Adopting a Special Needs Child

This is a review of the literature on the topic of parental adoption of children with special needs. The particular focus is on the parents of these children and their specific psychosocial needs. This review will demonstrate that there is not an abundance of literature or research on this topic.

The primary focus in this field is on the issue of the great need for children with special needs to find safe, loving, adoptive homes. This issue is a rather important one as the introduction demonstrated. This study aims to provide a better understanding of the experiences of foster-adoptive parents whose children previously lived in a residential treatment program. While the actual survey distribution will be limited to parents in the state of South Dakota, this review will take into account studies from other countries relevant to this topic.  

Researcher Judith McKenzie (1993) notes that a definition of children with special needs is difficult to provide since it is such a broad statement. In generally however, the social services system refers to children with special needs as those children who, through no fault of their own have become wards of the state. While some of these children may have a developmental disability, the majority of them have been traumatized/abused in some fashion by their parents. It is therefore deemed inappropriate for them to remain in their parents’ care. . It is another unfortunate reality that the majority of these children are children of color (p.62).  

These children tend to require a great deal of care and access to a broad range of supportive services. These can include psychological counseling, medical treatments, in home care, learning assistance in the classroom and other specialized services. McKenzie recognizes that the adoption of these children is especially difficult for the parents. They are literally taking on the child’s previous history and traumas and hoping to finally provide a stable home. She also notes that one of the needs that have been ignored in the past are the post-adoptive needs of the families. While the needs of the children has always been a primary focus both in the literature and in the social services system, more recently the needs of the parents has come to be a major issue as well. The families may need counseling to cope with the addition of a difficult child and there may be a need for marital counseling in particular. These children require tremendous care, patience, compassion and love. The adopting couple may differ in their ideas about how to best meet their child’s needs. As a result, their marriage becomes strained under the pressure (1993, p.66).  

McKenzie points out the particularly difficult situation for older children in residential treatment homes who have not yet been adopted. Their lives have been disrupted and difficult due to multiple separations from their families, abuse, trauma, and witnesses to violence in their homes. Many of these older children never find homes and end up as wards of the state until they are eighteen. However, for the couples who do adopt them, their unique situations must be taken into account. On a psychological basis, they already have highly developed defense mechanisms and social problems which may force the adoptive parents into a difficult situation themselves. “Many of these children will be difficult to parent. Their emotional problems–anger, irritability, inability to attach–will continue to be the most challenging problems for families to accept and manage over time” (p.70).

In her research, McKenzie also found that the majority of couples who adopt children with special needs have been foster parents first. According to her statistics, most states report that 80%-90% of adoptive parents have been foster parents prior to considering the adoption (p.71). She also notes that there is an increase in going across state lines to find appropriate adoptive couples due to the extreme need for safe, stable homes. There are also reports that many of these families who ultimately do adopt find that post-adoption services and support are severely lacking. Ultimately, McKenzie’s research demonstrates that there is a severe shortage of appropriate adoptive couples/families/individuals for children with special needs.  

Child Welfare Watch is an American organization devoted to researching the needs of children who end up in the care of welfare services. With respect to foster-adoptive parents of children with special needs they note the distinct lack of training and support for these parents to handle their children’s very specific and often difficult problems. One of these areas that needs to be addressed is the child’s educational needs. While the family may be emotionally strong enough to parent the child in a positive manner, they may be unprepared for the barrage of educational issues they will likely have to cope with. While these children are supported under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act), the legislation is cumbersome and often not easy to understand. “Frequently, a child needs an advocate to ensure that an appropriate education plan is put in place and followed” (2006-2007, p.3).

While the legislation is intended to support students with disabilities which includes those with a wide range of special needs, it most definitely takes a savvy and knowledgeable parent to negotiate the system. They need to meet frequently with their child’s teachers, understand assessments and diagnoses and make plans for the appropriate accommodations and interventions. This process demands a great deal of time on the part of the parent(s). Their child’s need may be great or small but most certainly some form of accommodations will be required.  

Another issue for both the parents and the child is the issue of access to and even the possibility of an ongoing relationship with their biological parents. Initially, children may be relieved to be in a new and safe environment. As time passes however, many children regret losing that connection and seek to have it again. This places the foster-adoptive parents in a difficult situation as they may know that the biological parents are still (possibly) unstable and could once again harm their child.  

Judith Ashton, executive director of the state Citizens Coalition for Children, says that ideally when prospective adoptive parents go into adoption, they should know there is an enforceable agreement made with the birth parent at the time of surrender. But she draws a distinction between conditional surrender and true open adoption, which typically allows a spectrum of options for continued contact, from occasional letters to frequent visits (2006-2007, p.16).

