Adopting a Special Needs Child from Foster Care

There are a few common questions asked by hopeful parents who are considering adopting from foster care: “Are most children ‘special needs’?” “If you complete a foster adoption, will you know if the baby has developmental problems?” “What does ‘special needs’ mean in foster care adoption, and how will I know what I can handle?”

There are a significant number of children in foster care who are considered “special needs.” So, you’ll likely encounter some adoption opportunities that fall under that umbrella term.

Some hopeful parents are intimidated by the thought of adopting a child with that special needs label, while others purposefully seek it out. No matter what, if you’re considering adopting a child through foster care at all, you should learn more about special needs and what it means.

Here, learn more about adopting a “special needs” child from foster care to determine whether it might be right for your family.

Defining “Special Needs:” It Doesn’t Always Mean What You Think

When some people think of the term “special needs,” they assume a child has severe physical, mental or emotional conditions. While some children in foster care will certainly deal with some of those types of needs, or even with some minor developmental delays as a result of the loss and trauma that is inherent in foster care, that doesn’t cover the full spectrum of “special needs” in foster care.

The term “special needs” is a fairly broad term that is applied to any child who may have a harder time finding a permanent adoption placement due to being:

  • An older child
  • Of a certain race or ethnic group
  • Part of a sibling group that must be adopted together
  • A child who has some type of medical condition
  • A child who has physical, mental, or emotional disabilities

Children in foster care who are considered “special needs” do not always require special education or medical treatment. Many of the children are considered special needs simply because they are not the healthy newborns that are in such high demand.

Of course, there are also children in foster care who do have special mental, emotional, medical or developmental needs. Some people intentionally seek out these children and are specifically interested in adopting a child with Down syndrome from foster care, or a child with mobility issues. Here are some of the most common, and what you should know about each:

  • Autism: As a broad characterization of certain symptoms, autism can encompass many things. However, most children on the autism spectrum struggle with gastrointestinal discomfort, seizures or sleep disorders, sensitivity to sensory stimuli, anxiety, depression, attention issues and sometimes difficulty with social connections.
  • Down syndrome: Adoption and fostering babies with Down syndrome is a common interest, because DS is not uncommon in foster care populations. It’s a genetic condition that can cause some physical and mental issues, like increased risk for hearing and eye issues as well as delayed speech and motor skills.
  • Cerebral Palsy: This type of motor disability covers a number of physical developmental issues, so the symptoms can vary from one child to the next. Some children are able to walk and talk well with special equipment and physical therapy, while others may need lifelong care, depending on the severity and type of CP.
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: If a mother consumed alcohol during her pregnancy, it can cause physical or mental problems for the child. Many of the children affected by FASD have physical abnormalities and/or struggle with focusing and learning, emotional difficulties, vision or hearing problems, ADHD or other issues, which can vary fairly widely.
  • Shaken Baby Syndrome or other brain injuries: In the fragile state of infancy, an accident or act of abuse may have occurred that caused irreparable damage to a child’s brain and body. The effects of these types of injuries can vary, but can leave a child wheelchair-bound, nonverbal and/or cause conditions like cerebral palsy, seizures, or halted mental development.

A child’s individual needs should always be discussed with his or her social worker before you either accept or decline an adoption opportunity. They’ll be able to most accurately help you assess if you’re able to provide for a certain child’s needs more than our general description of a diagnosis!

Why Children with Special Needs Enter Foster Care

Children in foster care face unique challenges through no fault of their own.

Unlike in private domestic placements, children who enter foster care are involuntarily removed from their homes due to neglect or abuse. Many of these children have typical physical, mental and emotional needs, but are labeled “special needs” when they enter foster care because of the criteria listed above — they are older, part of a sibling group or of a certain racial or ethnic background.

However, in some situations, the child may have special physical, mental or emotional needs as a result of the neglect or abuse that caused them to be removed from their homes. In other situations, you can understand why some parents of children with special needs may have been under additional pressure and found themselves unable to properly provide for their child.

Caring for a child is always financially, emotionally and physically difficult, and it requires significant time, knowledge and effort. If a child has above-average needs in some way, he or she will require more — financially, emotionally and physically, in addition to more time, effort and knowledge. Not all parents have all of those resources, even if they try their best.

Although removal from biological family and familiar settings is a traumatizing experience for a child, the hope is that he or she will find a permanent home with a loving family that is also able to provide for their specific needs, whatever they may be.

The Benefits and Challenges of a Special Needs Foster Care Adoption

Parenting always involves struggles and rewards, but adoption brings some of its own benefits and challenges into the mix. If you foster-to-adopt special needs children, you will experience things that are unique to that process.

For the parents, some of the benefits include…

  • The ability to choose what types of needs you’re prepared to handle.
  • Shorter waits for a placement, because of the increased availability of waiting children of varying needs.
  • Greater financial assistance to offset some of the increased costs of raising a child with special needs.
  • Having a child to love, and who loves you.

For the child, some of the benefits include…

  • Having a permanent home, often after a longer-than-usual wait.
  • A family who is able to provide for their needs — financially, emotionally, physically and more.
  • Better care through their new parents’ insurance.
  • Having a family to love, and who loves them.

Adopting a special needs child from foster care is not right for everyone, and it will never be easy. But for hopeful parents who are ready and able, there are many children who have a lot of love to give, regardless of some of the setbacks they’ve faced in their young lives.

Is Adopting a Child with Special Needs Right for You?

Some prospective parents are very confident that they have the resources and education required to adopt a child with special needs from foster care. Others are unsure.

Remember that every child who is labeled as “special needs” will have their own unique needs, and to varying degrees. It’s important that you are very honest with yourself about what you can handle, as well as your motivations for adopting a special needs child. Understand that it’s good to say “no” to adoption opportunities if a certain child’s needs are beyond what you feel comfortable handling — he or she will find a family who is right for them!

In addition to your foster care professional and parents who have adopted children with special needs, there are resources that can help you learn more about this path and prepare you, so you can decide what’s best for your family before moving forward.

The Special Needs Alliance has a list of questions that you should ask yourself when deciding what you might be able to handle in a special needs adoption, in addition to other helpful resources throughout their site. This blog also details some of the more common medical conditions that children in foster care have, so you can begin to consider the conditions you would be open to and prepared for.

Meet the Special Needs Children Waiting to Be Adopted

If you’re ready to foster-to-adopt special needs children, or if you’re open to adopting a child with some degree of special needs, start by reaching out to your state’s foster care organization to learn more about the process and requirements.

Or, start by viewing profiles of waiting children to learn more about them here  and here.