What "Special Needs" Adoption is Really All About
by Nancy Jennings
We at the MARE office are often called upon to work with families who are interested in adoption, and perhaps aren't sure where to begin, or even what kind of child they may be interested in bringing into their family. They may have seen a television special that touched their heart; they may have family or friends who have adopted; they may not be able to have children of their own biologically - in any event, they are considering adoption as a means to expand their family.
We would like to take this opportunity to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions that families may have about adoption in general, and special needs adoption in particular.
When we talk about "special needs" children or "special needs" adoption, we are referring to children who are currently a part of the child welfare system. Most have come into foster care because of abuse and/or neglect they have experienced within their birth family.
"Special needs" does not mean these children are physically impaired - in fact, very few children are in wheelchairs, require walkers or crutches, or are unable to move around on their own. It does not mean they are mentally impaired - only a small percentage of children have any form of mental retardation. "Special needs" children - because they have suffered abuse and/or neglect in the past - very often have some kind of emotional impairment which may manifest itself in behavioral difficulties, Attention Deficit Disorder with or without Hyperactivity, Oppositional Defiant behaviors, or negative attention-seeking behaviors. These children may test the limits of a caregiver's patience, affection and commitment. They may say or do things caregivers do not like. They may try to push away anyone who attempts to get close to them - all because they have been hurt in many ways in the past.
These children - our "special" children - did not ask to be where they are, and as children, have a difficult time understanding, accepting and coping with much of what has happened to them.
"I'm willing to accept..." or "I'll settle for..."
Unfortunately, we hear these phrases a lot. Oftentimes, families will indicate they are "willing to accept" an older child, but only if they have a young (toddler or infant) sister or brother. Sometimes, families will say they will "settle for" an African American child, because they aren't able to find a Caucasian child in their preferred age range (again, usually toddlers or infants).
Special needs adoption is not about finding children for waiting families, but rather finding families for waiting children. While a family may have noble intentions in "accepting" or "settling for" a child, they are ignoring the needs and desires of the waiting children - that is, to be part of a family where they are wanted, loved and respected - not "settled for."
It would be nice if the entire world really were colorblind, and a person's (or child's) race, creed and color didn't matter. But along with the difference in skin color often comes a difference in culture, beliefs, life-styles and/or needs. While it might not matter to some folks what background a child is from - because all children are the same inside anyway, aren't they? - that child may still have different needs to be met than perhaps a child of the same race as the family. It is noble to be colorblind - to be able to accept a child of a different racial background into your family. But along with accepting that child and loving that child will come some challenges.
Some communities may not be so colorblind. They may not be willing to accept a child of a different background, and may make a child's (or even the family's) life difficult. Family and friends may not be so accepting, either - a child of an obviously different heritage may cause them to feel uncomfortable, or have trouble explaining to others where the child came from.
On the flip side, families who adopt children of cultures different than their own may also find repercussions within the child's community. Families need to be prepared for questions or accusations from individuals who may approach them.
"I want to adopt a child with a high subsidy rate."
Subsidy is based on a child's needs, not the needs of the family. Most children in the child welfare (i.e., foster care) system are eligible for some form of subsidy when they are adopted, either medical or support. A child with a higher subsidy rate probably has very severe needs, may be multiply impaired, may require frequent medical intervention, 24-hour care, etc. Adopting a child should not be viewed as a way to add to your monthly income.
"Why does it cost so much to adopt?"
Depending on the type of adoption (domestic infant, international or special needs), the costs may vary greatly.
For domestic infant adoptions - that is, infants born in the United States - costs can be rather high. Michigan now allows adopting families to pay certain birthmother expenses - as approved by the Court. These expenses can include (but are not limited to) housing, education, transportation, meals, clothing, and medical expenses. On top of those fees, adopting families also pay the agency for their homestudy, background checks and court filing fees. Although there is no average, costs for domestic infant adoptions can range from $5,000 to more than $25,000.
International adoption, on the other hand, can cost anywhere from $10,000 and up. Included in that cost is the fee to the agency doing the homestudy; if the agency does not work with a country directly, they may need to contract with an agency that specializes in international adoptions, which may mean additional fees. The country in which the child lives will also receive fees for court filings, perhaps hiring a guardian to represent the child in court hearings, or other kinds of expenses. The adopting family may also have to travel to and from the country in which the child lives; most countries require a family to stay in their country for a minimum amount of time, which may add to the cost of the adoption. If the country does not require a family to travel to pick up the child, an escort will need to be hired. There are also immigration fees that must be paid upon reentry into the United States.
Special needs adoption, on the other hand, is different. It is more about finding families for waiting children, than finding children for waiting families. These are children who have been in the foster care system for at least several months, if not longer, and they are in need of a family to care for them, teach them about responsibility and respect, meet their needs, and help them grow to be productive, independent adults.
