How to adopt a child with a disability

Do you have patience, understanding and willingness to learn? Then you have the skills we are looking for to foster a disabled child or young person. We offer a full disability service supported by specialist disability social workers.

Could you foster a disabled child?

At Fostering People, we’ve been changing lives since 2000. Over that time, we have cared for many disabled children with many different needs.

If you have patience, understanding, a good sense of humour, can be extra vigilant with safety, be open-minded, good at communicating, able to advocate and to learn and be committed to meeting disabled children’s needs, then you have the skills we are looking for.

As a foster parent for disabled children, you will be offering specialist care to children who may have autism, learning difficulties, physical disabilities or medical conditions.

Finding a great foster family that meets the needs of a child can be challenging but, for a disabled child, the challenge is often greater. At Fostering People, you don’t need to choose between fostering children with or without a disability, but be open to considering any child according to your own skills and experience.

Becoming a foster parent for disabled children can seem quite daunting, but don’t worry – here at Fostering People, you would be supported by a specialist disability social worker who has significant experience of working with disabled children. We will provide training, advice and specialist support groups, to ensure that every disabled child is able to achieve to their fullest potential.

“Don’t underestimate yourself. Be willing to give disabled children a chance – you will learn a lot from it and will reap the rewards!”

Disability Myths

Some people find the idea of caring for a child with a disability overwhelming. But our experience has shown that there are a lot of myths when it comes to fostering a child with more complex needs, below we have highlighted some of the most common.

Children with disabilities have physical needs and use a wheelchair

Not all children with disabilities will have physical needs or require home adaptations and not all disabilities are visible. Disabilities vary and can include; Autism, Learning Disabilities, Visual Impairments, Deaf or Hard of Hearing and Acquired Brain Injury.

I need to be a qualified nurse to care for a child with complex health needs.

You don’t need to be medically qualified, or have previous medical experience to look after a child with complex health needs. All training will be provided; for us, it’s about learning and development. If you are willing to learn, you can foster a child that has more complex health needs.

I can’t become a foster parent if my child has a disability

You can still foster even if your own child has a disability. It’s about careful consideration of the impact of fostering on your child. As a parent of a disabled child, you would have invaluable skills and experience to bring to the role.

I can’t foster as I have a disability

You can foster if you have a disability. There are expectations within fostering regarding your health to ensure that fostering wouldn’t have a negative impact on you or your health, but this is the same for everyone applying to foster.

Autism is caused by bad parenting

Autism is not caused by bad parenting. There are still ongoing studies and research being carried out as to the cause of Autism, however the hypothesis of ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ parenting has been disproved.

Children with Autism can’t communicate

Children with Autism can communicate and this will be in their own way. Some children with autism have good verbal communication and can communicate their wishes and feelings well. Others will have limited vocabulary but use non-verbal cues such as signs, gestures, pictures and body language to aid their communication. This can seem a lot less daunting when you consider that over 70% of all human communication is non-verbal.

Children with Autism do not show affection or eye contact.

Whilst these are recognised as being some of the traits, it’s not necessarily true of all children with Autism. Some do give eye contact, although this may differ to other children. Children with Autism may be oversensitive to touch and hugs, however may show affection in other ways that are individual to them.

ADHD is an excuse for challenging behaviour

ADHD is a real medical condition and is not used as a label for ‘challenging behaviour’.

How to adopt a child with a disability

No one ever said it would be easy! There are many variables that go into trying to adopt a child. These things can vary from paperwork to physical examinations. The home study will be the main component of your adoption. After you have chosen an agency, you will begin the process of gathering everything necessary to move forward in the adoption process. Having an idea of what you might need to get the ball rolling will help you do some of the leg work ahead of time . Hopefully it will also make your journey to adopt a child a little less treacherous!


It is no secret that adoption can be quite expensive. One of the first things you will need to gather for your adoption is funding. Depending on the type of adoption, the fees will vary exponentially. Adoption from foster care can be free to a few thousand dollars if using attorney services. Other types of adoption including agency, international, and private can cost anywhere from $8,000-$40,000 or more. There is no hard or fast number to provide regarding the cost. It is important to research the type of adoption you will pursue. Then seek out quotes from various agencies in your area. You can also research grants that you can apply for to aid in the process, as there are numerous opportunities to seek help with funding.


