Special Needs Adoption – What Does It Really Mean?

Waiting child. Special needs adoption. 

What came to your mind as you read those words? How did you feel? Before reading any further, think it through- perhaps jot something down or vocalize the reaction that occurred.

If you had a negative thought, or felt fear, resistance, or just said “no,” it’s ok. Allow yourself to experience those honest feelings, as they may be valid according to the knowledge you have about special needs adoption.


This post intends to dispel myths about special needs adoption. If you are still reading, we encourage you to not rule out the adoption of a child simply because of the label “waiting child” or “special needs.” While these terms can be intimidating, it may not mean what you think it means. We urge you to learn about special needs and become educated on what this could mean for a child and your family. Please do not close a door because you don’t feel that it’s the ideal plan- be open! We understand this can be an overwhelming and challenging process, but encourage you to at least research waiting children before you make a final decision for your adoption. 

We do want you to make an adoption choice that you are comfortable with, and we also know that there are many misconceptions with waiting children. Part of our advocacy efforts on behalf of these orphaned children is to educate prospective parents on their needs. 

By the nature of international adoption, the wait is typically much longer for a young, healthy child. Being open to a waiting child may decrease the wait time for you and the length of institutionalization for the child. 

While we wish the wait was shorter for a child to be placed in a home, we know God can open the hearts of families who are already in process to different requests during a long wait. It gives the family more time to research, talk to other families, and learn about needs outside of their request.

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What is a Waiting Child? A waiting child is an orphan who has been identified as ready and available to be placed in a home. This means the child is already paperwork-ready and is just waiting for a family to step forward.

There are two classifications of waiting children:

   - an older child, typically seven and above, with no known medical condition

    – a child of any age with a medical condition or special need

What about mental/developmental/emotional issues? Many of the effects of institutionalization diminish after a child is placed in a home and receives love, attention, medical care and proper nutrition. We require a minimum of 10 hours of Hague trainings and strongly encourage parents to go beyond this using such sources as Adoption Learning Partners, C.A.S.E. and Heart of the Matter Seminars. Though a child may have more of a history due to institutionalization, we have seen many successful placements when parents do trainings such as Empowered to Connect and conduct research on at-risk kids. We can also connect you with parents who have practical advice and real life expereinces to share. 

What medical conditions do the children have? The medical conditions are on the spectrum of minor, moderate, to severe. Some conditions we often see are cleft lip/cleft palate (both repaired and unrepaired), heart defects, Hepatitis B positive, hand or foot deformity, hearing or vision impairments, HIV positive, TB and blood conditions, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, spine deformity, spina bifida, developmental delays, and more. Some “special needs” are easily correctable or require treatments that have no long-term effect or impact on the child’s life. For other “special needs,” we may not classify as true medical needs, but because little is known by the country of birth about a particular issue they may automatically generalize the child this way. 

special needs adoption

Click to read about Levi and deaf adoption

What resources are available to learn more?

Christian Alliance for Orphans' Older Child and Special Needs Adoption Resource List explains some of the medical needs we see in internationally adopted children and provides research resources to review. We also have additional resources and training we will help you make an informed decision about a Waiting Child adoption. 

You can talk to other parents who have adopted an older or special needs child that act as References for our agency and their adoption program (sort by “Waiting Children”). Or, read adoption stories of families, many of which have adopted older or special needs children, here on the blog.

We welcome phone calls to discuss any questions you have – please call us at 800-429-3369 and we can connect you with the staff of the country you are interested in. You can also recieve the password to view the waiting children profiles online by completing a brief and free pre-application

If you feel you are not open to waiting child adoption, will you take some time to learn about the children in these programs? Learn their names, look at their faces, and ask God to direct you in your decision-making process. We believe he will match you with the child according to his plan for your family, even if it’s not what you had expected.

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