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September 2022   |   Archive   |   National Adoption Month  

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Adopting Children and Youth With Disabilities

Adopting a child with disabilities is a lifetime commitment that can have a profound effect on a family and requires flexible and adaptive parenting to meet the child’s needs. For the purposes of this article, disability is aligned with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definition and specifically, we are addressing permanency for children with physical and developmental disabilities and chronic medical conditions that impair functioning or limit activities. It is important to note that although we are considering children with disabilities in foster care as one single population, it is important to recognize this is a diverse group with a wide array of needs. Prospective adoptive families who are motivated to pursue adopting a child with disabilities will need to be adequately informed and prepared in order to provide a stable and loving home to a child in need.

A brief from Child Trends reports that children and youth with special health care needs comprise at least 24 percent of the foster care population. This brief also reports that children with disabilities are also more likely to experience greater placement instability, be in care longer, and are less likely to achieve permanency. The unique characteristics and experiences of children with disabilities require that child welfare professionals recruit, train, and support adoptive families with prior familiarity and experience with and the capacity to meet the long-term needs of these children. For example, a healthcare professional might be best suited for a child with medical needs or a child is who is hearing impaired could be placed with a caregiver fluent in American Sign Language and involved in the deaf community.

Preparation is key to assisting adoptive families in making informed decisions that align with the best interest of the child. It is vital that the adoptive parent obtains as much medical and background information about the child as possible. Another approach to preparing for adopting a child with disabilities is to spend time with children who have similar needs. Ideally, it is helpful to communicate with a family who has adopted a child with similar circumstances to gain insights from their experience.

Although adoptive parents of children with disabilities may face a number of unexpected challenges, they often speak about the levels of enrichment their children bring into their lives, the strengthened family bonds, and changed perspectives. Families who are interested in adopting a child with a disability have crucial factors to consider. Prospective parents may ask:

  • What challenges and/or disabilities are we prepared to care for?
  • Do we have the financial resources to care for the unique needs of this child?
  • Would our school district be able to support the child's educational needs?
  • Have we identified sources of support for ourselves (training, other families and community supports and networks, etc.)?

Once parents have decided to adopt a child with a disability, it is integral that they have access to support, ongoing training, quality health care, adoption competent mental health services that are suited to the child’s unique needs, and financial assistance. Training topics can include medication compliance, developmentally appropriate rules and boundaries, communication, and supporting interactions with other children in the home. The Family-Centered Medical Home model of care has been identified as an effective way for parents to partner with healthcare providers to provide holistic care for their child. Parents will also need access to services, support groups, and reliable respite care. Child Welfare Information Gateway’s website provides a list of Disabilities/Special Needs Organizations, and the National Foster Care and Adoption Directory (NFCAD) can help locate local support groups for adoptive families. Families can also utilize Theraplay, an evidence-based modality, for children with certain disabilities.

There are Federal and State programs that offer financial assistance to adoptive parents to cover some of the special care and services a child needs. Visit the Internal Revenue Service Adoption Credit and Adoption Assistance Programs> page to learn about Federal adoption tax benefits. The Supplemental Security Income program helps children with qualifying disabilities by providing critical financial assistance. To learn more, please view Benefits for Children With Disabilities. Other assistance may be available through the State. Child Welfare Information Gateway’s website provides Adoption and Guardianship Assistance by State.


3 Resources about adopting children and youth with special needs

About Specific Disabilities



By Center for Parent Information and Resources


Adoption of Children and Youth With Disabilities

By Child Welfare
Information Gateway



Changing Our Approach When Our Children Can’t Change

By Clark
North American Council on Adoptable Children (2021)




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