Adoption will involve nothing if not mounds of paperwork. The most infamous part of the adoption process is how much paperwork will need to be completed for your home study. An adoption home study, a necessary part of almost every adoption, will involve one to four home visits, interviews, and the gathering of personal paperwork. A lot of this paperwork will be given to you by your adoption agency or attorney. However, it is wise to begin gathering needed documents.

This paperwork may include but not be limited to financial paperwork, tax returns for the past one to five years, marriage or divorce decrees, birth certificates, etc. Most agencies will provide you a list of needed documents to aid you in your gathering of this vital information. Inspecting your financials allows the agency to make sure that you can afford the costs of taking on a child. You do not have to be rich to adopt! The agency simply wants to make sure the cost of raising a child will not become too much financially.

Home Study

The home study will also involve extensive checks into your background such as child services history (including any events that involved yourself and your parents), fingerprint background checks, personal referrals, and a general autobiography that may be in book form that you create for the agency. The agency may also require education in the form of classes. You may have books to read on adoption that will prepare you to raise a child who has experienced adoption. The agency will lay out for you the requirements as these components may differ agency to agency. You may also need a record of a current physical exam by a licensed physician for everyone in your household. This is to ensure that there are no extreme health issues present that would severely hinder your ability to raise a child.

The home study will also require a study of your home. The purpose is to make sure you live in an environment conducive to raising a child. Also, the assessor may check for proper storage of medicine and weapons. They will also make sure that the child will have a safe and sufficient sleeping area. The assessor is not looking for excess or perfection, but simply a home that is safe, sound, and secure for the child. Your agency or local child protective agency may provide you with a copy of a checklist you can walk through to be sure you have everything needed in your home and information of what things need to change to ready your home.

In the United States, more than 110,000 children with special needs are waiting for permanent homes. Children with special needs are typically harder to place for adoption than other children, but experience has shown that many children with special needs can be placed successfully with families who want them.

What does “special needs” mean?

For many people the term "special needs" means a child who receives or needs special education or who has a disability of some sort. In adoption, the term is defined differently and may include the factors listed below. Guidelines for classifying a child as "special needs" vary by state. Children with special needs range in age from infants to 18 years. In general, children with special needs are those who:

  • Have physical or health problems
  • Are older
  • Are members of ethnic or racial minorities
  • Have a history of abuse or neglect
  • Have emotional problems
  • Have siblings and need to be adopted as a group
  • Test positive for HIV
  • Have documented conditions that may lead to future problems
  • Were prenatally exposed to drugs or alcohol

Almost all children who meet the special needs guidelines and who are available for adoption are currently in the public foster care system. Some have moved through several different foster placements.

Can I adopt a child with special needs?

Almost any prospective adoptive parent who has the commitment, skills, and preparation to parent may adopt a child. Agencies differ in their specific requirements for adoptive parents. Requirements for adopting a child with special needs tend to be less restrictive than requirements for adopting a healthy infant. Agencies will consider both single and married applicants, ranging in age from 18 to 50 or sometimes even older. The consideration of an adoptive parent's age may depend on the individual's situation, or on the age of the child, if the state has age restrictions. Most agencies require couples to be married a minimum of one to three years. Divorce, physical challenges, or a history of personal counseling do not necessarily disqualify an applicant from adopting. Applicants need not be wealthy or own a home.

Parents who adopt children with special needs will need to take the time to decide if they have the emotional, physical, mental, and financial resources to be a successful parent. It will be helpful to make a self-assessment before deciding to adopt, considering such questions as:

  • How many children can I take?
  • How much contact with the birth relatives would I be comfortable with?
  • Do I have enough support from family and friends to help me when I need it?
  • Is my lifestyle flexible enough to handle a child with special needs?
  • What disabilities, or mental, emotional, physical, behavioral challenges can I handle?

Is financial support available?

