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Adoption: Special Needs

Latter-Day Saints Perspective

Unfortunately, being certain that adoption is right for you and being as prepared and qualified as possible will not ensure that you get a baby to adopt. Adopting an infant today isn't as easy as it used to be. In the first half of the 1900's there were more babies needing to be adopted than there were families to take them.7 That changed in the 1970's. Abortion was legalized, birth control became more available, and single parenting became more socially acceptable. Fewer and fewer healthy babies were available for adoption. At the same time more people began having trouble conceiving because they were waiting until an older age to start a family.11 This created more demand for babies to adopt than there were babies available.

Other changes in American society, such as increased abuse of drugs and alcohol caused an increase in older children being placed in foster care.5 Many of these children drifted in the foster care system for years. Far too often, the lack of a permanent home was causing serious problems in these children's lives. To address this, federal legislation was passed in the late 1990's that mandated that children in foster care must be legally freed for adoption within a certain time fram.5 Child welfare agencies usually make permanency plans right away for each child that comes into their care so that the child can be placed in a prospective adoptive home or returned to the birth family.

These circumstances combined to cause a huge increase in children adopted from the foster care system. In 2005 approximately 51,000 children were adopted from foster care.1 These adoptions are sometimes referred to as "special needs" adoptions because the children are usually older and often have a troubled history.

If you are considering a special needs adoption or have already adopted an older child, you can do several things to create a successful family and build fulfilling relationships. Although the ideas below are especially important in special needs adoptions many of them can be applied to any adoptive family.

Remember that the welfare of the child is the priority. Joyce Maguire Pavao, an adoptee and an expert in the field of adoption, says, "Adoption is about finding families for children, not about finding children for families". If you put the child's needs first as you are making a decision to adopt, the whole family will be better off. It is important to think through how an adoption will impact you and the child in all the stages of your life, not just this moment.8

See from your child's eyes. When the adoption finally goes through and you bring your child home for the first time, you probably will feel overjoyed. You may expect your child to feel the same way. But it is likely that she won't. Stop and think about how she might be feeling. She has been through an incredible amount of loss for her young age. The adults in her life probably haven't been very trustworthy. Now she is coming to live with people she barely knows. She might be feeling sad about leaving her foster family or other caregiver. You'll need to give her time and space to get used to all the changes. The more you keep things like bedtime and meals the same as she is used to, the more comfortable she will feel.2 Find out as much as you can about the routines, diet, and environment she had in her previous home. If she felt close to her foster family, or had good friends in her old neighborhood, helping her get in touch with them now and then will be healthy for her.

Another way to ease the transition is to create a "Welcome Book" for your child before she comes to live with you. This book can let her know a little bit about you and your family life. A small thing like this can go a long way to ease the anxiety she may feel in coming to a new home. You can find more information and free printable pages for a "Welcome Book" at the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association website.5 Scroll down to the section called "The Welcome Book".

Find a therapist who is adoption smart. If there is one thing you can do to improve the quality of your family life, it's to find a good therapist who understands adoption issues. In cases of special needs adoptions, therapy can be extremely valuable. Remember that most children who are adopted from foster care have been seriously abused and/or neglected. This history requires the help of qualified professionals.9

Know your rights and the rights of your child. Most children who are adopted have normal IQ scores, but they tend to fall behind in school and in language ability. Many have learning disabilities.10 They are entitled to a quality public education. See Knowing Your Child's Rights for a complete discussion of the rights of children with learning disabilities. It is extremely important that you learn this information if your child has learning disabilities. It is also important that you know what to do if your child's rights are not being honored.

Be an advocate for your child. Even if learning disabilities are not something that your child is challenged with some school situations and assignments, like creating a family tree, can cause a lot of grief for an adopted child. As you meet with your child's teachers at the beginning of a new school year and throughout the year take some time to talk to them about adoption issues that could be a problem for your child. There is an excellent pamphlet called Adoption Basics for Educators: How Adoption Impacts Children and How Educators Can Help. It is available free online or you can order a free hard copy through the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association. Passing this on to your child's teachers is a simple thing you can do that could dramatically help your child fare better in school.

Be as open with your child as is developmentally appropriate. Good relationships thrive on appropriate levels of openness. Even hard things are easier to deal with when they are discussed openly rather than kept secret. Refer to some of the resources listed at the end of this article for more information about how to talk to your child about adoption issues.

