What is Special Needs Adoption?


Some families are called to special needs adoption, which gives children with known medical needs the opportunity for a forever family. Families often start out on their adoption journey wanting to make a difference in the life of a child. But when families contact an agency, they may be told that most of the programs they’re interested in are “Special Needs Adoption” programs. This can be a scary term, and when we have this conversation with prospective clients, they often say that, while they greatly admire families who adopt children with those conditions, their family is only interested in mild, correctable needs. This is the common and understandable reaction of many families.

But what does the term “special needs” really mean? The image that comes to mind for many families when they think of special needs is that of children that may have extreme needs, require 24-hour medical care, or may never become independent. While it’s true that there are many children with severe needs who are waiting for loving families, that is not the true picture of what most countries consider “special needs.”

Here are some examples of what several families have seen in their referrals of special needs children:

  • Family size and age can often be a disadvantage to waiting children, and a country may designate a sibling group or a child over a certain age as “special needs” or “hard to place.” Sibling groups of 3 or more may wait longer for a family, or be separated in order to be placed. Children over the age of eight may also be passed over, as many families begin their adoption journey looking for a child under three.
  • Children with a known family history of mental health or psychiatric conditions may struggle to find families, regardless of the fact that the children may not exhibit any characteristics of mental or psychiatric conditions themselves. In my research, I have read that some of these conditions may be situational, not hereditary. Many children in need of adoption have mild mental and developmental delays, often as a result of institutionalized care, that may classify them in the special needs category by some countries. However, delays should be expected for all children in need of adoption, as none have had an ideal early life. With the love and support of a family, many can and will flourish and may be able to overcome deficits.
  • Mild physical health conditions such as correctable or non-life threatening heart conditions, repairable eye conditions, or physical characteristics like limb differences and deformities, cleft lip, and cleft palate (often repaired in-country). Children who may be carriers for sickle-cell anemia, hepatitis B, or tuberculosis may also be considered special needs.

Many of the conditions above would not typically classify a child as one with “special needs” here in the United States, and some may be conditions of their situation and not long-term diagnoses. We encourage all of our families to consult with an International Adoption Clinic to discuss their options. We often discover that as families become more informed about potential needs, they are open to more “special needs” than they originally thought. The wait times for these families to be matched with children is often reduced. Could a special needs adoption program be for you?

Photo Credit: Paul Eisenberg

Lydia Tarr works as the International Program Director for MLJ Adoptions’ programs in Bulgaria and Ukraine. She is the adoptive mother of four children from Ukraine and was recognized as a 2013 Angel in Adoption by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s (CCAI) Angels in Adoption Program.