Adopting a child with additional needs


Like all prospective adopters, we had to think long and hard about our matching criteria during the approval process.

When we started out, we wouldn’t have imagined adopting a child with underlying health conditions, but that’s where our journey would take us. As we navigated a far from simple route through stage two, our social worker started gently exploring her view that our circumstances, views on adoption and general approach may make us suitable for becoming adopters of a ‘hard to place’ child.

During the process, we were given the tag of ‘altruistic adopters’ as we don’t have known fertility issues. This is a label that doesn’t sit comfortably with me as it feels like it’s insinuating that infertile couple can’t be altruistic. I think it’s also true that nobody’s motivations to adopt are 100% altruistic as there needs to be something for the parents too.

But I firmly believe that adoption should be pitched more as offering something to children that have experienced adversity, than it being primarily about the needs or wants of adopters.

Assessing what you can manage

The average profile of children waiting to be adopted throughout the UK obviously varies. But at any time there are many children waiting to be adopted, who are deemed hard to place due to a whole host of different additional needs and complexities.  

I clearly remember the meeting with our assessing social worker where we went through our matching considerations. She tipped a bag full of laminated pieces of card onto the floor, each bearing the name of a condition, social issue, experience, or other factor. We then sorted them into yes, no and maybe piles.

By the end of our first go at this exercise, we had a massive yes pile, a few on maybe and a couple of noes. I instantly thought this would be a good thing, but then came the reality check: “we have to get that yes pile down a bit or a panel will think you’re being unrealistic”. For a minute I was dumfounded, I hadn’t thought it would be viewed like this but it started to make sense.

We diligently whittled the yes list down further and came to what seemed like a well thought out list of criteria. We still had a very large yes pile and remained open to lots of different scenarios, but would hopefully come across as more realistic.

What do we mean by ‘additional needs’?

I would argue that virtually every child coming into adoption has additional needs. Even if they don’t have a recognised disability, condition or other complex factor, they have experienced early trauma. This could manifest as one of many forms of attachment disorder or a multitude of behavioural issues that most adopters will be familiar with.

It can be overwhelming for anyone coming into adoption to start getting their head around the myriad of factors that may have affected child in their short life. It’s understandable that many want to adopt a very young baby and at first may not be considering what seem like extremely complex situations. Often, it’s the role of the social worker to gently open up the view of prospective adopters on these things.

For me, it comes down to thinking about what in your current circumstances you can give to a child. It’s also amazing what it’s possible to get your head around and adapt to that you would never thought you’d find yourself doing.

Gradually over time, our daughter’s care has become more straightforward. I recall telling friends and family about the conditions she has and what her care involved at that point and getting a pretty dumfounded response.

By the time, we’d gone from looking at a profile to seriously considering adopting our daughter, we were piecing together a picture of an amazing little girl. Initially, it was tough not to get overwhelmed by a sea of complex and sometimes contradictory information about her conditions.

At the time and since, I’ve spoken to a number of adopters whose children have complex medical needs. Unpicking an overwhelming amount of information, doing additional research and prioritising what is important vs what isn’t all seem to be common themes in these situations.

I think it can be very hard for social workers, who obviously aren’t medical professionals and are quickly writing up reports using second-hand information. Sometimes what was relayed in our case was quite confused and in one case referred to completely the wrong organ of the body when discussing a condition.

Doing your research

As is often the way, it was talking to other adopters who had gone through a comparable process that really helped. We then managed to focus on what was important, shut out some of the noise and make informed decisions.

As I said at the top of this article, I strongly believe that all children coming into adoption these days have additional needs of one form or another, due to early trauma. It is then for individual adopters to decide what they can manage on top of that.

One thing that I keep coming back to is that if we hadn’t been open to what was seen as a pretty high degree of complexity and uncertainty, that we wouldn’t have found our daughter. While there is a degree of altruism, and I feel there has to be with any adoption, it is also about what works for you.

4 thoughts on “Adopting a child with additional needs”

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