Talk about adoption in ways that will help your child to feel good about being adopted. A Hawaiian man who was adopted told of an ancient Hawaiian adoption custom called "hanai." When a child from one family is adopted into another family, the two families become connected and are forever after like one big extended family. Warring against each other becomes taboo. The adopted person learns to recite the ancestry of both the adoptive family and the birth family. In his culture being an adopted person is a great honor because you are the connector of two families and you hold both family lineages in you. It is a position of prestige (As told in Pavao, 2005, p. 112).8 This is the kind of feeling every adopted child in America should have. Unfortunately, hanai is not a part of American culture, but you can make it part of your family's culture.

Honor your adopted child's history. As you help your adopted child learn positive things about his birth parents, you help him respect himself. Remember that he came from them. It is important that you find ways to honor them. Avoid taking on an attitude that you are better than they are. This can be tricky when the birth parents treated your child badly. One mother dealt with it by telling her adopted daughter, Millie, this:

"Parenting is not something that comes naturally. If someone gave me a pencil and told me to draw a cat, I wouldn't be able to draw anything that vaguely resembled a cat. I don't have that talent. But I can parent. We all have things we can and cannot do. If people can't parent, that doesn't mean they are bad people, it just means they don't have that ability. Maybe your mom and dad weren't the parents you would have chosen . . . but if you look close enough you will see something (good) each of them has given you to make you the Millie you are today".9

You also can help your child stay connected in healthy ways with key people from his past. Some adoptive parents feel threatened by people their child was attached to before the adoption. But if your child had a special grandmother or favorite uncle who was appropriate with him, keeping that person involved with your child could be a valuable strength in your child's life.8

When you refuse to discuss people in your child's past or speak badly about them, you are sending your child a message that there is something wrong with him. The opposite can also be true. When you are open and accepting of your child's past, you are sending a message to your child that you are open and accepting of him. There have been many cases where an older child decided to search for his birth parents, and he became closer to his adoptive parents than ever before because they supported him in his search.

If you were not provided with a "life book" from your child's social worker, create one yourself. A life book contains a written and visual record of your adopted child's life. This is the place to record the story of his unique background and history. It could contain:

  • Medical records
  • Information about birth parents and other members of the birth family
  • Pictures and artwork
  • Anything else that would be significant to your child

Remember that even tiny bits of information can be important to an adoptee. As you read the life book together often with your child, it will help you bond. It will also give your child answers to some of the questions he is bound to have in a way he can easily understand. For more information about life books, see Life Books: Every Adopted Child Needs One. For free printable pages to use in a life book go to the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association website and scroll down until you see the section called "Life Book Pages."

Understand the sources of your child's misbehavior. Poor behavior can be very troubling to adoptive parents. Understanding it can make it easier to deal with. Some of your child's "bad" behaviors helped her survive in an abusive or neglectful home. You will need patience as you teach her that it is safe to behave differently now. Realize that acting out is normal and understandable for children who have been abused and/or neglected (Pavao, 2005 p. 123). That doesn't mean you should indulge your child's poor behavior. All children need limits and discipline. But understanding can help you to avoid taking it personally. Understanding the reason for the misbehavior can also help you know how to deal with it effectively.

Be sensitive to the needs of previous children. If you already have children, they need to be prepared before the adoption takes place and treated sensitively after the adoption. Ellen Steele Mullin and LeAnne Johnson offer these suggestions:6

  • Before the adoption takes place, talk with your children about adoption and what they think it will be like to have a new child in the family and what worries them about it. Help them understand adoption and how it will affect your family.
  • Help them understand that there will be negative as well as positive effects of adopting a child.
  • Help them make a list of what they think will be different in the family after the adoption and what they think will be the same. Let them decide if they think the changes will be positive or difficult.
  • After the adoption occurs, encourage the children to be open about their thoughts and feelings and to share with you their frustrations about the new child and the changes in the family.
  • When they share feelings, listen to them. Don't feel threatened by negative feelings or become defensive. Letting your children know that their feelings are acceptable and normal will help them to relax.
  • Model confidence. Help them feel a sense of security, safety, and stability.

Depending on where you live, you might be able to find a support group for children with adopted siblings. Support groups for adopted children also exist in many areas. They will find comfort in discovering that others understand what they're going through.


Adoption is a valuable and important way to create a family. It is often filled with miracles and wonders. When a couple is prepared, educated, and has good support, adoption can be deeply fulfilling and rewarding for all involved.

