Of the estimated 424,000 children who have been separated from their birth families and placed in foster care, about 114,500 can never return to their original home. They need the nurturing and support that a permanent family can provide, and deserve a chance to grow up feeling secure and loved. That is where special needs adoption comes in. It is not so much about finding a child for a family, but instead finding the most suitable family for each waiting child.
"Special needs" is a phrase used to classify children who, for various reasons, have a harder time finding families who are willing to adopt them. Often special needs include factors such as age, background, and physical, mental, or emotional challenges. Typically, children who have special needs have been separated from their birth families, live in foster care, are school-aged, and may have physical or mental disabilities.
Some children have physical or mental conditions that require special treatment; others have emotional scars from abuse or neglect. Children may also be classified as having special needs if they are part of a sibling group that is being placed for adoption together, or members of a minority group. Every state sets its own special needs definition.
Step 1: Learn All You Can about Adoption
Do your research, search online, talk to others, and dig, dig, dig!
Step 2: Complete a Self-Assessment
Children don't need perfect parents, just one or two individuals willing to meet the unique challenges of parenting and make a lifetime commitment to caring for and nurturing their children. One of the advantages of special needs adoption is that almost any responsible adult can become an adoptive parent. Prospective parents do not have to be rich, married, under 40, highly educated, or home owners to adopt. Far more important are personal characteristics like:
The guide is not state-specific and is a useful tool to help individuals make informed decisions about fostering or adopting a child.
In addition, before seriously contemplating special needs adoption, prospective parents must honestly evaluate their desire and ability to successfully parent children who have troubling pasts and uncertain futures. Many children who become available for adoption at older ages have not received the early care that kids need to develop a strong sense of security, trust, and self-esteem. Many also suffer from conditions caused by past trauma, or prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs. Children whose backgrounds include traumatic experiences, abuse, and/or neglect may exhibit symptoms of distress.
Fortunately, through therapy, medication, and consistent specialized care, children can also find ways to overcome or at least better cope with many of these challenges. Almost every child will put his or her new adoptive parents through a period of testing to see if the parents are truly committed or just waiting for an excuse to desert the child as others have before.
To improve your chances of successfully adopting a child who has special needs, be prepared to offer a home environment that combines extra love, support, and attention with clear structure and consistent limit-setting. Parents should also be ready to actively advocate for their child at school, with peers, and within the community. It can be immensely helpful for parents to have a support network or belong to an adoptive parent support group.
Step 3: Decide What Type of Adoption You Want to Pursue
Even if you have already decided to adopt a child who has special needs, you must still make a number of choices about your adoption. Most importantly, you need to decide what type of child you are willing to bring into your family. What disabilities and challenges (physical, mental, emotional, or behavioral) can you comfortably handle? What age range, background, and ethnicity would fit best within your household and community? Are you open to helping your adopted child maintain contact with some of his or her birth relatives? Can you welcome a group of two or more siblings into your home?
Next, you should consider whether you would rather work through a public or a private adoption agency. Though most children who have special needs become available for adoption through the public foster care system, both public and private agencies can help you locate a child or sibling group to adopt.
In general, the differences between public and private agencies can be summarized as follows:
Step 4: Investigate Ways to Cover Likely Adoption Expenses
Many agencies do not charge service fees to families who adopt children with special needs. However, you will need a home study, and because adoption is a legal process, you may need an attorney. The cost of a home study can vary from $0 to $3,000. Attorney fees and court costs can range from $1,000 to $6,000, and special needs adoptive families often incur additional costs for medical services, counseling, etc.--costs that may continue throughout the child's lifetime. Fortunately, due to federal and employer-initiated programs, parents have several options for covering the cost of special needs adoption.
How to pay for an Adoption before and after:
Many loans are project- or item-specific, but some can be used for whatever the borrower wants. Two such flexible loans are home equity loans (money borrowed against the value of your house) and insurance loans (money borrowed against the value of your life insurance policies). These loans come with relatively low interest rates and a choice of payment terms. To learn more, contact a bank or mortgage broker, or your life insurance company.
To find as many agencies to choose from as possible:
- Visit the web, and search for adoption agencies in your state
- Contact your State's Department of Human Services
- Look in the Yellow Pages
- Reach out to adoptive parent support groups or adoptive parents
Finding the Right Agency for You:
To find a public or private agency that is a good fit for you, your values, and your unique situation, compare information from several agencies. Before selecting an agency, take the initiative to learn more about them by interviewing agency representatives by phone or in person. For example, you may want to ask:
- Who can adopt from the agency?