A report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families (2006) states that the country relies on foster parents as the most important source for children who are looking to be adopted. “Statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from 1998 on show that foster parents consistently adopt close to 60 percent or more of the children who are adopted from foster care (U.S. HHS, n.d.)” (p.2). The primary benefit according to this report is that the children have already spent time with the parents and they have begun to acclimatize to each other. The parents understand the child’s needs and the children have begun to settle into a pattern with the parents. As well, a relationship of trust has begun to develop which is crucial in these children’s lives.  

This same report acknowledges another key fact about foster-adoptive parents; they rarely receive sufficient support in the adoptive process. In addition, they are often insufficiently prepared and lack the information they need to move through the adoption process. It is often assumed that they are capable of using the system because they have already been foster parents. “Practice issues with families moving from foster care to

adoption include assessment, preparation for adoption, facilitating an ongoing connection between the child and birth family (when it is in the child’s best interests) […]” (p.4). While the foster family and the child may be comfortable with each other, formal adoption is very different from serving as foster parents. It implies that the couple will have complete and full-time legal custody of the child. It is, in fact, a severing of the legal connection between the child and their biological parents. Even though things may go well at the beginning there can always be difficulties down the road.  

This report substantiates McKenzie’s concern (1993) that some years after the adoption, children can have a change of heart and begin to long for a connection with their biological parents. This may, or may not cause an emotional breach between the child and their adoptive parents. There is also the likelihood that the foster parents know the biological parents and may have had dealings with them. As a result, they may, or may not have concerns about a relationship between the child and their biological family. This can also create a sense of conflicting loyalties for the child who comes to love both sets of parents. The report also advocates that foster-adoptive parents receive mental health services such as supportive counseling and access to support groups to help them cope with the myriad of issues that will likely arise (p.7).

Author Mark Testa’s (2004) researched the history of child welfare policies in the U.S. His research notes that foster couples began to be courted as permanent parents for children back in the 1970’s. “Beginning in the 1970s, social norms began to change, resulting in a lifting of secrecy surrounding adoption and a decline in the number of non-foster care children available for adoption. Both these changes provided an impetus to prospective adoptive parents to adopt children from foster care (p.115). This change specifically involved the needs of special needs children. Prior to these policy changes in the 1970’s, special needs children had often been defined as ‘unadoptable’. The change evolved as notions of adoption changed and people began to believe in the importance of ‘permanency’ for all children.  

The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 was a significant change in adoption for all children. This act recognized that adoption was the best long-term solution for children in foster care. He states: “Most children adopted out of foster care (almost two-thirds) are adopted by unrelated foster parents. But since 1997, relatives have become the fastest-growing source of new adoptive homes for foster children” (p.120). With respect to the needs of foster-adoptive couples, Testa echoes the recommendation that has been stated several times in this review. There is a strong need for post adoption services. In the rush to try and find permanent homes for thousands of children who have been abandoned, abused and otherwise traumatized, the needs of foster-adoptive parents have been overlooked. “Common post-permanency services requested by adoptive families include respite care (weekend or short-term to alleviate parental stress), camp and other summer activities, support groups for adoptive parents and children, educational support (tutoring, testing, and advocacy), counseling, and assistance with finding and paying for residential treatment” (p.126).

Rhodes, Orme, Cox and Buehler (2003) note that the key issue may actually be not only the lack of foster couples who want to adopt but they psychosocial problems in doing so. Their research aslo demonstrates that the foster couples most likely to adopt are those with the financial resources to do so. This means that while a good home may be available, the couple may just not have the resources to bring a child, or another child into their home (p.135).   They state that as high as 40% of foster couples actually discontinue serving in that role after only one year. This statistic leads to a constant shifting of children from one foster home to another. This lack of permanency is very hard on the child (or children). They develop a lack of trust and do not attach themselves easily to anyone. As a result of many discontinuing with foster care, the ‘system’ is always seeking out more couples.  

The ability of a couple to serve as successful foster parents is very much related to their psychosocial abilities and financial resources especially with special needs children. “The number of family resources has been associated positively with willingness to provide placements for children with special needs and with measures of foster home utilization However, little research exists concerning the effects of such resources or psychosocial functioning on families’ decisions to foster. In addition, there is little research on what influences individuals to become foster parents” (p.135).

Wozny and Crase (2004) write that it is imperative to conduct research into the subject of the needs of foster-adoptive parents as they serve as the essential resource for adoptions in America. They state the most difficult issue for these adoptive parents is coping with the child’s traumatic past. Although they may have served as a temporary foster home, this is far different from being the child’s parent for the rest of their life. The second issue they face is the child’s lack of trust, not just in them but with the world in general. These children have coped with a history of maltreatment and abuse that is often difficult to overcome. Even though the abuse may be physically over, the psychological scars remain for a very long time, and in some individuals for their lifetime (p.93).  

