Special Needs

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special needs

The term is supposed to refer to conditions or characteristics that make a child difficult to place by the state adoption unit or an adoption agency, some of which have nothing to do with the health or temperament of the child. It has also, however, come to be used alternately with "hard to place," now widely misunderstood. Most agencies consider children and infants who are black or biracial to be children with special needs.

Other categories of so-called special needs include sibling groups, children over age six or eight and children who have been physically or sexually abused. Many children with special needs have lived with foster parents for at least a year, and some social workers consider a child to have a special need simply because he or she has lived in a foster home.

Handicaps

Children with special needs may suffer permanent or temporary disabilities, for example, cerebral palsy or a club foot. If the birthmother was a drug or alcohol abuser, her child may have been affected in utero from drug or alcohol exposure. A baby or child born to a mother with aids and who tests HIV positive at birth is definitely considered a child with special needs. (See AIDS)

Some social workers consider the background of the birthmother in evaluating a child as having potential special needs, but if the pregnant woman abused alcohol or drugs during her pregnancy, the caseworker may wait until the child is born before making a determination on whether the baby will be categorized as having special needs or not.

In other cases, if the birthmother or birthfather or their parents were schizophrenic, alcoholics, criminals, drug abusers or exhibited other diseases or maladaptive syndromes, the social worker may automatically categorize the child as one with special needs, based on suspected GENETIC PREDISPOSITION.

Siblings

Children with special needs may be healthy physically and mentally but belong to a sibling group. A sibling group of just two siblings-even healthy white children ages one and two-can cause the children to be categorized as having "special needs," and the more siblings in the family, the more difficult the placement. (See SIBLINGS.)

The reason behind the difficulty in placing the children is that most social workers strive to keep siblings together, believing the trauma they experienced in separating from their birthparents could be unbearably complicated if they are forced to separate from each other. If siblings are sexually or physically abusive with each other, this guideline is relaxed, and siblings are separated.

Many children with special needs are siblings, and consequently, a 10-year-old female and her 12-year-old brother would usually be categorized as having special needs because they are siblings as well as because they are over age eight. (Children over age six or eight are considered to have special needs by many states; others raise the age level to age 10 or older, depending on the difficulty in placing the children.)

Teenagers

Teenagers are one of the most difficult categories of children to place, yet often a suitable family can be found, and many social workers are very successful at finding good homes for adolescents.

Older children often remember their biological parents and may initially resent being adopted. They may exhibit reclusive behavior or may be unusually clingy with the adoptive parents. They may shun affection or demand it. They will often exhibit behavior considered inappropriate for their age, either too childlike or too adult.

The adoptions of older children are considered a greater risk than the adoption of infants. Studies have revealed, however, that older children who are adopted can adapt very successfully to their new homes. Studies have also found a strong correlation between large families and successful placements. (See MIXED FAMILIES.)

According to psychologist David Brodzinsky et al. in the book Children's Adjustment to Adoption: Developmental and Clinical Issues, there are five key areas that are important to the outcome of the adoption of a child with special needs. They are: "integrating the child into the family; forming attachments and supporting the grief process; maintaining realistic expectations regarding child behavior and family functioning; managing troublesome child behavior; and utilizing supports and social services."

For example, in the area of "integrating the child into the family," Brodzinsky and his colleagues say that parents can ease the way for the child by taking into account previous routines and adapting them for the new family. Identifying and concentrating on similarities between family members and the child is another good way to help the child become an integral family member.

Behavioral Problems

The child's own behavior, for example, precocious sexual behavior, aggressive or abusive behavior, chronic bedwetting or other actions that would require a great deal of understanding and adjustment on the part of adoptive parents, could categorize the child as one with special needs.

Foster Children and Developmental Delays

Children who are developmentally delayed may or may not "catch up," depending on the situation. Social workers should provide as much information as possible to adopting parents; however, social workers cannot always predict how a child will respond and whether or nor a child's behavior will significantly change. In addition, very often social workers do not have access to information about the child. (See DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES.)

Black and Biracial Children

Black and biracial infants and children are considered to have special needs even when they are physically normal and of a normal intelligence. Unfortunately, ethnicity alone is often sufficient criteria to categorize these children as having a "special need." Race becomes a double-edged issue in this case because the policies of nearly every state seem to be saying, by virtue of inclusion in this category of "special needs," that being nonwhite makes a child less appealing to prospective adoptive parents, and the equivalent of a child born with severe physical and mental problems. This policy seems to some experts to reflect the worst sort of racism.

But the label "special needs" also carries a benefit that may be the reason for the silence of the minority and multiethnic community: "special needs" adoptions are not only usually free but often parents also receive payments from the ADOPTION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (subsidies), as well as MEDICAID for the child, and other benefits.

For demographic and other reasons, and despite 20 years of active efforts to recruit minority adoptive applicants, there are apparently still not enough black families interested in or aware of the need for families of many black and biracial children. As a result, many remain in foster homes until they "age out" in adulthood. Some social workers have strongly suggested that adoptive recruitment efforts in black communities have been woefully inadequate and hypothesize that greater numbers of black families would be interested in adoption if they had information on the need and the children. Other black social workers say the problem is not recruitment efforts, the race of staff or inappropriate requirements. (See BLACK ADOPTIVE PARENT RECRUITMENT PROGRAMS.)

