The Role of Birth/previously Adopted Children in Families Choosing to Adopt Children with Special Needs
Mullin, Ellen Steele, Johnson, LeAnne, Child Welfare
Engaging birth/previously adopted children during the adoption process is crucial to laying the groundwork for successful placements. When families choose to adopt children with special needs, however, the role their other children will play in the adoption's success is often overlooked. This article presents a practical model that recognizes the dynamics of strength and vulnerability in adoptive families, then applies this model in preparing and supporting the family through the changes that are inevitable in special needs adoption. The model can also be used to assist adoptive parents in identifying and developing the skills they need to manage these shifts within the family.
Families who already have children (either by birth or adoption) and who are adopting children with special needs* must be aware of the significant role that their birth/previously adopted children can play in "making or breaking" the adoptive placement. Preparing children and families to identify and deal effectively with the changing family dynamics that accompany adoption can ease the transition for everyone concerned, and help ensure a successful outcome.
A review of the literature makes clear the emotional complexities that attend the adoption of children with special needs by families with birth/previously adopted children. Reitz and Watson , citing the 1982 Delaware Family Study by Hoopes, pointed out that families who had children both by birth and by adoption were at greatest risk of difficulties. Churchill and colleagues [1979: 96] viewed the adopted child as a new member of the family whose arrival is bound to "disrupt an established system of relationships." In situations where children who have special needs are added to families with birth/previously adopted children, the equilibrium of the family is subject to disturbance. Reestablishing a level of comfort and "normality" in such families, which are critical to the success of the adoption, requires additional preparation and support.
Inevitably, the adoption of a child with special needs will have an effect on birth/previously adopted children. The emotional atmosphere in the home may be altered, energies drained, parents' attention diffused and diminished for each child, and life, as it was known, changed significantly [Keck & Kupecky 1995]. Many prospective adoptive parents already anticipate this impact. For example, prospective parents with birth/previously adopted children who are enrolled in the adoption education classes required by the Children's Home Society of Minnesota are often anxious about the potential negative impact and even harm that might befall their children should they proceed with their plans to adopt a child with special needs.
When birth/previously adopted children live in the home and the parents are prepared to recognize and handle the behavioral and emotional responses of those children, the addition of a child with special needs can be smoothed and adoption outcomes enhanced. Melina  emphasizes the need for agencies to prepare children for the arrival of an adoptive sibling with special needs. Barth and Berry  identify aspects of adoptive family life that serve as potential indicators of adjustment and outcome. They found that disrupted adoptions occurred more often when families did not receive sufficient training.
Family Dynamics in Special Needs Adoption
In examining the dynamics of adoptive families, two concepts stand out-strength and vulnerability. Jewett  cites the parents' sense of "being out of control" as a major cause of adoption failure while noting that birth/previously adopted children can relax when they see their parents "in control." Being "in control" implies strength, while being "out of control" implies vulnerability. Parents who sense that they have sacrificed the well-being of their birth/previously adopted children in attempting to meet the special needs of their adopted child may feel vulnerable, and they may communicate this feeling of insecurity and ambivalence to their youngsters [Rosenberg 1992]. …