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What is a Special Needs adoption?

Both private and public adoption agencies in Canada have children who are considered to be special needs in terms of adoption. These children are not always considered special needs because of a developmental delay or disability. The term special needs adoption can mean many things:

  • Age: Most prospective adoptive parents want to adopt babies or very young toddlers. Children ages 5 to 18 years are often more difficult to place.
  • Abuse/Neglect: Children are often considered ‘special needs’ because they have suffered abuse (physical, emotional or sexual) and neglect at the hands of their birth family.
  • Disabilities: A child may have mental, physical or emotional disabilities and disorders ranging from mild to severe.
  • Sibling groups: There are many children who come into care with their siblings and must be placed together in an adoptive home.
  • Culture/Race: Adoption agencies try to match children with families that are the same culture. These children are not considered ‘special needs’ because they’re a minority race; rather, it’s because adoption agencies don’t have many waiting adoptive families that are a minority race.
  • At Risk: These children are presently healthy but they’re considered ‘at risk’ because they were exposed in utero to alcohol or drugs. Other ‘at risk’ children are those with birth parents who have mental illness and there is a risk of inheriting such disorders as schizophrenia or manic depression (bi-polar)

For families considering special needs adoption, it’s very important to discuss what type of ‘special needs’ you can reasonably handle. Be honest with yourselves and your adoption worker. Here are a few questions to ask yourselves:

  • How many children can I effectively parent?
  • Can I cope with a child who has suffered extreme abuse and/or neglect?
  • Am I prepared to parent a child who has a disability?
  • How will a special needs child affect my marriage?
  • Do we have a support system in place?
  • Can I be an advocate for this child and get him/her the proper services and care he/she needs?
  • Do I have the patience and strength to deal with difficult behaviours or learning disabilities?

Adoption Assistance Programs

In Canada, most public adoption agencies offer families a subsidy to help offset the costs involved in raising a child who has special needs. These payments are granted to families for such things as medical and dental services, equipment, respite care, as well as for a variety of therapy and counseling services not covered by health insurance.

If you are considering adopting a child (or already have!) that has some special needs, ask your adoption worker about the possibility of financial assistance to pay for equipment and therapies not covered by your province’s health care plan. Information about adoption subsidies for provinces and territories can be found at the North American Council on Adoptable Children’s web site.


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