Social workers use the terms “special needs,” “hard to place,” and “waiting” interchangeably. The meaning depends on the worker, the agency, and the pool of children they have available.
In general, special needs refers to children with physical or psychological issues along a spectrum, from a risk of ADHD to a missing limb. But it can also mean a perfectly healthy toddler (at an agency where parents are looking for infants), it can mean a healthy baby boy (when parents are requesting girls), or it can mean a child who’s not white (at an agency with mostly white adoptive families). Children can move from “not special needs” into the special needs category if they are taking longer to find families than their agency’s average. The child didn’t change, just the waiting list.
If you hear any of these terms in the course of your adoption, make sure you know exactly what the speaker means. A reputable agency or attorney will send you a list of all the possible complications a child can suffer, from minor and correctable to lifelong. No one should pressure you to accept a child with needs you can’t meet.
Peg Studaker, supervisor of the Waiting International Child Program at Children’s Home Society and Family Services, in Minnesota, says: “Parenting children with special needs should be a family’s first choice. Adopting a special-needs child should never be a second choice because the family could not get the child they really wanted to parent.”
Lois Melina, an internationally recognized authority on adoptive parenting, says: “Prospective adoptive parents have more choices than biological parents do. We can choose the child’s birth culture, sex, race, and physical and mental health conditions. Even if human cloning one day does become a viable option, the cloned child will inherit the entire genetic package of her nuclear parent—the acne will accompany the academic ability.
This choice places a huge burden on us—not to justify it, but to be clear in our own hearts about why we value the choice, and what it will mean to us if, somehow, it leads to a different outcome than we imagined. We must be very careful, during the months or years that we wait to become parents, that we do not allow our imaginings to become fixed, to become expectations.
We can’t control whether our children interpret a choice we make about them as a gift or an obligation. However, we are responsible for checking in with our own hearts, to be sure that we recognize what is important—helping our children learn how to find true north, even though they will choose their own journeys to that point. And as long as our children are pointed in the right direction, we have done our jobs as parents.”