The term “special needs” is often used to describe a person with a developmental, emotional, or physical disability. However, within the adoption world, the term is sometimes broader in scope. Significantly more children fall under the blanket of “special needs” in adoption and foster care because they simply have needs that are often weightier and specific to the child, as opposed to children that are raised in stable homes from the minute they are born. A special need in adoption could include something like a developmental or physical delay, could describe that a child is part of a sibling group that ideally would be placed together, or is older and considered to need placement sooner.
This can lead to some confusion, as the term is defined differently in different contexts even within the world of adoption. For adoption and foster care within the United States, there is a legal definition of special needs that is defined separately by each state. This is in place for families adopting or fostering children domestically to receive monetary assistance that is required to take care of the children’s needs. In intercountry adoption there is no set legal definition by the US government, but the child’s country of origin may define special needs for different purposes.
Here are a few examples for what a state definition of special needs in adoption or foster care can look like:
A child with special needs is defined as a child that has at least one of the following needs or circumstances that may be a barrier to placement or adoption without financial assistance:
- Two years of age or older and a child of color
- Nine years of age or older and Caucasian
- Member of any sibling group being placed together who share at least one biological parent and who have either lived together or otherwise developed a bond prior to adoptive placement
- Severe medical or psychological needs that require ongoing rehabilitation or treatment
- At high risk for the development of a serious physical, mental or emotional condition, if a medical professional specializing in the area provides documentation of the condition for which the child is considered at risk. Note: No adoption assistance payment can be made without documentation that the child has developed the actual condition.
District of Columbia
The child is eligible for subsidy when the child is determined to have special needs based on one or more of the following conditions:
- The child has a chronic medically diagnosed disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or requires professional treatment, or assistance in self-care
- The child has been diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional to have a psychiatric condition which impairs the child’s mental, intellectual, or social functioning, and for which the child requires professional services
- The child has been determined to be mentally disabled by a qualified medical professional
- The child has been diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional to have a behavioral or emotional disorder characterized by situationally inappropriate behavior which deviates substantially from behavior appropriate to the child’s age and interferes significantly with the child’s intellectual, social, and personal adjustment
- The child meets all medical or disability requirements of title XVI of the Social Security Act with respect to eligibility for supplemental security income benefits
- The child is a member of a sibling group, in which the siblings should be placed together and the adoptions must be finalized at the same time
- The child is of an age or has an ethnic or racial background which presents a barrier to adoption
- The child has been legally free for adoption for six (6) months or more and an adoptive placement has not been found
Within intercountry adoption there are also variations in the way a special needs adoption is defined, but a significant number of children who are adopted internationally have needs that are defined as special needs in their country of origin. Some countries like Vietnam have separate adoption programs with different guidelines specifically for children with special needs.
Vietnam defines special needs in adoption as: children with disabilities, HIV/AIDS, and other life-threatening diseases, as defined by Vietnamese law, who are living in government orphanages. However, they do include children over the age of five and children in sibling groups in the program, though they are not considered special needs by the Vietnamese definition.
In most other intercountry adoption contexts, there is not a set definition for special needs, but there are groupings of needs that tend to be categorized as special needs. Those may include, depending on the country:
- Emotional, physical, or developmental disabilities or delays
- Older age at which it may cause a barrier to placement in their locale
- A sibling group
- A condition that needs medical attention, whether large or small
Often times, the term special need can get misinterpreted to only include physical disabilities in children, when in the realm of adoption it encompasses much more. Regardless of need, all children deserve stable, loving homes. If you or someone you know is interested in special needs adoption, more information is available in the resources below.