Wozny and Crase (2004) echo McKenzie’s (1993) concern about the nature of the child’s relationship (or lack thereof) with their biological parents. Their research revealed that some adoptive parents have a difficult time with the biological parents who have been declared unfit. Some of these couples have even been threatened by the biological parents. While the biological parents have been declared unfit to raise their child(ren), they may be in denial and therefore continue to try and reclaim them. Then, there is the opposite situation where the parents are dealing with so many psychosocial issues that they completely abandon their children. This can cause additional trauma for both the child and the adoptive parents. The adoptive parents often take on the emotions of their children’s unique needs and feel the weight of their sadness and frustration. Such an emotional weight places additional pressure on the couple and their marriage/family.

In addition to the aforementioned difficulties the authors add this:  

The final group of adoption-specific challenges is related to the

expanded adoptive family system that now includes the adoptive child interacting with birth/other children from the adopting family and the adoptive family interacting with adoptive child’s birth/foster family (p.96).

Wozny and Crase (2004) also point out there is often a problem for foster-adoptive parents when it comes to expectations of how the family will function once the adoption takes place. If they have already served as the foster parents, they often expect the adoption to solidify or create a strong bond between them and the adopted child. However, these authors state that there is often a very difficult transition when the adoption finally takes place. In fact, many children often act out more severely once they realize that they have a permanent home. These children may have been behaving well in order not to have to switch to another foster home. Once the adoption is complete however, they may feel free to test their adoptive parents and see how far they can push them before they will be punished. The adoptive parents in turn often feel disappointed with their decision to adopt as a result of these difficulties (pp.96-97).

Like McKenzie (1993) these authors suggest that counseling is an important component of adoption. They recommend that all foster-adoptive couples be paired immediately with a counselor, or counseling intern to support them during the process. The couple needs to know and feel they are viable parents and have the support in the transition process.  

Crase, Crase and Baum (2001) write that as of the mid-1990’s almost half a million children were in foster care in the U.S. This provides a foundation for understanding the dramatic need for adoptive parents. Although not all of these children would be classified as ‘special needs’, many of them would be. Their research reveals that almost 84% of the children in foster care experience some form of developmental or psychological difficulty or disability (p.202). According to these authors, this high percentage of children with such a complexity of emotional, physical and educational needs is the reason for the dearth of adoptive parents.  

These authors write that there adoptive couples have multiple motivations in their desire to adopt a child. Some do so because they have lost a child, their own children have grown up and left the house, they have strong spiritual or religious beliefs which inspire them to do so and some do so simply because they want to have a family (pp. 202-203).  

The Annie E. Casey Foundation out of Baltimore, Maryland sponsored a report (2002) on the needs of children who go from foster care to adoption. Their research substantiates that of Crase et al., (2001) who stated that almost 500,000 children in America are in foster care. The report acknowledges that as a result of these staggering numbers too many children will now wait years before they find a permanent home (if they find one) and even infants can spend up to four years in care before being adopted (p.1). An even more dire situation awaits children of color. They are the largest group of children living in foster care at the moment.

From the outset this report lays a foundation for understanding the need for foster care and adoptions. It states that unequivocally the country is in great need of more foster couples who are willing to adopt children with special needs. They are the largest group of children waiting for homes. However, the report acknowledges that the ‘system’ is unprepared. “If the family foster care system is not significantly reconstructed, the combination of these factors may result in more disrupted placements, longer lengths of stay, fewer successful family reunifications, and more damage done to children by the very system the state has put in place to protect them” (p.2).

One of the issues the report highlights is that foster care has a number of distinct advantages over almost all other adoption alternatives. Couples can adopt siblings which enables ‘families of children’ to stay together. They have spent time with the children and understand them well. They have been scrutinized by the system and have been declared fit to parent (although there have obviously been breaches in this system as some children have been abused by foster parents).  

Forbes and Dziegielewski (2003) researched the challenges facing mothers of adopted children with special needs. Their research reveals that these mothers face a host of emotional and physical problems ranging from mild to severe. These authors agree with McKenzie (1993) and Wozny and Crase (2004) in that adopting a child with special needs means not only becoming full-time, long-term parents but taking on the traumatic past these children have experienced. This makes developing a trusting bond between parents and child difficult. Some of the specific problems many of these children cope with include “oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), reactive attachment disorder (RAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and/or depression” (p.302). Their research also notes that there is far less known about the needs of adoptive parents and how they function with the stress of the adoption process with special needs children. “Current research is sparse and, to date, there has not been a comprehensive study to explore and identify these specific issues facing adoptive mothers of special needs children” (p.303).

Forbes and Dziegielewski’s research (2003) demonstrates that many mothers who adopt special needs children are initially excited and happy with the prospect of bringing the child into their family full time. Usually this initial euphoric period is replaced by a sense of shock and sometimes disappointment with the reality of the child’s problems. As a result, many of these mothers take ill either emotionally, physically or both. They may also go into denial about the child’s problems and begin making excuses for their inappropriate or poor behavior (p.305).  

