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February 2004Vol. 5, No. 1Realistic Expectations Found Key to Positive Outcomes in Special Needs Adoptions

A recent study of families who adopted children with special needs found parental expectations had a significant impact on parents' satisfaction with the adoption, the quality of the parent-child relationship, and the perceived overall impact of the adoption on the family. These findings underscore the need to adequately prepare families adopting children with special needs and provide post-adoption services that are accessible, affordable, and available to families throughout a child's lifetime.

"Characteristics and Challenges of Families Who Adopt Children with Special Needs: An Empirical Study" is based on a survey conducted by researchers from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, of 249 adoptive families (including 373 children) in Nevada. All participating families were receiving adoption subsidies or had an adoption subsidy agreement in place as of January 2000.

Other findings included:

  • Close to one-third of the families (32 percent) reported their children's behavior problems or disabilities as profound or severe. The longer children had been in the adoptive home, the more likely parents were to report behavior problems.
  • A large proportion (58 percent) of families reported not receiving enough information about their child prior to the adoption. More than one-third (37 percent) of adoptive parents reported their child's problems were more serious than the agency originally reported.
  • While relatives reported having significantly more information than nonrelatives about their children prior to adoption, no significant differences emerged between foster/adoptive parents and new adoptive parents.
  • Adoptive families reported significant barriers in obtaining post-adoption services. Parents of children ages 14 and older reported more difficulty obtaining post-adoption services than parents of younger children.

Children's behavior problems had the greatest influence on parental satisfaction. (Fewer behavior problems were associated with higher satisfaction with parenting.) Parents' expectations had the second greatest influence on parental satisfaction and the greatest influence on the other three adoption outcomes studied: quality of relationship with the child, impact of the child's adoption on the family, and impact of the child's adoption on the marriage. (More realistic expectations for the child were associated with higher satisfaction with parenting and more positive impact on families, marriages, and parents' relationships with their children.)

While the authors acknowledge the need for additional studies to validate these findings, they cite the following implications for adoption agencies:

  • Agencies may want to increase recruitment efforts targeting families in the larger community to adopt children with special needs since, surprisingly, no significant differences emerged between foster/adoptive parents and new adoptive parents.
  • Adoption agencies need to ensure expectations of both foster/adoptive parents and new adoptive parents are thoroughly assessed. Agencies must provide special training on the developmental needs of children who are medically fragile or substance-exposed.
  • This study reinforces findings from other studies that many problems of children with special needs manifest themselves years after placement. Post adoption services for these families are critical throughout a child's lifecycle. Agencies must develop a wide range of post adoption services and promote and advertise these services to the community.

"Characteristics and Challenges of Families Who Adopt Children with Special Needs," by Thom Reilly and Laurie Platz, appeared in the October 2003 issue of Children and Youth Services Review (Vol. 25, No. 10). It is available at

Related Items

Read more about special needs adoptions in previous issues of Children's Bureau Express:

  • "Foster Parents, Relatives Adopt Majority of Children with Special Needs" (September 2003)
  • "Better Futures for Waiting Children" (December 2002/January 2003)