Home-By Any Other Name-Is Just as Sweet: Adoption of Children with Developmental Disabilities. (Research Reflections)

By Blacher, Jan | The Exceptional Parent, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Home-By Any Other Name-Is Just as Sweet: Adoption of Children with Developmental Disabilities. (Research Reflections)


Blacher, Jan, The Exceptional Parent


What is "home?" The sentiment of "There's no place like home" is a familiar one, echoed by homilies such as "Home sweet home," "Home is where the heart is," and "Happy to be home." We seem to have an intuitive sense of home that goes beyond the particular people or possessions found there. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wizard of Oz, in 1956, put it like this:

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas Prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer, wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room....

Presumably without formal adoption, the orphan Dorothy made her home with her uncle and aunt. For her, there was no place like it. Indeed, home need not be with one's biological parents. Home, ideally, is where there is love, nurturance, and acceptance. It is a place one returns to, after journeys both brief and extended. It is a place where one can count on being welcomed.

Whether by parental choice, unfortunate circumstances, or legal mandate, some children do not live with their natural or birth parents. Their well-being depends, in part, on the placement or living options available to them. Whatever its cause, placement out of the natural home has a potentially profound effect on the natural family, the child placed, and the "new" parents or caregivers.

Adoption is the most permanent of all out-of-home placements, and usually involves a living situation apart from the child's biological or birth parents. Some published estimates suggest that 5096 of children awaiting adoption have at least one developmental disability (National Adoption Center, 1997), which includes a chronic physical and/or mental disability that is likely to be lifelong and result in limitations in functioning.

Yet, many families adopt children with disabilities. Laraine M. Glidden, St. Mary's College of Maryland, has spent well over a decade studying families who adopted children that they knew to have special needs. The key question is: Do these adoptions succeed? Researchers Patrick Leung and Stephen Erich, University of Houston, sound a discouraging note in a 2002 paper, writing that adopted children with special needs are much less likely to remain permanently placed with their adoptive family than "typical" children in more conventional adoptions. But though she notes that the adoption of children with disabilities has its challenges, Glidden has reported the wide-ranging benefits it offers both the child and adoptive family.

Glidden and her colleagues studied 42 families who adopted a child with developmental disabilities, gathering information soon after the adoption took place, and then two more times across a total period of twelve years. These researchers typically found more positive than negative family impact, with such adoptions viewed, overall, as "resoundingly successful." In a 1999 paper, "Twelve Years Later: Adjustment in Families Who Adopted Children with Developmental Disabilities," Laraine Glidden and Viki Johnson painted a picture of adopted children and their families at different stages of the life cycle, with positive family functioning all the way through adolescence and beyond.

The adopted children reaped benefits. Positive impact was readily apparent in the number of benefits in narrative reports by adoptive parents. Mothers described an average of 4.9 benefits, with the largest category of benefits being related to positive child characteristics, (e.g., seeing one's child as "thinking more for himself, making his own decisions.... and growing into a reliable, sensible, caring young man.") In contrast, these mothers reported an average of 2.9 specific problems, most having to do with troublesome behaviors, (e.g., "budding sexuality.")

The adoptive parents, too, reaped benefits. In 2000, Glidden and her colleagues published findings in Family Relations that focused on long-term adjustment in their adoptive mothers. …

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