Social Problem Worldwide

The social problem of finding loving and permanent homes for the increasing abundance of hard to place or special needs children waiting to be adopted is one that has been around for a long time. We increasingly have more and more children that come into our foster care system that are free for adoption, yet they are not adopted. These are the faces I see and that break my heart.

The Parameters:

In the 1940’s and the 1950’s, social workers categorized certain children as “unadoptable.” These are children who are physically or psychologically handicapped, black, Hispanic, or biracial, their parents may be in prison or suffering from socially undesirable diseases, who were part of a large sibling group, who were older than about age two, who for some reason they did not fit the profile of most couples’ ideal baby. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, & Henig 1993).

In the 1960’s, these children were re-categorized as “ hard to place” children. Today these same children, plus more who have AIDS, or whose mothers are drug addicts, or who are refugees from international wars are called “special needs” adoptees.


The Nature of the Problem:

The growing number of children that are classified “special needs” or “hard to place” are languishing in foster care for a number of reasons, in part due to lack of financial resources available to support them in adoptive homes. A typical example is a child with extensive medical needs. The high cost of providing medical care that such a child requires often prevents families and single parents with low or moderate incomes from adopting special-needs children (Oppenheim, 1996)

Special needs children also have complex needs which creates the critical challenge of ensuring that all waiting children receive quality adoption planning and services. Services would ensure that adoptive families are recruited and well prepared to adopt, and that they would receive ongoing support after the adoptive placements following legal finalization (Sullivan, Freundlich 1999).

Due to the high demand and low supply of supports and subsidies for adoptive families for improving permanency outcomes for children with special needs, there continue to be a vast number of children that remain in foster care. The demand continues to rise every year.

How Wide Spread is The Problem?

In the United States, an estimated one million children live with adoptive parents, and two percent to four percent of families include an adopted child. In 1999, a total of 150,000 adoptions took place, including private, interfamily, agency, and intercountry. More than one-half of the intercountry adoptions in 1999 were from two countries: Russia and China. In 2000, about 581,000 children were in foster care; of these children 50,000 were adopted a 10% increase over 1999 and almost double the number adopted in 1996. [CWLA E-bulletin 11/15/2001].


Of the more than one half million children now in foster care, an estimated 134,000 are available for adoption. The median age is 8; about 42% are African American, 32% white, and 15% are Hispanic. Some have” special needs”, some may be older, want to stay with siblings or some might have disabilities [CWLA E-bulletin].

How Many People are Affected?

More than 100,000 children wait for permanent homes in the United States. Most are school-aged or older. Many have emotional, physical, learning disabilities or mental retardation. There are brothers and sisters who need to stay together. More than 60% of the children come from minority cultures. The majority are boys. All are waiting for the love and security that only a permanent family can offer. (Stolley, K. 1993).

There are also higher rates of disrupted adoptions of children with “special needs”. Current estimates indicate that approximately three percent to fifty three of “special needs” adoptive placements are disrupted, depending on the group. Placements of older children and children with records of previous placements, and children with longer stays in the foster care system are more likely to disrupt. There are not accurate figures on what happens to these children after adoption disrupts. (Stolley, 1993).

Despite the importance of adoption, more specifically “special needs” adoptions to many groups, it remains an under researched area and a topic on which data is incomplete. Therefore, it is difficult to give comprehensive data on how many people are affected. (Stolley, 1993)

Who is Affected and How?

Adoption of “special needs” children is of crucial importance to the child first, then to both those directly involved and to society.

Most children who are waiting for permanent families in the United States (those with special needs) live in foster or group homes because their parents were unable to care for them. Often, personal and family problems made it impossible for the parents to maintain a home for their children. Some of these children have been abused, neglected or abandoned.

“Special-needs adoptees” have often moved from one placement to another before a permanent family is found for them. This so called foster care drift can take a terrible toll on children, who may come to doubt their adoptive parents reassurances that this time it is for good. These children experience loss, time and time again through multiple separations from foster parents.

If a disruption in an adoption occurs, the hardest time for “special needs” children is between the ages of six months and three years. Just as the child is forming primary attachments to his/her caregiver, just as he/she is developing a sense of trust and security, he/she is pulled away and placed in a new home. A child of this age is old enough to remember previous attachments, but too young to cope with anger and grief. He/she lacks the words needed to express his/her sadness and fury. Also, lowercase children with a history of sexual or physical abuse present complications to the adjustment of being adopted. When children three years and older are placed are placed for the first time they might have sharper memories of their prior experiences, but also have better coping skills.