They also point out that one of the most pressing needs for these new adoptive mothers is support from their extended family. Since there are still biases and prejudices in society about persons with disabilities, especially those with mental health issues, many of these families have doubts about the adoption. They may, in turn, put pressure on the mother to reconsider the adoption in light of the child’s myriads of difficulties.  

As a result of adopting a special needs child, there can be resulting problems in the adopting couple’s marriage. This is especially so if the child has particularly negative behavioral patterns. They have (most likely) developed these patterns as a means of self-defense and coping in a difficult environment. “The Center for Adoption Support and Education lists intimacy and relationship problems resulting in marital problems as one of the seven core issues in adoption (Center for Adoption Support and Education, n.d.). Todis and Singer (1991) discuss how families faced with such stress are at risk of low marital satisfaction” (p.306).

In their research on marital issues for couples who adopt special needs children, they learned that both the child and the parents can experience significant problems. The child may act out in order to test the parents. Due to the nature of their problems, they often have significant difficulties with attaching themselves emotionally to their parents. They often lack the ability to trust in older people specifically and people in general. “Traumatized children may first perceive the adoptive parents’ love, not as a reward, but rather as coercive and frightening (Nickman and Lewis, 1994). The child then works to attain safety through avoidance of the relationship the parents are working to develop (Hughes, 1997, p.306).

As a result of the child’s various behaviors, the parents feel tremendous stress with the responsibility of trying not only to guide them but also gain their trust and love. This places the couple in a difficult situation as they begin to argue about the ‘right way’ to raise their child. The couple may end up in ongoing conflicts as a result of the difficulties inherent in raising a child with special needs. Forbes and Dziegielewski (2003) state that these adoptions can lead to specific problems. “[…] these pathological attachment behaviors can then lead to the parents feeling emotionally replenished and depressed. Parents who believe themselves to be psychologically prepared for the children’s lack of responsiveness can soon find the situation exhausting” (pp.306-307).

Another marital issue that can arise as a result of special needs adoptions are that the child’s strong emotions may resonate for the parents and bring up feelings of their own childhood problems. If either one, or both of the parents had a particularly troublesome childhood, they may begin to relive these old emotions and become less capable and objective as a parent. They may being to project their own emotions onto the child.  

Although these parents experience a wide range of problems and issues, they often do not ask for the support they need. According to Forbes and Dziegielewski (2003), some adoptive mothers perceive this as indicative of their failure to be a successful parent (p.307). In order to support these parents and provide a foundation for knowledge and support, the authors suggest that a range of services should be recommended prior to the adoption, so that the parents do not struggle in the post-adoption period. These services can include parenting workshops, a lecture series, and a wide range of seminars that deal specifically with adopting/parenting a child with special needs. Another possible service would be respite care. This would be especially important if the adoptive child is not the couple’s only child. The amount of energy and time required to integrate the adopted child is enormous and places great strain on the couple and the family as a whole.  

The authors also point out that research has demonstrated that financial issues often plague couples in the post-adoption stage. Many are in need of subsidies or other forms of financial assistance. “Adoption subsidies can help to reduce the stress within an adoptive family. In a study of the outcomes of adoption of children with special needs, Rosenthal (1993: 85) concluded that, ‘financial adoptive subsidies may well be the most important post adoptive service’. Of the families in the study receiving a subsidy, 95 percent rated this financial help as ‘essential’ or ‘important’ (Rosenthal, 1993)” (Forbes and Dziegielewski, 2003, p.308).

A 2002 federal report documented the need for extensive support and services for couples who adopt special needs children. One of their primary recommendations was the need for respite care, as noted by Forbes and Dziegielewski,(2003) and Rosenthal (1993). While studies have demonstrated the need for and benefits of respite care, many of these adoptive couples were actually reticent to use them. Their primary concern was not the services themselves but a belief that the need to use them reflected poorly on them as parents. The respite care model has been developed because of the high levels of stress demonstrated by couples who adopt special needs children.  

Another issue identified in the literature is that of the saliency in adopting children who have been prenatally exposed to drugs. The home environment is deemed unsafe for these children as their parents are drug users, and they end up in foster care waiting for adoption. However, many of these children are actually infants. “Across the country, infants (under 2 years of age) are entering foster care in record numbers, and this is largely the result of drug exposure”(Barth, 1993, p.168). These children have been exposed to horrific home situations and are placed in foster care to protect them. Yet, the possibility and process of adoption is long and difficult. Many foster-adoptive parents do not want infants or children who they feel will need expensive medical and educational interventions. In addition, they do not want to deal with the biological parents who often contest the adoption.  

The report states that many of the foster-adoptive parents who adopt prenatal drug-exposed children find that they cannot deal with the child’s extensive problems. These can include hyperactivity, explosive behavior and difficulty getting along with others. As a result, there is a very high rate of return and these children end up back in foster care (p.168). While this research project is not devoted to the study of these children’s problems, it is an important one as adoption is deemed to be their best hope for a positive outcomes. As such, the couples who actually do successfully adopt and parent a prenatal drug-exposed child are important as part of this study.

