Adopting Children with Developmental Disabilities: A Long-Term Perspective

By Glidden, Laraine Masters | Family Relations, October 2000 | Go to article overview
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Adopting Children with Developmental Disabilities: A Long-Term Perspective


Glidden, Laraine Masters, Family Relations


Adopting Children with Developmental Disabilities: A Long-Term Perspective*

Long-term maternal adjustment to the adoption of children with developmental disabilities was studied in a sample of 123 adoptive families using multiple measures of adjustment including depression, marital satisfaction and others. Conclusions were that adjustment was generally positive over an approximately 11-year period, regardless of family demographic or child characteristics. Moreover, adjustment to subsequently-adopted children was comparable to adjustment to earlier adopted children. These results suggest that adoption policy and practice should promote the adoption of children with developmental disabilities, and be flexible with regard to family and child characteristics, including placing multiple children with disabilities in the same home.

Key Words: adoption, developmental disabilities, family adjustment longitudinal research, multiple adoptions.

Tommy was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. During the first 2 1/2 years of his life, he was removed from and returned to his birth mother several times. Despite repeated attempts to stay sober, her alcoholism led her to neglect Tommy; she frequently left him at home, alone and unattended. The Thompsons were the last in a series of relatively short-term foster placements. Tommy did well in their care and they enjoyed having him. When Tommy's mother's parental rights were terminated, the Thompsons informed their social worker of their interest in adopting him.

Jill was born with Down syndrome to birth parents who were married and had two other children. Jill was diagnosed almost immediately after birth. Her birth parents did not feel adequately prepared for raising a child with special needs, but they were concerned for Jill's welfare and contacted an adoption agency themselves. They were pleased to learn that the agency had several families interested in and waiting to adopt a child with Down syndrome. They were instrumental in choosing the family who adopted their daughter, wanting her to be reared in a loving and stable environment. The adoptive parents picked Jill up from the hospital as soon as she was ready for release. [Case studies with names changed].

Tommy and Jill are examples of special-needs children with developmental disabilities. Developmental disabilities are physical, sensory, and/or cognitive impairments that are severe enough that the individuals who have them are expected to need lifelong support services-educational, residential, occupational, and/or medical (Coleman, 1993). Data on the adoption of children with developmental disabilities is scanty, just as are data on most aspects of adoption. Nonetheless, estimates are that in the United States, approximately 50% of children who are legally free and are awaiting adoption have at least one developmental disability (Knoll, 1995; National Adoption Center, 1997). Many of these children spend years and even their entire childhoods in substitute care, with ensuing emotional and behavioral problems as a consequence (Kramer & Houston, 1998).

Historically, children with developmental disabilities were frequently considered to be unadoptable (Bohman, 1970; Kornitzer, 1952; Wolkomir, 1947). However, with changing ideology and practice in social work, and the decreasing availability of healthy young children for adoption, increasing numbers of placements of children with developmental disabilities began to be made and evaluated. The results of these evaluations demonstrated marked success and satisfaction with the placements. Different investigators, using methodology varying from large sample case record evaluation to smaller sample face-to-face interview, generally came to the same conclusion. There were few disruptions or dissolutions, and parental satisfaction with the adoptions was high (Coyne & Brown, 1985; Glidden, 1989, 1991; Glidden & Cahill, 1998; Glidden & Johnson, 1999; Glidden & Parsley, 1989; Glidden, Valliere, & Herbert, 1988; Goetting & Goetting, 1993a, 1993b, 1994; Lightburn & Pine, 1996; Marx, 1990; Nelson, 1985; Rosenthal & Groze, 1990, 1992; Rosenthal, Groze, & Aguilar, 1991; Todis & Singer, 1991).

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