Parents’ perspectives on factors that support and discourage the adoption process for children with special needs

Date Published: 

Denby, R. W., Alford, K. A., & Ayala, J. (2011). The journey to adopt a child who has special needs: Parents’ perspectives. Children and Youth Services Review, 33(9), 1543-1554.

Reviewed by: 
Wendy Rha
Rachael Lefebvre

Children with special needs make up a substantial proportion of children adopted from the child welfare system. Current groups with special needs within the foster care system are “sibling groups, older children, children with disabilities, children of color, and children with mental health issues.” These children are often considered “hard to place”; however, there is a growing diverse group of prospective adoptive parents that are willing to adopt children with special needs. The current study sought to learn more about the motivations, expectations, preparation, and experiences of prospective adoptive parents in an effort to identify themes for why some parents complete the process, while others do not.

The sample was selected from a child welfare agency in an urban county in the southwestern part of the United States. Four aggregated lists of parents in various stages in the adoption process were generated: a) parents in the pre-adoption phase; b) parents in the adoption phase; c) parents who have adopted; and d) parents who have discontinued the adoption process. Fifteen de-identified names were randomly generated from each list and were recruited for voluntary study participation. A final sample of nine families comprised of 17 individuals participated in one-on-one qualitative interviews. The open-ended questions asked were derived from various sources (e.g., review of the literature, guidance from a study advisory committee that comprised professionals and adoptive parents). The study used the “constant comparative analysis” approach to identify key themes. 

Unexpectedly, the study found that the adoption process, including negative experiences, was quite similar between two groups, parents who continued versus discontinued with the adoption process. Conditions which supported adoption completion were: a) working with a caring, competent social worker; b) having supportive family and friends; and c) being involved in personal counselling and/or parent support activities. On the other hand, factors which discouraged adoption completion coalesced around the following three categories: a) poor performance of a social worker; b) the daunting and time-consuming nature of the adoption process; and c) rigid search and placement parameters. One of the most significant findings from this study is that prospective adoptive parents withdrew from the process when they perceived the child placement parameters to be too rigid.

Methodological notes: 

Parents who completed (or were completing) the process were not asked whether they would have discontinued the process if they felt the “match” process was not handled properly. Given this limitation, the results of this study should be used as a basis for understanding what defines the experience of parents who complete versus those who do not complete the adoption process.