Written by Tanya Bailey, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

Recommended Resources:

Adoptive Families Magazine

Adoption Learning Partners - An Online Adoption Education Community

Are You Ready to Adopt? What You Can Learn From Your Motives

Child Welfare Information Gateway

Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association

Life Books: Every Adopted Child Needs One


  1. Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. (2006). AFCS.
  2. Archer, C. (1999). Parenting the child who hurts: The first steps. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  3. Howe, D. (2003). Attachment disorders: Disinhibited attachment behaviors and secure base distortions with special reference to adopted children. Attachment and Human Development, 5(3), 265-270.
  4. Holtan, B. (2000). Are you ready to adopt? What you can learn from your motives. New York State Citizens Coalition for Children, Inc.
  5. Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association. (2007). Adoption Basics for Educators: How Adoption Impacts Children and How Educators Can Help.
  6. Mullin, E. S., & Johnson, L.(1999). The role of birth/previously adopted children in families choosing to adopt children with special needs. Child Welfare League of America, 128(5), 579-591.
  7. Nickman, S., Rosenfeld, A., Fine, P., Macintyre, J., Pilowsky, D., Howe, R., Derdeyn, A., Gonzales, M., Forsythe, L., & Sveda, S. (2005). Children in adoptive families: Overview and update. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 44, 987-995.
  8. Pavao, J. M. (2005). The family of adoption. Boston: Beacon Press.
  9. Robinson, G. (1998). Older child adoption. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.
  10. Van Ijzendoorn, J., & Poelhuis, K. (2005). Adoption and cognitive development: A meta-analytic comparison of adopted and nonadopted children's IQ and school performance. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 301-316.
  11. Wright, L., & Flynn, C. (2006). Adolescent adoption: Success despite challenges. Children and Youth Services Review, 28, 487-510.

The Savior gave special attention to children and to the needy during his mortal mministry. When you open your heart to children who need a family, you are doing what the Savior did. James 1:27 says, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." (James 1:27)

The early Latter-day Saint publication Times and Seasons, in its March 1842 issue, said that we are to "feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to provide for the widow, to dry up the tear of the orphan, to comfort the afflicted" (as quoted in Monson, p. 43).4

Children with "special needs," those who have been abused or neglected by caregivers or those with physical or intellectual challenges, are among those who need our open hearts the most. Usually they are older, and many have behavior problems. As an adoptive parent of a special needs child, you might be faced with challenges that you don't fully understand or know how to deal with. Thomas S. Monson has taught that God will help you:

To reach, to teach, to touch the precious souls . . . is a monumental task. Success is rarely simple. Generally it is preceded by tears, trials, trust, and testimony . . . "Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing," said the Lord, "for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great. Behold, the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind." D&C 64:33-34 . . . An abiding faith, a constant trust, a fervent desire have always characterized those who serve the Lord with all their hearts . . . If any brother or sister feels unprepared, even incapable of, responding to a call to serve, to sacrifice, to bless the lives of others, remember this truth: "Whom God calls, God qualifies." He who notes the sparrow's fall will not abandon the servant's need.5

Sometimes it is difficult to understand why so many innocent children suffer so much. While you can't take away the suffering your child has endured already, God can heal him or her, and you can make an enormous difference in her life now. Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles says this about suffering: "We see such a limited part of the eternal plan He has fashioned for each one of us. Trust Him, even when in eternal perspective it temporarily hurts very much."7

President Spencer W. Kimball, too, taught that suffering should be viewed in an eternal perspective: "If we look upon the whole of life as an eternal thing stretching far into the pre-mortal past and into the eternal post-death future, then all happenings may be in proper perspective and may fall into proper place."3

The words of Jeffrey R. Holland also give hope and comfort. "When . . . difficult moments come to us, I testify that there is one thing which will never, ever fail us. One thing alone will stand the test of all time, of all tribulation, all trouble, and all transgression. One thing only never faileth - and that is the pure love of Christ."2

Finally, the Savior's words in Matthew chapter 25 apply powerfully to adoptive families:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matt. 25:31-40.)

With the example of the Savior as your guide and through the help of God and the promptings of the Holy Ghost, you can experience immeasurable joy by adding a child in need to your family.

Written by Tanya Bailey, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


  1. Faust, J. E. (1990, November). The greatest challenge in the world - good parenting. Ensign, 32-33.
  2. Holland, J. R. (2002, September) He will never let you down. Ensign, 7.
  3. Kimball, S. W. (1975). Tragedy or destiny, in Faith precedes the miracle (pp. 95-106). Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company.
  4. Monson, T. S. (1994, November). My brother's keeper. Ensign, 43-45.
  5. Monson, T. S. (1997, September). Tears, trials, trust, testimony. Ensign, 2-5.
  6. Monson, T. S. (1989, November). The service that counts. Ensign, 45-48.
  7. Scott, R. G. (1991, November). Obtaining help from the Lord. Ensign, 85.
  8. Young, D. J. (1983, November). Prepare to teach his children. Ensign, 86-87.