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