Many social workers do not wish to place children in transracial adoptions; however, increasing numbers of adoption agencies and even state agencies are beginning to make these types of placements especially in the face of the MULTIETHNIC PLACEMENT ACT.

TRANSRACIAL ADOPTION is a hotly disputed topic in the field of social work today, and some families have sued agencies for violating their civil rights by refusing to allow them to adopt across racial or nationality lines.

Social workers may be more willing to arrange an adoption for a child who is part Asian and part Caucasian or part Latino, part Caucasian in a Caucasian home. Policies vary from agency to agency and from state to state, in part because Congress has failed to set a common definition.

Children from Other Countries

Children adopted through international adoption agencies or private sources may also suffer medical or mental problems and may be classified as a child with special needs by a private adoption agency, although their disabilities are generally far more severe than an American-born child with special needs.

A child with ailments not commonly found in the United States would be considered a child with special needs. A child needing corrective surgery would also be considered to have special needs, for example, a child with a club foot or a cleft palate. If the child remained in the foreign land, this condition might never be corrected, yet the birth defect might be relatively simple for U.S. doctors to correct.

A child from overseas might have minor problems that are readily resolved such as lice or scabies, or suffer from chronic diarrhea or other medical problems, but these problems would usually not be considered special needs because they are regarded as temporary and correctable.

Children adopted from other countries may also be categorized as children with special needs for the same reasons as U.S. children are so labeled: over age eight, member of a sibling group, mixed-race child, and so on, but they generally do not qualify for federal benefits as U.S.-born children may.

Definitions of "Special Needs" Vary

The designation of "special needs" varies from agency to agency and state to state, and a child who is viewed as having a special need in one adoption agency may be perceived as a healthy child by another agency.

Agencies often list categories they consider to be special needs on an adoption application, asking prospective parents to indicate their willingness or unwillingness to accept specific special needs by checking yes, no or maybe for each condition.

In addition, when a pregnant woman states her desire to place her child for adoption, she may be questioned closely on medical and possible mental problems in her family background.

A very common misperception about children with special needs dominates the views of many lay people: The average American frequently thinks a child with special needs is one who is profoundly retarded or severely disabled, such as a quadriplegic or blind child.

Although seriously handicapped children are considered to have a special need, many children who are also considered to have special needs may be intellectually and physically normal. A significant number are "developmentally delayed," which means they are a year or more behind in school and their behavior is not equivalent to what would be expected of a child their chronological age. See ADOPTION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM for the definition of special needs under which such adoptions may be subsidized.

Families Who Adopt Children with Special Needs

Barbara Moulden Reid compared and contrasted families who adopt infants with families who adopt children with special needs for her doctoral dissertation.

She found adopters of children with special needs place a greater emphasis on flexibility, patience and motivation to adopt, while those families who adopted healthy white infants greatly stressed the importance of their spousal relationship; a love of children and the desire for parenthood as their main reasons for wanting to adopt.

Families who adopt children with special needs are frequently older, more educated and married longer than the infant adopters. Many agencies have an upper age limit of about age 45 for infant adopters, but the age limit is relaxed considerably for special needs adopters.

Many families who adopt children with special needs already have children, and this experience is seen as a plus by numerous agencies. In contrast, a large number of adoption agencies who work with infant adoptions restrict their applications to childless couples or couples with only one child. Agency practices probably contributed greatly to this difference.

Single people are usually allowed to apply to adopt American children with special needs, whereas they are often banned from adopting infants. Many singles have successfully adopted and raised children with special needs; others resent being offered only a child whose needs are complex, believing that a single person would have a harder time caring for a child with serious problems than caring for a healthy infant.

The federal government does partially subsidize the adoption of some special needs children. See ADOPTION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM. (see also ADOPTION ASSISTANCE AND CHILD WELFARE ACT OF 1980; ADOPTIVE PARENTS; DOWN SYNDROME; SIBLINGS, SUPPORT GROUPS; TRANSRACIAL ADOPTION.)

Adoptive Parents

Some experts say that college-educated individuals may have a more difficult time in parenting children with special needs because of ingrained high expectations that children could have trouble achieving. Researchers such as Barth have found higher rates of adoption DISRUPTION among college graduate parents. Parents who already have experience with rearing children may be more successful at parenting a child with special needs, although the research is sketchy on this aspect.

What seems to be most important in successful parenting of children with special needs, particularly children who come from the foster care system, are parents who are flexible and who expect and accept that their children may have some problems because of their background of abuse or neglect. Also important are families where both mother and father are active in parenting roles.

Social workers say that adoptive parent groups can be very helpful to families who adopt children with special needs, although it may be difficult to find an appropriate group.


L. Anne Babb and Rita Laws, Adopting and Advocating for the Special Needs Child: A Guide for Parents and Professionals (Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 1997).

Barbara Moulden Reid, "Characteristics of Families Who Adopt Children with Special Needs (Parenting, Traits)," Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1983.

Katherine A. Nelson, On the Frontier of Adoption: A Study of Special-Needs Adoptive Families (Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America, 1985).

Marian Sandmaier, When Love is Not Enough: How Mental Health Professionals Can Help Special-Needs Adoptive Families (Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America, 1988).

R. Barth and M. Berry, Adoption and Disruption: Rates, Risks and Responses (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1988).

David M. Brodzinsky et al., Children's Adjustment to Adoption: Developmental and Clinical Issues (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1998).

David Howe, Patterns of Adoption (Oxford, England: Blackwell Science, 1998).

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