to a permanent family. Over the past two decades NACAC has supported over 600 adoptive parent groups, published significant research findings, and provided expert testimony to federal and state governments, universities, major foundations, and media representatives. NACAC provides technical consulting to answer parents' and adoption workers' questions about state and federal adoption programs.

National Adoption Information Clearinghouse
The National Adoption Information Clearinghouse is a comprehensive resource on all aspects of adoption, including infant, inter-country, and special needs adoption. Established in 1987, NAIC is a service of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, Department of Health and Human Services. This is THE place to order free copies of state and federal adoption laws!

The Children's Bureau
The oldest federal agency for children, the Children's Bureau (CB) is located within the United States Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families. It is responsible for assisting States in the delivery of child welfare services - services designed to protect children and strengthen families. The agency provides grants to States, Tribes and communities to operate a range of child welfare services including child protective services (child abuse and neglect) family preservation and support, foster care, adoption and independent living. In addition, the agency makes major investments in staff training, technology and innovative programs.

Thomas: Legislative Information on the Internet
In the Spirit of Thomas Jefferson, a service of the US Congress through its library. Acting under the directive of the leadership of the 104th Congress to make Federal legislative information freely available to the Internet public, a Library of Congress team brought the THOMAS World Wide Web system online in January 1995, at the inception of the 104th Congress. Searching capabilities in THOMAS were built on the InQuery information retrieval system, developed by the Center for Intelligent Information Retrieval based at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and now available commercially from Sovereign Hill Software.

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