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Adoption of Disabled Children: Rewards and Challenges



Adopting a child with a developmental disability takes a special family. A “special needs” child requires a lifetime of commitment, stamina to physically take care of a child who may not be mobile, cannot see, hear or communicate, and a family with the persistence to advocate for their medical, social, and educational rights. It takes a family that has the ability to learn and take on the daily medical and educational requirements needed for the child to grow and develop. Above all else, a sense of commitment, understanding, and caring are needed by the adoptive family to create a loving and thriving environment for the “special needs” child.

It has been estimated that during 2012 there were 500,000 U.S. children currently in foster care with around 123,000 needing adoptive homes. Eighty-four percent, more than 103,000 children, had “special needs” ranging from learning and behavioral problems to major developmental disabilities.

Data shows that only about 2% of U.S. households include adopted children with “special needs.” Adoptive households run the range from single parents of either gender, same-sex parents creating a non-traditional family, and couples who are unable to have biological children to established families who have raised their own children and now want to care for another “very special” child.

Developmental delay is a term used to define lifelong disabilities caused by mental or physical conditions that appear before the onset of adulthood. Children defined as “special needs” may have conditions ranging from those acquired during and following birth to disorders caused by injury, illness, and disease. Cerebral Palsy, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Spina Bifida, and Down Syndrome, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, Autism, Epilepsy, and Metabolic Disorders are a few of the conditions that come under this definition.

Surveys show that “special needs” adoptive families also differ in several ways from the traditional adopting family. They are often larger and may already have biological, foster, adoptive, and “special needs” children. They may also be inspired to adopt for religious or societal reasons or may have special skills such as prior medical, social work, or educational training. They see themselves as being able to provide loving, stable homes and may already have experience with nurturing a “special needs” child.

There are monetary benefits allocated to adoptive families to help with medical, educational, and day-to-day expenses, but apart from this assistance, the non-monetary benefits of adopting a child with disabilities are great. Every child has the right to a loving, caring, and nurturing home; the adoptive family benefits, too. A colleague once told me about an adoptive family in New York with a 5-year-old severely-disabled child. The boy was blind and deaf. His huge smile was his only form of communication. Most people felt sorry for the family and particularly for the parents. The family was not sorry for themselves; in fact, they felt very fortunate. They had the opportunity to give and receive unconditional love!

Each child is unique. No child is perfect; physically, mentally, or emotionally, and each stage of development brings its own challenges. “Special needs” children may require more in-depth care but still need the same loving, caring home as any other child.