Usually, parents who adopt a child with special needs are charged no fee or only a small one. Parents who adopt a child with special needs may be reimbursed for certain adoption-related expenses. Federal and state programs offer financial assistance to adoptive parents for special care and services that the child needs. Financial assistance is offered to help families overcome barriers to adopting that exist due to the costs of adoption so that waiting children have permanent families. It is not a reimbursement for the child's special needs but rather financial assistance to help adoptive families meet the child's needs. Independent and international adoptions are not eligible for financial assistance. However some states will reimburse for nonrecurring adoption expenses in an international adoption.

Source: National Adoption Information Clearinghouse

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

How to adopt a child with a disability

We know that people with disabilities can parent: 6.2 percent of all parents with children under the age of 18 have some sort of disability.

We also know that many parents with disabilities feel discriminated against when undertaking the adoption process.

There are no simple solutions to eradicating age-old biases or to eliminating the barriers that may arise as child welfare workers undergo their very important work of assessing a potential parent’s ability to care for a child. But there are an increasing number of online resources and organizations that provide support and information to parents and potential parents with disabilities.

Documenting the challenges: ADA Rocking the Cradle report

Parents with disabilities are more likely to lose custody of their children after divorce, have more difficulty in accessing reproductive health care, and face significant barriers to adopting children.

The National Council on Disabilities has documented societal biases and systems barriers that affect parents in a report called Rocking the Cradle.


The following websites and report offers information for parents and potential parents with disabilities:

    provides information about healthy living, safety, school, transitions, independent living, and finding support.
  • Child Welfare Information Gateway’s list of services for parents with disabilities.

From AdoptUSKids:

  • Talk with an AdoptUSKids adoption and foster care specialist by calling 888-200-4005 or emailing [email protected], or use our online chat feature when available.

On the blog

How to adopt a child with a disability

Carrie Ann Lucas

A mother of four and disability-rights advocate shares her story and advice.

How to adopt a child with a disability

Special Needs

Children with special needs are first and foremost just children. Making the decision to adopt any child requires education and research. On this Adopt Special Needs website, we provide information about common special needs for reference purposes only. It is our hope that this resource helps more children waiting for homes come together with permanent families.

Because every child
deserves a family.

How to adopt a child with a disability

Family Stories

For many families, connecting with others who share similar hopes and struggles can be very helpful in preparing to adopt a child with special needs. In this section, we share thoughts from families who have already brought their children home so you can read “real world” stories for inspiration and support.

Share similar
hopes and struggles.

How to adopt a child with a disability

Adoption Process

All around the world, children with special needs are waiting to be chosen by committed families. In this section, we offer information on ways to get started on your family’s adoption journey. There are many organizations willing to help answer questions.

Find information
for the journey.

Family Resources

Families must be as prepared and educated as possible in order to help their new child reach his or her fullest potential. This site provides resources shared by adoptive families that they have found helpful. We hope you will learn from others and find the support you need! Find information

Love Without Boundaries

Love Without Boundaries Foundation (LWB) began in the year 2003 with an effort to help save th e life of one tiny boy in China. Following his successful heart surgery, we realized that nothing is impossible when passionate and dedicated people come together to impact the lives of children. It is our goal for the children we help to receive families through adoption or to become self-sustaining members of their communities. Learn more about LWB

There are 102,000 children in the U.S. foster care system waiting to be adopted. Children with special circumstances (whether they are older children, are siblings, have disabilities, or they have complex medical needs) have an average wait of nearly 4 years in the foster care system.

We are going to focus on those children with disabilities or extensive medical needs who are waiting, meaning they are in the foster care system and are hoping to be placed in a permanent home. Various organizations work to promote the adoption of children with disabilities or extensive medical needs. If you are looking to adopt a child with disabilities, here are some of the organizations that can help.

Adopt America Network specializes in placing older children, mentally or medically fragile children, children who are victims of abuse, and other children with various special circumstances in need of a home. They have a goal of reducing the amount of time these children are in the foster care system.

The Adoption Exchange serves children who have survived neglect, abandonment, or traumatic abuse and may face difficult circumstances as a result. Many of these children have physical disabilities, emotional challenges, and other barriers.