The research on adoptive families of prenatal drug-exposed children reveals that the majority of adoptions were from foster parents. Therefore, the majority of these families were already very much aware of the depth and seriousness of these children’s problems. It is important to note that not all the facts with respect to these children is grim. An interesting statistic from the research points out that in fact 60% of the adoptive parents actually felt “well prepared” for their child’s problems. In fact, they reported being well prepared at a much higher rate than adoptive parents of “other” special needs children (p. 171). This federal report states that there is also a high rate of satisfaction among these adoptive parents even two years post-adoption. “Among the parents who adopted drug-exposed children, 84% were “very satisfied” and 12% were “satisfied,” a proportion quite similar to that found among parents who adopted non-drug-exposed children” (p.172). Post-adoption studies point out additional important statistics, such as the fact that two years after the adoption 83% of parents reported that their child’s health had improved and 93% stated their child’s health was “very good or excellent” (p.173).  

A 2003 report by the Urban Institute states that while there are some hopeful signs in overall adoptions, the number of children entering foster care is continually increasing. The other side of the story is that the number of parents adopting is actually decreasing. As a result, there is an increasing number of children who spend their lives in foster care until the age of 18, or they are adopted at a later age. “At the beginning of fiscal year 1999, for instance, 128,000 of the nation’s approximately 558,000 foster care children were available for adoption. Over the next 12 months, only 47,000 of them, or 37 percent, were successfully placed” (“Caring for Children”, p.1).

The report does note however that the number of foster parents is rising in contrast to other couples. They represent approximately 56% of all adoptions for children in foster care (p.2). It also states that at one time foster parents were actually ineligible as adoptive parents. Now, the situation is radically different. With the thousands of children in foster care waiting for a loving home foster couples are sought out for adoptions. They are also the largest group in special needs adoptions. There is even research to suggest that serving as foster parents may actually be a positive precursor to formal adoption. “Emphasizing foster parenting as a precursor to adoption may increase the number of potential parents for special-needs children. For those wanting to adopt but not interested in foster parenting, agencies may want to create opportunities to volunteer with foster children so parents can better assess whether they are able to care for a special-needs child” (p.2).

Nevada Kids Count is a state-wide organization that encourages special needs adoptions in Nevada. In 2000, they conducted an exploratory study of the characteristics of couples who adopt special needs children. They surveyed 249 families in the study. One of the statistics supports the information gleaned from the “Caring for Children” report. They learned that 70% of the couples had already served as foster parents (“Characteristics and Challenges”, p.1. ). These couples adopted children with a wide range of needs but interestingly a high percentage of them were prenatally drug-exposed children. Yet, even with challenges such as developmental disabilities, behavioral and emotional problems, the majority of the parents reported satisfaction with the adoption. At least 87% of the parents reported satisfaction with the adoption; 77% reported that they enjoyed a good to excellent relationship with their adopted child and 66% reported that the adoption had had a positive impact on their family. In terms of the specifics of this research, 49% reported that the adoption had actually had a positive impact on their marriage, while only 10% reported a negative impact (p.2).  

One could extrapolate from these numbers that even though special needs adoptions may encompass very specific problems and a long list of issues to resolve, there is reason to believe that the adoption has a positive impact on families in the long run. It may be that because the family has to pull together in order to provide care for this special needs child that they learn more about one another and they care for each other more deeply. The impact on a marriage could possibly be seen in the same light. A couple who provides a home for a special needs child certainly could undergo stress, but it may be the opposite as well. They may find that the love they develop for their child enriches their own relationship and improves their marriage. The assumption that adopting a special needs child would necessarily damage or negatively impact a family/marriage may in fact be one that we cannot afford to make without significantly more research on the topic.  

An interesting fact that did emerge is that of sources of support for the adoptive parents. “The most serious problem reported by parents was the perception that the people who were supposed to help did not understand their problems. Parents were more likely to obtain assistance from formal agencies as their first or primary source of information” (p.3).   The report does indicate a pattern previously reported in this review — the lack of support for parents in the post-adoption stage. Many of the parents reported they did not receive sufficient support and felt that in particular, they received insufficient information about their child.

Baum, Crase and Crase (2001) state that the lack of capable foster parents is certainly one of the strongest concerns with respect to special needs children waiting for adoption. In addition, they point out that there are far too few families of color who will take on the foster-adoptive role. This leaves many children of color with only two options. Either they can be adopted by a Caucasian couple, or they stay in foster care until the age of 18.   Prior to becoming adoptive parents however, a couple could prove their ability by becoming foster parents. This enables the ‘system’ to determine whether or not the couple is appropriate to adopt.  

One of the primary resources for foster-adoptive parents is the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse (NAIC). They publish reports and provide supportive information for adopting parents. In one of their articles, they state that foster parent adoption is actually preferred for children with special needs. The first issue that is likely to arise is the child’s change in status. It is the parent’s responsibility to explain this to the child. As a result of this change, some children may experience a sense of loss with respect to their biological parents. They may also have been under the impression that at some point they would return to their biological parents and the adoption obviously makes it final that they will not.  

As a result of the finality of adoption, a child may experience through many strong emotions such as anger, denial, frustration and even depression. The fact that their biological parents cannot ever truly care for them becomes a difficult reality for them. The Clearinghouse suggests that foster-adoptive parents engage in some form of symbolic exercise, or even a celebration to mark the occasion as positive rather than negative. As in many cultures, ours also uses ritual events and celebrations in order to mark important times in our lives. In doing so, this lets the adopted child know how important they are to their adoptive family. In order to alleviate some of the stress involved with adoption, it is helpful to make all the decisions as a family / couple so that no one feels left out of the process.  

Foster-adoptive couples will have to cope with especially difficult realities such as the status of the child’s birth parents. They may, or may not be able to participate in an ongoing positive relationship with their biological child. In fact, further visits to the home may even result in additional abuse. It is imperative to protect their adoptive child as much as possible. If not, the child may begin to perceive their adoptive parents in the same way as they do their biological parents. Foster-adoptive couples must take great care to understand the long-term effects of abuse, trauma, violence, prenatal drug exposure and other issues. Those couples who do take the time to learn about these issues are able to be more supportive for their adopted child.  

Another issue for foster-adoptive couples is that of the child’s legal status. They are now able to take their foster-adopted parents’ name. As such, for an older child, there might be questions about their name change, status and other issues that they are unprepared to cope with. Foster-adoptive parents must take great care to work with this child to explain everything clearly and help them develop positive and practical coping skills for the inevitable questions and concerns that will arise.  

One issue that foster-adoptive couples may face is that of how much to say to others about their child’s background. They may not wish to divulge this information, or they may wish to talk about it. The issue is choosing the appropriate people to discuss it with. The couple themselves may face a lot of questions and concerns from families and friends about the adoption of a special needs child. The stress of coping with this may be alleviated by working with a counselor and/or a support group. It may also be valuable to meet with another foster-adoptive couple who can offer sound advice. Eventually, the couple will learn who they wish to talk to and what they want to divulge. They will develop the expertise in handling some of the questions that will inevitably arise. This could place a strain on the couple’s relationship, but conversely it could also bring them closer together.  

Beverly and Larry Newman are not only authors on the subject of foster-adoption, they are the only couple in the U.S. to petition the Supreme Court three times in the process of adopting a child. As such, their experience is a very revealing one and a strong indictment of the child welfare system in America. An article on their experiences reveals some very disturbing information about the foster-adoption system in America. One of these facts is that in the State of Indiana, all children are presumed to be Christian unless proven otherwise. The Newmans wanted to adopt three Jewish children because they themselves are Jewish Yet, they were told that Jewish couples could not adopt children in Indiana (1999, p.300).

In their own words, the Newmans describe the adoption system as a frightening one for both parents and prospective children. “In the depths of the foster care jungle, children fight for their survival, and professional “poachers” make huge profits from the plight of babies, teens, and young ones of every age in between. It is a dark, spooky forest full of danger for children and unsuspecting prospective adoptive parents. Children are the chattel and the capital in this forest, forbidden to public view” (p.300).

The Newmans indict the system on behalf of potential foster-adoptive parents who they feel face a horrible system that is designed not to encourage foster-adoption but to take advantage of them. Their argument is that the country is full of agencies that are competing for funding money from physicians, psychologists and other professionals. The money enables them to provide the adoption services that foster parents must use in order to proceed with an adoption.   Another sad fact they point out is the process of labeling children in a certain way. For some reason, African American children are labeled as ‘special needs children’ immediately but not Caucasian children. Beverly Newman states:  

A black child two years old is automatically and permanently labeled special needs solely because of his race and age. A white child doesn’t have this stigma attached to his name until four years later. Here we have legalized racism, rationalized in the name of helping children. State agencies are able to use special needs children in particular as long-term revenue sources via federal funding rules that increase per diems as children grow older in the system and as they become more dysfunctional. This sorrowful fate was the lot of millions of minority children and others over the last decades (p.316).


While the experience of the Newman family may or may not be borne out by the reality of the system, there is no doubt that as counseling professionals the story of their attempt to adopt an abused daughter is true. The girl they hoped to rescue was caught in the web of service providers, an abusive foster mother and no biological parents to return to. The Newmans’ story is basically written as a warning. It is not only about the children but for foster parents who would like to adopt special needs children. According to their article, foster parents are also used badly by the system and taken for granted. Their attempts to adopt a child ended up in futility even though it was proven that her foster family was abusing her badly. Their story is certainly a disturbing one and it provides a strong cautionary tone about the foster-adoption system. It is also a story that may provide some insight into why some foster parents do not try to adopt. They may also be wary of the system and fear ending up like the Newman family — years of trying to adopt a child but never successful in doing so.  

