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Adoptive parents take in more special needs kids

The National Council for Adoption publishes the largest survey of adoptive families


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Adoptive parents take in more special needs kids

Today’s adoptive parents take in more special needs children, have more contact with birth families, and spend more money on the adoption process than ever before. That’s according to a new survey conducted by the National Council for Adoption. The results came from a poll of over 4,200 adoptive families, making it the largest study of the American adoptive parent experience.

The survey says special needs children accounted for well over 60 percent of international adoptions in the last five years. More adoptive parents also expressed interest in having contact with birth parents, with nearly three-quarters of parents in private domestic adoptions saying they maintained some form of contact with birth families.

Kristen Hamilton, communications director for the NCFA, said the survey is “the first of its kind to quantify the experiences of adoptive families over time.” The organization hopes the results will inform policymakers about this population and its particular needs.

Adoption agencies say they’re encouraged by the survey results, which reflect the changing interests of adoptive parents and the hiring of better trained staff. Herbie Newell, head of Lifeline Children’s Services, a Christian adoption and child welfare ministry, said they’ve seen a rise in the number of special needs kids made available for adoption—and more Americans willing to adopt them. Couples started adopting them internationally decades ago, but Newell said the interest has spread domestically.

“All these families are willing to bring home kids with Down syndrome, Turner syndrome, cleft foot, cleft palate, major heart defects,” he said. “We’ve got those kids here at home, as well.”

Lifeline and other adoption agencies now have staff members who serve the special needs population and counsel parents. Nightlight Adoption president Daniel Nehrbass said he has hired staff with therapeutic backgrounds and trained everyone with the expectation of more children with significant disabilities. Now, only those open to special needs or older children are directed toward international or foster care, he said. Nehrbass showed me a spreadsheet listing every single international adoption Nightlight had facilitated in the past year—an overwhelming majority had at least one disability.

Nehrbass suggested that the Christian faith may also have something to do with the rise in adoptions of these children. “Because Europe’s adoption push is infertility-driven, rather than gospel-driven, Europeans are less likely to say yes to children with special needs,” he wrote in an email. “For that reason, foreign countries often give their healthier children to Europeans.”

Newell added that, in the United States, there is now less stigma toward special needs adoptions and adoption in general, so more American birth parents are willing to stay in touch. “It doesn’t feel like it’s this secret that the family doesn’t know, that we’re going to hide from our family and friends,” he said. Newell added that social media and Google have also made it much harder to stay anonymous and much easier for adopted children to connect with their birth parents.

The NCFA isn’t the only agency studying the traits of adoptive parents. The Department of Health and Human Services conducted its first (and so far, only) national survey of adoptive families back in 2007. While many of the NCFA’s findings align with HHS data, there were some drastic differences. The HHS survey showed that the average cost of adoption was $10,000 or less 15 years ago, but the NCFA respondents said parents spent three times as much or more. Those adopting domestically through a private agency spent on average $33,000.

What both surveys agreed on was the demographic makeup of today’s American adoptive parents: white, wealthy, and educated. Of the NFCA respondents, 47 percent said their household income was more than $100,000 a year, and well over 50 percent had at least a college degree. Ninety percent were white.

Still, Newell cautions that this doesn’t mean nonwhite families aren’t taking care of vulnerable children.

“What I hear from African Americans and their churches is, ‘Hey we’d love to adopt but currently I’m taking care of my cousin’s kids.’ A lot of the caregiving stays in the family and those who could potentially foster or adopt are already doing it within their family,” he said. Informal child-rearing arrangements done through trusted relatives and friends were not documented in either survey.

More than half of the NCFA respondents (54 percent) also professed Christian faith. While the 2007 government survey did not note the religious faith of adoptive parents, it did hint at their religiosity—70 percent of adopted children attended religious services regularly.

NCFA says it plans to focus on the experiences of adopted children and their birth parents in their next two surveys.


Juliana Chan Erikson Juliana is a correspondent and a member of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C. metro area with her husband and 3 children.

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