Rainbow Kids is a website that helps people adopt from multiple countries. They specialize in waiting children and children with disabilities.

The NDSAN helps individuals who are interested in adopting a child with Downs syndrome navigate that process, and provides resources for those considering adoption for their baby with Downs syndrome.

This organization provides information and resources for people who are interested in adopting a child with Downs syndrome.

Special Angels Adoption helps families or agencies who are looking to place special needs children find the right families for them.

Love Without Boundaries offers many tools and resources to help families learn about the adoption process, raising children with disabilities, and other topics.

The Cradle is an adoption agency that helps place children in need, provides an on-site nursery for waiting babies, and places children with disabilities.

Area-Specific Adoption Agencies

Cradle of Hope is an adoption organization that helps with domestic and international adoptions. They have a Down Syndrome initiative, which strives to help Chinese children with Down Syndrome get adopted.

Spence-Chapin is unique in that they eliminate professional service fees for families adopting a medically fragile or disabled child, thereby reducing barriers to adoption. The waiting children are from New York or New Jersey and have various circumstances, including neurological disorders, genetic disorders, and others.

New Alternatives for Children provides a broad range of health and social services, including the adoption and foster care of children with disabilities and chronic illnesses throughout New York City.

A Catholic Social Services of Alaska program that focuses on the adoption of children with disabilities and those who have experienced neglect or abuse. These children are in the Alaskan foster care system.

No Hands But Ours offers information and resources for people looking to adopt children with disabilities in China.

Related Resources:

  • Child Welfare Information by State
  • National Council for Adoption General Resources
  • Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange (MARE)
  • AdoptTogether
  • Parenting: Adoption Resources

If you are considering adopting a child with a disability, you can find more information on disabilities, resources, and supports on our website.

Empowering Parents of Children with Special Needs.
Articles * Resources * Encouragement

Developmental disabilities and emotional, mental, or physical disorders are common among older children waiting for adoption.

Developmental disabilities and emotional, mental, or physical disorders are common among older children waiting for adoption. These disabilities can include cerebral palsy, autism, cleft lip and palate, cystic fibrosis, fetal alcohol syndrome, learning disabilities, mental retardation, and epilepsy.

It has been estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of children awaiting adoption have a developmental disability (Glidden, 2000). These disabilities may be emotional, mental, or physical disorders and vary in severity. Children may be afflicted with differing degrees of cerebral palsy or autism, physical malformations such as cleft lip and palate (which, in some cases, can be indicative of a larger disorder), genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis, disorders resulting from prenatal maternal substance abuse (e.g., fetal alcohol syndrome), learning disabilities or mental retardation varying in basis, or genetic environmental conditions such as epilepsy.

One well-known disorder affecting multiple children awaiting adoption is Down syndrome. Down syndrome occurs in approximately one if eight hundred live births and is caused by the presence of an extra copy of chromosome 21 in the child’s cells. As in other cases of genetic anomaly, individuals affected with Down syndrome exhibit varying levels of functionality. Some children born with Down syndrome have no sign of the disorder aside from some level of mental retardation and characteristic features such as upward slanting eyes and epicanthal folds (i.e., folds of skin at the inner corner of the eyes), a flattened nasal bridge, short broad hands, and a single deep crease in the palms. Others also possess heart abnormalities or vision and hearing impairments and may require extensive medical treatment throughout their lives. Ultra sound examination and maternal blood tests can indicate the risk of Down syndrome in their developing fetus; however, a definite prenatal diagnosis of their condition must be done through amniocentesis.