 Conna Craig (1995) is one researcher whose work (albeit nine years earlier) substantiates the Newmans’ concerns with the child welfare system. She points out that thousands of children languish in residential treatment homes and other long-term care facilities because their parents (who have been deemed unfit) will not relinquish their legal rights. This prevents the child from being adopted. Instead it pushes them into one foster care situation after another, even if like the Newman family, a wonderful couple wishes to adopt the child. She states:  

Foster care and adoption in America have sunk to a state of  near- catastrophe. According to the American Public Welfare Association, the population of children in substitute care is growing 33 times faster than the U.S. child population in general. During each of the past 10 years, more children have entered the system than exited. Every year, 15,000 children “graduate” from foster care by turning 18 with no permanent family; 40 percent of all foster children leaving the system end up on welfare, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. What was for most of America’s history an entirely private endeavor has become a massive, inefficient government system (p.40).

Craig insists there are many couples who would love to adopt a child. Instead, the system puts them through so many hoops, that they eventually give up. This corroborates Testa’s (2004) research on foster couples. The number of regulations and procedures that potential adoptive couples have to go through have become so cumbersome as to be prohibitive. Craig understands the system well. She was part of it and she states that the Newman’s experience which took place in the early part of the 21st century was already documented by others in the 1980’s and 90’s. According to her, the state bureaucracies are keeping adoption eligible children in state care because if they do not, they get shut down.   “The funding system gives child-welfare bureaucracies incentives to keep even free-to-be-adopted kids in state care. State-social-service agencies are neither rewarded for helping children find adoptive homes nor penalized for failing to do so in a reasonable amount of time. There is no financial incentive to recruit adoptive families. And as more children enter the system, so does the tax money to support them in substitute care”


Craig is very open about her criticism of the system. She states that foster parents who wish to adopt must inevitably go through a private adoption system, otherwise the chances are low. Private services are paid to place children successfully, while in her opinion, government funded services are paid to keep children in state care. In her opinion, it is a system that punishes children for having no parents, instead of caring for them and finding them loving homes. However, Craig’s greatest concern is for special needs children. She accuses the system of trying to discourage special needs adoptions, even when potential parents say they are willing (p.44).   Her conclusion is chilling: as long as there is government money to keep children in foster care and state care, it is considered more economically ‘sound’ to prevent children from being adopted

Craig’s article focuses primarily on what she believes are the failures of the child welfare system to actually promote adoption. She states clearly that while there are even foster couples who would like to adopt, many of them hit one brick wall after another. Again, it comes down to money. The agency that gives the child to the foster couple receives money for doing so. If the foster couple adopts the child, they lost that funding, even though there are thousands more children waiting.  

Craig also debunks the notion that couples do not want to adopt children with special needs.  

It is time to shatter the myth that adoptive parents are interested only in ‘healthy white babies’. There are waiting lists to adopt white children, black children, Hispanic children, infants and teens, children with Down’s syndrome and with AIDS. Private agencies for years have found families for all types of children. Adopt a Special Kid, a California-based service, receives more than 1,500 inquiries annually from families interested in adopting children with disabilities (p.47).

Another issue she points out is that children who enter foster care end up waiting the longest for a permanent home. They tend to languish in state care for several years before being adopted. Craig states unequivocally that one of the reasons for this is because foster couples do not receive any incentives to adopt. It is in fact, the opposite. The state pays them to continue serving as a foster couple but abandons them once they adopt the child. For many couples who want a child, the financial incentive is too great to give up.  

As if this list of issues is not enough, Craig points out one of the most disturbing issues related to foster care and adoption. Children with special needs come from homes where there have been abuse/trauma/drugs, etc. Their parents are given ‘victim status’ by the law (p.49). Thus, they can continue to put up barriers for years in order to prevent their children from being adopted. “The legal status of the biological parents of children with special needs is a huge roadblock to adoption. “This helps explain why roughly a third of all the foster children who are reunited with their families of origin soon return to state care. Indeed, it is the only explanation for some of the bizarre attempts I have seen to reunite a foster child with a parent who is clearly unwilling or unfit” (p.50).

Although Craig’s research paints a desolate picture, she does believe there is hope. It is her opinion that privatization of the foster-adoption industry is an absolute necessity. She points to the case of Michigan where two thirds of the industry is privatized. As a result “[…] private providers spend less per child, yet have achieved better social worker-to- child ratios than those of state-run agencies” (p.51).  


The needs of foster-adoptive parents continues to be one that is of prime importance. One of the obvious patterns in this review is that these needs have been and continue to be a very small issue in the larger picture of foster-adoptions in this country. It is apparent that one of the primary reasons for this is because of the severity of the overall situation. This review points out some very serious problems with the child welfare program and policies. These problems stem from too many children entering the system, to the difficulties with the legal process of adoption, too few couples who can endure the foster system and a system that may be set up to actually keep children in foster care.  

If the research and experiences of the Newsman and Craig are any indication, then the most serious issue is the fact that couples who serve as foster parents are almost discouraged from adopting. When a state agency takes on a child and sends them to foster care, both the agency and the foster couple receive money. The moment an adoption takes place that money stops. Even though there are thousands (actually hundreds of thousands) of children languishing in foster and state care, it appears that state agencies are working against foster-adoption.  

The second issue revealed here is that foster-adoption is long and difficult. For a couple that is young, highly educated and financially sound, they may have the time and energy to cope with the system. However, the likelihood is that they will work with a private agency. So, foster couples are often less well off and often need the money that is given to them to take children into foster care. They find it easier to care for many children as it helps them financially and they believe they’re helping the children out. If these parents decide to adopt a child, then the state puts up huge roadblocks. One of these is that the state prefers to give the biological parent every opportunity to take back their child(ren) even if they have abused them in the past. Foster couples who try to cope with a difficult and bureaucratic system often give up as a result.

The third issue for foster-adoptive couples is the current political climate around adoption and foster care. There have been numerous exposes and films about the horrors of adoption which depict it as a way of harming rather than helping a child. As there have also been horrific abuses of children in the care of some foster couples, the public becomes outraged and demands more reviews into foster care. While foster care must be absolutely safe for children, it is also clear that those who abuse children in foster care are a very small percentage of foster couples. Nevertheless, it certainly can cause a potential foster couple to think about whether or not they want to be scrutinized in such a serious fashion.  

The fourth issue for foster-adoption couples is that there are many children with special needs in foster care but many state agencies are almost negative about their potential adoption. They actually receive more money for these children and so they push other children while trying to persuade foster couples that special needs children are unadoptable. The children who are labeled as special needs also require additional medical attention and other services. As a result, the state receives more money for keeping them and providing for their needs. The issue raised in this review is whether or not these kids are purposely being left behind because of this. The impact on foster-adoptive parents is that even when they are stating unequivocally that they will adopt a special needs child, they are sometimes dissuaded from proceeding.  

The literature currently focuses almost exclusively on the issues related to the foster-adoption system as a whole. In some ways, this is not surprising. On the basis of this review, there is such a myriad of issues to be dealt with, it is clear why the needs of foster-adoptive parents are left behind. Yet, this is precisely the issue. They are being left behind. While governments (state and federal) admit that there are far too many children languishing in foster, there are insufficient efforts being conducted to court foster parents as possible adoptive parents. Whether it is for monetary reasons, or because the system is so bogged down in procedures and regulations, the needs of foster-adoptive parents are not being considered.  

Given this review, it is also clear there is a strong need for the research being conducted in this project. There is a definite need to understand foster-adoptive couples; how they function and what the effects are on them as individuals and as a couple. The results of this research will hopefully provide the type of data that can be used to persuade government officials that foster-adoptive couples/parents are an important part of the mix. Foster-adoptive parents are a key to this issue. There is a definite need to understand how they feel, what is important to them, the issues they face in the adoptive process, the needs they have in the post-adoption process and how the system can work with them more effectively to sponsor positive adoptions.

One thing is also clear from this review. While some children will never return to their biological families for many reasons, they are far better off in a loving home with a couple who wants to care for their needs than living their lives out in foster care. The latter is nothing more than another form of institutionalized care if it extends over many years. While the families may be kind and caring, they are not the child’s parents. Every child deserves that much and more. It appears however, that for many reasons and on many levels, they are being denied. In addition, foster couples who are potentially wonderful long-term parents are also being denied the opportunity to have a child as their own.  

Foster-adoptive couples are a valuable resource in American society. They offer an opportunity for children without parents to care for them, the chance at a permanent and loving home. These couples are willing to care for a child and adopt them permanently. Thus, it is imperative that we understand their needs. It is also important that we consider ways in which to increase the number of foster-adoptive couples. That increase will provide additional homes for hundreds of thousands of waiting children.  

Conna Craig’s story is particularly valuable here. She was adopted as an older child and thus had never given up hope of finding loving parents. The fact is, there are hundreds of thousands of children just like Conna. The system may think it is caring for them in the best way they know how. However, if they are not finding them permanent homes, then they are not. Foster-adoptive couples are these children’s best hope.


  1. Hey…t is time to shatter the myth that adoptive parents are interested only in ‘healthy white babies’. There are waiting lists to adopt white children, black children , teens,etc children with Down’s syndrome and with…

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