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For some families, the call to adopt includes the desire to reach out to a child with special circumstances. In the United States, more than 110,000 children with special needs are waiting for families. Like all children, they need the love and support that only a permanent family can provide.

The term "special needs" refers to a wide range of physical, mental and emotional challenges. These challenges can range from minor to severe and a child may have one or a combination of special issues. The American Academy of Pediatrics defines children with special needs as "those who have or are at risk for a chronic physical, developmental, behavioral, or emotional condition and who also require health and related services of a type or amount beyond that required by children generally."

In the foster care and child welfare systems, the definition is even broader than that. A child may be defined as having "special needs" because they meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • Disabilities including mental, physical and / or behavioral challenges
  • Ethnic or racial background
  • Age
  • Part of a sibling group
  • Prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol
  • Risk of physical, mental, or emotional disability based on birth family history

Any condition that makes it more difficult to find an adoptive family for a child can be considered special needs. Each state has its own definition of what that state considers special needs. Child Information Gateway provides a list of definitions of special needs by state.

Deciding to adopt a child with special needs is a decision that that family can make. No child is "unadoptable", but are you the right parents for this child? Do you have the energy, time and resources that will be needed for that particular child? One important thing to remember is that good intentions only go so far. Love does NOT conquer all. Families adopting a child with special needs should to be prepared, educated and sure that they are going to be able to provide the special care that that individual child will need.

Questions that families should ask themselves include:

  • What disabilities or special challenges am I prepared to handle?
  • What disabilities or challenges am I NOT able to handle?
  • What kind of costs might be involved in the care of a special needs child and am I able to meet those needs?
  • Will our extended family and community welcome a special needs child?
  • Where might I find support groups to help me in the raising of a special child?
  • Are there parents of children with similar issues to whom I can talk to fully understand what I might expect?
  • What is and isn't covered by our health insurance?
  • Are there local organizations or facilities able to meet the medical, emotional and/or psychological needs this child will have?

When a family is properly prepared and educated, adopting a special needs child can be the most rewarding and enriching experience they could hope for. More importantly, every child deserves the love and advocacy of a family. We hope all families will consider adopting a special child.

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