( Brodzinsky, Schechter, & Henig, 1993)

Since the median age is 8 years with multiple moves, these children have a hard time adapting to their adoptive placements. The children’s emotional development has been affected, which in turn affects the child’s ability to adapt to their new families which is disruptive to the adopting families. If there are not supports and subsidies available, (which might make the option available to more adoption seekers), there is not as much incentive (Stolley, 1993)

Many of the children that wait for years in substitute care have been identified as experiencing psychological difficulties such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and problems related to separation and attachment. Thus, families who adopt children with a history of abuse or neglect often face serious challenges that can threaten the stability of their own home. (Kramer, & Houston, 1998).

“Special–needs” children are often matched with special needs parents, who for the most part diverge from the traditional agency-approved profile. They include single women and men, gay couples, biracial couples, people over thirty-five, or people who already have biological children of their own. The combination of the untraditional child and an untraditional household can at times make adjustments difficult. (Kramer & Houston 1998).

What are the Causes of the Problem?

There are many factors that relate or contribute to the problem of having a large number of “special needs” children waiting for permanency. In the 1960’s, with an increase in abuse and neglect, there was in increase of numbers of children removed from their homes and maintained in foster homes and institutions or moved from place to place, creating “The foster care drift.” In the 1970’s, age, race, and disabilities were insurmountable barriers. Adoption rates of black children in white homes declined between 1969-1975.

In the 1980’s, observations were made that caring for children who had been abused or neglected was very difficult and there were not a lot of post adoptive services. There was a lack of financial resources available to help support special needs children in their homes, which made it difficult for people to take children with complex needs. (Stolley, 1993).

Today there are assistance programs available that vary from state to state. However, some of these assistance programs impose income requirements on adoptive parents to determine eligibility for state funded programs, and this has deterred people from “special needs” adoptions. There is also the practice of charging fees to adoptive parents for the adoption of a special needs child. This is a practice that should be stopped. (Oppeneheim, 1996).

The legal process is also a factor in children remaining in foster care for excessively long periods of time prior to adoption. Relinquishment and termination law which sever the biological parents rights is complicated not only by virtue of the types of people and family arrangements involved, but also by the number of governments which have authority for regulations. The legal process impedes the release of information on the child. For example, we often do not have a lot of timely or relevant information on children who are waiting, prolonging the planning while waiting for the child to many spaces to be free for adoption. Once the problems are better understood, creative action can be made to improve the situation of waiting children.

We as a society do not make adoption a high priority. We do not have enough collaboration between public and private agencies and communities to increase resources or the pool of families equipped to adopt “special needs children.” (Sullivan, & Freundlich, 1999).

How will Policy Help Address the Problem?

There is a need to have policies in place to address the problem of “special needs” children that wait for extended periods of time in foster care. Policy around having a system in place for collecting comprehensive national data on adoption would increase the awareness of the problem by presenting accurate statistics. (Stolley, 1993).

The restructuring of adoption law would help with the lack of uniformity in our laws and practices that expose needless risk to all the parties of an adoption. Subsidies are identified as the single most important post adoptive service for special needs families. A policy surrounding the ban of subsidy differential would act as incentive for people to adopt. (Stolley, 1993).

Quality interventions at the child and family level are critical to promoting excellence in special needs adoption. Many people believe that using a public/ private initiative would increase the number of adoptions for waiting children and systemic changes in the way adoptions are planned. (Stolley, 1993).

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 was designed to promote safety and permanency for vulnerable children. However, due to its purportedly vague and overly liberal “reasonable-efforts” requirement, this act allegedly encouraged state child welfare personnel to sacrifice the safety of children in the name of preserving families. (Brooks, 2001)

With the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, the “reasonable –efforts” requirement was diminished and gives heavy emphasis on safety and on promoting permanency for vulnerable children through concurrent planning, Concurrent planning means that states are permitted to develop alternative goals for a child from the onset of the proceedings. This means returning the child to a parent or adoption. This created problems of its own, including several high-profile incidents that occurred in which children had been inappropriately returned to birth parents or were killed or severely injured. (Brooks, 2001).

There have been some criticisms of the law’s heavy emphasis on adoption while not promoting other permanency alternatives. These criticisms include the advocacy for the use and promulgation of subsidized guardianship and cooperative adoption as positive alternatives for traditional adoption. They argue that adoption alternatives such as subsidized guardianship and cooperative adoption share the key element of preserving a child’s important attachments. (Brooks, 2001).

There is no doubt that there is an increasingly large number of “special needs” children waiting to be adopted and languishing in foster care. Recognizing that the extraordinary costs and demands of raising special needs children poses barriers to many who could provide permanency for these children. However, I do believe through my own personal experience in working with adoptions and the issues of permanency that the policies are being looked at and re-evaluated. We owe it to these children. I believe every child deserves a living, secure, and permanent family. In order to realize this goal for children, I believe there needs to be a true commitment to providing a positive, ethical, and compassionate way in which to help provide services to persons wishing to create permanency for children. To offer these resources, we hope to decrease the number of children waiting.

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