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Special Needs Adoption Subsidies

by Seth A. Grob

Q: We plan to adopt a child with special needs. Is there assistance available to help us care for the child, now and in the future?

A: Yes. Under the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, the federal government created financial incentives to states to encourage adoptions of special needs children. These incentives resulted in all states enacting legislation creating state-administered adoption subsidy programs.

The federal incentives apply only to children adopted domestically, through a state human service agency or through a non-profit, licensed placement agency. Families of all economic strata qualify, as long as the child in question meets the definition of a child with special needs and is eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children as it existed in 1996 or Supplemental Security Income for the Blind and Disabled.

Federal law specifies conditions that make placement difficult without assistance—children who are members of a minority or sibling group; those with medical conditions or physical, mental, or emotional handicaps; and older children. (States’ definitions vary.) A child must also be in a situation where he cannot or should not be returned to his birthparents. Finally, the state must make all reasonable efforts to place the child without a subsidy, unless the child’s best interests would not be served by such efforts. So, if a child has significant emotional ties to the prospective adoptive family, it is improper to conduct a search for a family willing to take the child without a subsidy.

While most subsidies are federally supported, there are programs that are state-funded only and cover children who do not meet federal requirements.

Types of Benefits Available

Specific benefits vary from state to state but generally consist of the following:

• Monthly cash benefits are negotiated between adoptive parents and the state agency, based on the parents’ circumstances and the child’s needs. Benefits combined with the parents’ resources should cover the ordinary and special needs of the child—including, for example, childcare—over an extended period. Cash subsidies may be equal to the amount the child was receiving while in foster care or would receive in the foster care system. Once a cash subsidy is provided, the adoptive parents are free to spend it as they deem appropriate without further agency oversight.

• Social, medical, and psychological services are also available. Services may include day care; respite care; in-home supportive services, counseling, and therapies; medical equipment; assistance in obtaining help in the community; and other child welfare services.

• Non-recurring adoption expenses can be reimbursable. These include adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees, homestudy costs, post-placement supervision, transportation, and the reasonable costs of lodging and food for the child and/or the adoptive parents as necessary to complete the adoption process.

• Medicaid is available to all children with a federal subsidy.

How to Negotiate for Benefits

First, all parties must sign the subsidy agreement prior to finalization of the adoption. Next, parents should document all of the child’s current and prospective special needs, which may require developmental and educational assessments, psychological testing, physical examination, or genetic testing. The next step is to develop a plan to meet those needs, taking into account family circumstances. Finally, the parents or their attorney should draft a formal letter to the state or county human service agency, reviewing the child’s needs, family circumstances, and the services and benefits you are seeking. If necessary, a settlement conference with the agency representative can help resolve disputes. If a request is denied, parents may appeal through the administrative hearing process.

Once a subsidy is secured, it will continue until the age of eighteen—or twenty-one if the state determines the child has a mental or physical handicap that warrants continuation of assistance. Federal law permits the amount of the subsidy to be readjusted, so if your child regresses in the future and/or your financial circumstances worsen, you may seek an increase in the subsidy amount.

©2003 Adoptive Families. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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