- What kinds of children does the agency place (ages, backgrounds, etc.)?
- Where do the agency's children come from, and how many are legally free for adoption?
- How long, on average, must one wait for a child? What is the time lapse between application and placement?
- What are the agency's requirements concerning forms, classes, fees, and visits?
- How much does a completed adoption cost--in total and part by part?
- Can the agency help applicants locate sources of financial aid, including subsidies?
- What are the home study requirements?
- How many (and what type of) children has the agency placed in each of the past few years?
- Have any of the agency's adoptions fallen through or disrupted in the past five years? What does the agency do to make sure that adoptions don't disrupt after placement?
- What is the agency's policy toward applicants who do not accept the first child offered?
- What services--such as parenting classes, support group activities, access to therapy and counseling, and respite care--will the agency provide before and after a child is placed in your home?
- Can the agency provide references from parents who recently adopted from the agency? (Your state's Adoption Specialist may also know if complaints have been filed against the agency.)
For a list of Oregon Adoption Agencies, click here
When you call an agency to let staff there know you are interested in adopting, the person you talk to may ask a series of screening questions or simply volunteer to send literature about the agency. If you want to adopt relatively soon, find out how you can get the process started.
One common first step is an orientation meeting or training session for prospective adoptive parents. At the meeting or training you will likely:
Step 7: Complete an Adoption Application
If possible, attend an orientation session before filling out application paperwork so you are confident in the agency's ability to meet your needs. Application fees are often non-refundable, even if you decide to work through a different agency or change your mind about adopting.
If you find that the application process is hard to understand, ask the agency or another adoptive parent for help. Don't let the challenges of completing forms keep you from pursuing adoption.
Find out how long it will take for the agency to process your application once you have completed the forms and paid the fee. Ask when you should next expect to hear from the agency, and how you can schedule and prepare for a home study.
Step 8: Begin the Home Study Process
A home study can loosely be defined as an educational process designed to help your social worker learn more about your ability to parent and provide a stable home, to teach you about adoption and its effect on children and families, and to prepare you to parent a child whose experiences and history are very different from your own. Everyone who hopes to adopt must have a completed home study. Depending on the agency, the worker, and the prospective parents' cooperation, the process can take from two months to a year.
Oregon Families Contact: Angela@afamilyforeverychild.org
Out of Oregon Families Contact: Hannah Williamson email@example.com
Items You May Need For a Home Study:
Specific requirements for home studies vary by state and agency, so be sure to ask for a list of the items and information your agency needs.
The following items are commonly required during the home study process:
At some point in the process, you may also need to pay for the home study. The cost through a public agency may be quite low or even free; other agencies typically charge between $3,000 and $4,000 for a completed study. (national average)
Questions You May Be Asked:
During home study meetings with your worker, you can expect to answer questions about your background, your education, your job history, your marriage, your leisure activities, your religion (particularly for religiously affiliated agencies), and your experiences with children.
The goal of home studies is to help agencies locate the best home for each child it places, and make good matches between parents and children. If you have questions about your study, ask your social worker or agency.
Step 9: Attend Adoption and Parenting Classes
Public agencies commonly require pre-placement training to acquaint prospective parents with issues that can arise after a child or sibling group is placed with them. School-aged adoptees bring not only unique special needs, but also a history of life experiences that will affect their interactions with adoptive parents, new siblings, schoolmates, and others. Issues related to disability, culture, early abuse, and a child's birth family should all be discussed before a child is placed in your home.
Even if your agency does not require training, learn all you can about adoption issues. The more you know, the better.
In Oregon, this is Foundation Classes
Step 10: Begin Searching for a Child
If you adopt through an agency, learn how the agency will conduct a search. What criteria do they use to match children with families? Are they willing or able to search outside your immediate area for a child or youth? If you become interested in a child or youth from another state, will the agency help you to move forward with adopting the child or youth?
To keep the process moving, stay in close contact with your agency and offer to help in the search process by reviewing photo listings, attending matching parties, or updating your parent profile.
Please contact us for a list of photo listing sites Nationwide-(make sure your agency will help you with children Nationwide)
Step 11: Select a Child or Sibling Group to Bring into Your Family
Before agreeing to adopt any child or sibling group, learn as much as you can about the child--including prenatal care and exposure to drugs or alcohol, birth parents' medical histories, attachments to foster families or other relatives, foster care placements, relationships with siblings, interests and talents, etc. Most agencies want adoptive parents to get to know children before agreeing to adopt. If the child has certain medical conditions or other disabilities, decide if your family is prepared to address issues that may arise from the child's situation.
Step 12: Prepare for Your Child's Arrival
Anticipate how the addition of a new family member will affect your life and plan accordingly. Depending on your situation and the child you adopt, you may need to:
Step 13: Bring the Child Home
When a new child is placed in your home, you will assume temporary legal custody. For a few months, while your family undergoes the inevitable adjustment period, your agency will monitor how the placement is proceeding.
The monitoring period typically lasts about six months to a year. During this time, the worker may call or visit to assess how you and your child are adjusting, and to answer questions. If all goes well, at the end of the monitoring period the agency will recommend to the court that the adoption be approved.
Step 14: File a Petition to Adopt
An adoption petition is the document filed in court that initiates the legal aspect of adoption. Through the petition, adoptive parents formally request permission to adopt a specific child.
Step 15: Make it Legal: Finalize the Adoption
Your adoption is not legally complete until your newly created family goes through the finalization process. Finalization hearings usually take place within a year after a child is placed in the home. Before scheduling a hearing, check with your agency to make sure you have completed the necessary paperwork. If you are missing required documents, the finalization could be delayed.
The finalization hearing is a judicial proceeding, sometimes held in the judge's chambers, during which adoptive parents are granted permanent legal custody of their adopted child. The hearing, which usually lasts only 30 to 60 minutes, is designed to establish the legality of the new family unit, and confirm that the adoptive parents are willing and able to provide for their new child.
Newer adoption-related foundations also offer financial assistance to those hoping to adopt. The organizations listed below (among others) allow or encourage parents who are hoping to adopt children from foster care to apply for assistance:
Employers who offer adoption benefits may provide workers with:
- Direct cash assistance for adoption expenses
- Reimbursement of approved adoption expenses
- Paid or unpaid leave (beyond federal leave requirements established through the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993)
- Resource and referral services
To request a list of employers who provide adoption benefits or learn more about workplace adoption benefits, contact the Adoption Friendly Workplace Program, an initiative of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. Call 877-777-4222, send an e-mail to:
Active-duty military personnel are eligible for a reimbursement of up to $2,000 per child adopted to cover one-time adoption-related costs such as application and court fees or travel expenses. No more than $5,000 can be reimbursed in any one year, and payments are only issued after adoptions are finalized.
Children who have disabilities may also be able to access up to $1,000 per month under the military's Program for Persons with Disabilities. Through the Exceptional Family Member Program, families with children who have special needs will be assigned to duty stations where the child's needs can be met.
Tax Credit and Exclusions
In March 2010, the adoption tax credit was updated and extended. Parents who finalize adoptions in tax year 2010 can claim up to $13,170 for each child they adopt. For adoptions finalized in 2010 and 2011, the credit is also refundable. That is, families can use the credit to offset taxes and then, if their tax liability is low, receive the balance of the credit as a refund.
If you adopt a U.S. child who has special needs, he or she may be eligible for a federal or state adoption subsidy (also known as adoption assistance). Adoption assistance payments are designed to help offset the short- and long-term costs associated with adopting children who need special services. In general, children adopted from the custody of state or county child welfare agencies (or private agencies under contract with the state who provide services for foster children) are eligible for adoption assistance benefits.
Benefits available through subsidy programs vary by state, but commonly include:
- Monthly cash payments--up to an amount equal to the foster care payment the state would have made if the child were still in basic family foster care
- Medical assistance--Medicaid benefits are provided through the federal program and some state programs. States must also provide health insurance for children whose parents have a signed adoption assistance agreement with the state if the children's special needs are based on a need for medical, mental health, or rehabilitative care
- Social services--post-adoption services such as respite care, counseling, day care, etc.
- Nonrecurring adoption expenses--a one-time reimbursement (up to $2,000) for adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees, physical or psychological examinations, and other expenses related to the legal adoption of a child who has special needs
Before adopting a child who has special needs, ask your agency about federal and state subsidies.
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