Journal Issue: Adoption Volume 3 Number 1 Spring 1993
The Adoption of Children with Special Needs
Data presented by McKenzie indicate that nationally the number of children in foster care was estimated to be 429,000 in June 1992, an increase of 53% since 1987. In the states with the largest child substitute care populations, the increase has doubtless been even greater. She estimates that, of this population of children, as many as 85,000 may be free for adoption today. For a variety of reasons, these children will never be reunited with their birthparents, yet many of them are children for whom it is particularly difficult to find permanent homes. The latter circumstance has long been ascribed to the fact that these children, in the main, are children of color, are older, are members of sibling groups, and may have physical, mental, or emotional problems. These special needs children remain in foster care for an average of 3.5 to 5.5 years and, according to McKenzie, even longer in many urban areas. Most often their lives are characterized by movement through a series of foster homes and a background of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. The numbers of these children are increasing to a startling degree, and distressingly, large numbers of infants are now entering the system as a result of the drug epidemic (see the article by Barth). At present, the number of adoptive homes available for these children falls far short of the number of children needing families and permanency.
McKenzie analyzes the many obstacles now in the path from foster care to permanent placement and offers a series of very thoughtful recommendations for improvement. Of the latter, five stand out, and we strongly recommend them:
- Recruit, educate, and place more minority social workers.
- Support the establishment of additional adoptive agencies specializing in the placement of minority children.
- Encourage the development of innovative recruitment efforts, particularly, but not exclusively, in minority communities, for foster parents and adoptive parents for special needs children.
- Eliminate fees charged to adoptive parents of special needs children.
- Amend state laws to assure that adoption subsidies will be no less than foster care subsidies.
McKenzie states that the most dominant feature of special needs adoptive families is that the vast majority of them have been foster parents first. She also emphasizes that innovative recruitment programs in minority communities have amply demonstrated that African-American families are available and eager to adopt when approached and treated responsively by a community-based agency. However, in virtually all states the adoption subsidy rate is significantly lower than the foster care rate for the same child. For example, effective October 1, 1992, California's Adoption Assistance Program (AAP) limits AAP payments to the basic foster care rates, based solely on the child's age. For a child up to 4 years of age who has a significant physical, mental, or emotional disability and requires appropriate medical care, foster care reimbursement would be $774 per month. Adoption of the same child by the same foster care family would provide $354 in adoption assistance.3 In Oklahoma, a state that is considered to have an excellent subsidy program, the standard foster care rate is $350 per month; if the child has a developmental disability, an additional $500 per month may be added. However, if the child is adopted, the adoption subsidy is capped at $350.4 It is evident that the subsidy differential can be, and frequently is, a serious disincentive to adoption and should be abolished, although there is likely to be an increase in program costs.
Rosenthal's report on the outcome of special needs adoption strongly supports the value of this option for the children and identifies the predictors of positive outcomes. Among these are adoption by the child's foster parents, younger age at the time of adoption, the provision of complete background information about the child to the parents, and the absence of behavioral problems and prior sexual abuse. He emphasizes that low income and education, minority ethnicity, and single-parent family structure do not increase the risk of disruption of adoption and may, in fact, be modest predictors of increased success. He agrees with McKenzie on the question of adoption subsidies and states that they may be "the single most important post-adoptive service for special needs families."
Both McKenzie and Rosenthal recognize that special needs children, many of whom have had earlier damaging experiences, may be very challenging and that success of the adoption depends to a large extent upon the availability and provision of an array of postadoption services. Rosenthal has identified services which are particularly helpful, and we recommend that they be provided.