As with all children, those awaiting adoption may be afflicted with several other disabilities of varying natures. These conditions may have a genetic or non-genetic basis, and some may be identified through prenatal testing, while others may only manifest after birth. Cerebral palsy results when brain damage occurs, often as a result of the failure of oxygen to reach the brain near the time of birth. Muscle control is often difficult or unattainable for children with cerebral palsy. Cystic fibrosis, another chronic condition that may be present in children awaiting adoption, is a genetic condition that affects the lungs and digestive system. The body produces thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and obstructs the pancreas, leading to lung infections and poor food absorption (Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, 2007). Some children in care may also show signs of autism, a developmental disorder affecting the areas of the brain responsible for abstract thought, language, and social skills. Children with autism can have both physical and behavior disabilities. Epilepsy is another condition found in some children .This disorder is characterized by seizures and can result from genetic or environmental causes. Seizures can occur in the form of muscle convulsions, loss of consciousness, or other mental or physical anomalies. Spina bifida, a condition that may be present in some children and is often detected prenatally, is a birth disorder that affects the spinal cord Vertebrae do not develop completely, which result s in varying levels of difficulty with leg movement, sensation, and bowel/bladder control.

The most common disorders affecting children awaiting adoption, however, are fetal alcohol syndrome and alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders. These conditions may be characterized by physical and/or mental challenges resulting from maternal usage of alcohol or other controlled substances during pregnancy. Possible manifestations of the disability include behavior issues, characteristic facial features, and some level of mental retardation (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006).

Required medical services and other treatments are dependent upon each individual child’s needs. Treatment may include physical, speech, and /or occupational therapy in addition to medical intervention. Prospective adoptive parents who wish to adopt a child a with a disability must demonstrate the ability to care for a child with the disorder in question and should live near any required medical or related services.

Martha J. Henry and Daniel Pollack are associated with the renowned Center for Adoption Research at the University of Massachusetts. Martha Henry is a developmental psychologist and Daniel Pollack is social work professor and honorary fellow of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. This article is excerpted with publisher permission from their excellent overview of adoption, Adoption in the United States: A Reference for Families, Professionals and Students.

Choosing an adoption agency, completing the Medical Conditions Checklist (MCC), assessing a special needs child’s financial needs, and addressing the child’s long-term future needs are crucial steps to adopting children with disabilities. Adoptive parents should keep in mind that children with special needs include those born with physical, mental impairments, or syndromes as well as those with a history of abuse or prenatal drug exposure.

How to adopt a child with a disability

Choosing an Adoption Agency

After deciding to adopt a special needs child, the adoptive parent may choose either local or international licensed adoption agencies depending on his or her preferences. He or she should settle on a reputable adoption agency that provides long-term, effective communication. The agency should be transparent in the entire adoption process and offer pre-adoption training to the adoptive parent.

Filling the Medical Conditions Checklist

Once the adoptive parent has settled on an adoption agency, he or she must fill the Medical Conditions Checklist (MCC). MCC contains a list of physical disabilities, mental disorders, and many other special needs. This informs the agency what medical special needs in a child the adoptive parent prefers. When filling the MCC, the adoptive parent must be honest with himself or herself in what special needs he or she is comfortable with the child he or she is seeking to adopt.

Spending time with children with disabilities can help the adoptive parents prepare themselves to adopt a child with a disability. Finding parents with special needs children offers the best chance to learn what it entails to care for a child with special needs every day. The parents could either have adopted the special needs child or have a child who acquired a disability after an accident.

Assessing the Child’s Financial Needs

The adoptive parent should weigh carefully if he or she can meet the financial needs occasioned by adopting a special needs child and whether he or she would need assistance. The parent should also check whether his or her insurance policy covers all the child’s physical issues, pre-existing conditions, and required therapies.

Children with special needs may qualify for adoption assistance that is paid to the adoptive family to aid in offsetting expenses related to the child’s special needs, including therapy and treatment. The major funding sources are the Federal Title IV-E program under the Social Security Act and state programs that vary from one state to another. Adoptive parents should ensure that they adopt children from licensed agencies, as the state will only enter into an adoption assistance contract with legal agencies.

Addressing the Long-term future needs of the child

Once the special needs child is adopted, the adoptive parent should update his or her personal estate planning. This helps to address a plethora of issues, from guardianship to financial support in the long term. A family law attorney understands the relevant federal and state regulations and can help in establishing a special needs trust. The attorney can tailor the trust to the family’s situation while also preserving the disabled child’s eligibility for public assistance programs. The attorney can also guide the adoptive on finding the right trustee to manage the special needs trust.