The state pays most costs associated with special needs adoption, including the homestudy assessment fee. The only cost to families is usually a minimal court filing fee for the adoption petition.
"I think I'll become a foster parent, so I can adopt the kids I want."
Many families have been told that, as foster parents, they will be able to adopt the children that come into their home. This statement can be correct, but should be clarified before a family jumps into fostering.
Foster care placements should - first and foremost - be considered temporary. Because they are required to help facilitate visitations (when appropriate), foster parents can be instrumental in helping to reunite children with their parents. This can be very difficult for some individuals. Foster parents can become attached to the children in their care, and this is to be expected. However, they must still be willing and able to help these children make the transition back to the care of their parents. It is imperative that foster parents remain as neutral as possible, and not become biased against the child's parents or try to sabotage reunification.
Once reunification is no longer the long-term plan and the child's parental rights have been terminated, however, foster parents and relatives are usually given priority to adopt the child. The state recognizes the bond that has developed between a child and their foster parent, and will consider making the arrangement a permanent placement.
Through the foster care licensing process, prospective foster parents will work with their caseworker to determine the number of children they can have in their home, and the kinds of children they are willing to care for. For example, a family who wants to consider fostering younger children will most likely not be licensed to care for teenagers. Of course, there may be emergency situations in which families are asked to take in a child that doesn't meet their expectations. Such a situation is usually temporary until a more appropriate placement can be found.
Interested families must be willing to recognize foster care as a temporary arrangement, must be willing to facilitate visitation between children and parents (when appropriate), must not attempt to sabotage any reunification plans, and must be willing to help a child in returning home.
If a child's parental rights are terminated and the foster parents do not wish to consider adopting the child, they must also be willing to facilitate visitation between prospective adoptive parents and the child.
Foster parenting isn't for everyone, but the rewards can be worth more than any form of subsidy available.
It is very important that families who are considering adoption remember that it is all about the children - providing them with good, solid homes in which they are safe and well cared for. The road to adulthood isn't always easy for these children, but with guidance, responsibility and respect, they can grow to reach their full potential.
If you have any further questions about any of the issues we have raised here, or would like more information about adoption or foster care, please feel free to contact the MARE office at (800) 589-MARE.
CASA is Growing in Michigan
Across the state, foster families are increasingly receiving visits from CASA volunteers. Who are these people, and why are they knocking at your door?
CASAs, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, are specially screened and trained citizen volunteers who are appointed by the court to make reports and recommendations concerning a foster child's best interests. The program was created by Judge David Soukup, a Probate Judge in Seattle, in 1977. Judge Soukup wanted more information than was typically provided by attorneys and caseworkers before making the difficult decision whether to terminate parental rights or reunify the family. He recruited and trained a handful of volunteers, giving them the mandate of gathering enough information so that they could offer the court independent recommendations regarding the best interests of the child. The program was an instant success, and began spreading across the country.
After an extensive background check, new volunteers complete an intensive 40-hour training curriculum that includes the child protection system, child welfare law, the dynamics of abuse and neglect, child development, and the juvenile justice system. Those that complete training are generally appointed to just one case at a time, and stay on that case until a permanent resolution is reached.
Once appointed, the CASA begins a thorough review of the child's history and situation. After reading the court file, the CASA makes contact with birth and foster families, other relatives, teachers, counselors, and all other individuals who have information about the child. The CASA meets with the child every week to ten days, in order to develop a true understanding of the child and to create a relationship of trust and honesty. Open communication with the foster family is essential to the volunteer's understanding of the child's situation.
CASAs share their findings and opinions with the child's attorney, caseworker, and others involved in providing services to the child. Prior to every hearing, the CASA prepares a written report detailing the child's situation and listing a series of recommendations. Depending on the stage of the proceeding, the recommendations range from services the child and/or family should receive to suggestions regarding final placement. The CASA attends every hearing, offering testimony as needed. Because the CASA offers these findings strictly on the basis of the child's best interests, the reports typically carry a great deal of weight with the court.
The CASA model is spreading across the nation, with over 42,000 volunteers representing 172,000 children. In Michigan, thirteen programs currently serve 13 counties and one tribal court. Over a dozen more programs are in development. "Our development process is slow and thorough," said Patricia Wagner, Program Manager for the Michigan Association of CASA. "We want to ensure that programs are built on a solid, sustainable foundation and that they provide the highest quality services and volunteers."
Foster parents are typically discouraged from becoming a CASA volunteer, to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. Many foster parents have completed CASA training, though, and found it very thorough and relevant. "We applaud the tremendously important role foster families play in the process, and recognize the individual sacrifice every foster parent makes when opening his or her home to an abused child," said Wagner. "I hope that as the CASA network grows in Michigan, we can work more closely with foster parents to ensure that these children are offered every possible opportunity to heal and grow."
For more information about CASA, phone your local program or contact the Michigan Association of Court Appointed Special Advocates at (517) 482-7533 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
CASA programs serve the following state courts: