Special needs adoption is needed, but the need to discuss it openly and honestly may be even more important. In fact some special needs adoptees (on international adoption forums) implore the public to look at this topic without white savior colored glasses…
The Stauffers, an American family seemingly made for YouTube fame, became the poster family for everything that can go wrong when adopting a special needs child. The family rose to high ranking YouTube status when they decided to adopt a special needs child from China.
Myka Stauffer apparently chose the child as his photo “spoke to her”. This admission, in one of her videos, unsettled many viewers who believe she chose the child based on his looks to promote her content on video sharing platforms.
The adoption agency is said to have told her the child may have a brain tumor or cyst. It’s also reported that a medical professional expressed doubts about the adoption, but Myka (a former nurse) had made up her mind and said: “If anything, my child is not returnable,” words that were brought up with outrage when the boy was rehomed.
Like many special needs adoptions, the process of settling into a new home brought up challenges and frustration. Vlogs revealed struggles with the little boy’s food anxiety, meltdowns, and aggressive behavior. After assessment he was diagnosed with autism requiring high support. Additional challenges like a possible in-utero stroke and sensory difficulties were apparently also not disclosed by the adoption agency to the Stauffers—with some asking whether it would have made a difference to the then determined Myka.
The Stauffer’s adopted son gradually featured less in their family videos. When he did, viewers were not always pleased with how the family treated him. In one video Myka was seen following the crying boy as she inquired whether he was done “fitting”.
No one will ever know what really transpired in the Stauffer house, and the circumstances that led them to rehome their little boy. Recording the adoption process, fundraising to aid with costs, and attracting sponsors with the larger audience brought in by the adoption were all taken issue with by viewers who felt the child had been used and discarded when his special needs interfered with filming.
The Stauffer family became influencer fodder on countless websites, where Myka’s history was put under the microscope and found wanting. The family received threats, they were investigated by authorities, and many angry cancel culture advocates demanded their disappearance from the lucrative world of social media.
Once you open your life to cameras and invite the public to like, follow and subscribe there is a sentiment that you have to embrace criticism in the same way you embrace the glow of followers’ adoration. However, some of the outrage towards the Stauffers might be because many of us could imagine ourselves stepping up to save a child without a clue of what that would actually entail beyond the initial picking of a photo and a declaration of unconditional love.
Special needs, subsidized
When considering adoption, the term “special needs” may be confusing. Countries around the world attach different meaning to this term, but generally speaking special needs adoption (especially as it pertains to children in foster care) entails that the child may be older, part of a sibling group, the child may have mental or emotional disabilities, or the child may have another unspecified condition that makes finding an adoptive family challenging.
Children who meet the criteria for special needs have more difficulty finding a permanent home. When they are placed with an adoptive family they often require support and specialized educational, psychological and medical services.
The definition of special needs is important, as an adoption of a special needs child entitles prospective parents for adoptive assistance or subsidies. Sometimes adoption websites differentiate between private adoption (occurring outside the public welfare system, arranged through lawyers or private agencies) and adoption from foster care (working with a public agency to find a child in foster care waiting for an adoptive home).
In the USA, adopting from foster care involves little expense and special needs children qualify for substantial state subsidies. Private adoption, on the other hand, is very expensive and can cost prospective parents up to $43,000.
Certain websites seem to almost promote the cost benefit of special needs adoption. This is troubling, especially as a special needs child, for example a child with complicated medical needs or disabilities, may require extensive resources from prospective parents. Not only financial resources, but a special needs child may need more of everything from their parents.
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Maybe the motivating factors behind special needs adoption need to be investigated and considered at length. A simple, “I want to help, and provide a home for a special needs child,” or “I want a child, and special needs is not an issue,” is noble but falls light years short of the introspection that needs to occur before anyone contemplates this kind of adoption.
When considering a special needs child, information about what that life with a child that may require constant care will look like, should be made available. For example, anyone contemplating adopting a child on the spectrum should educate themselves about autism.
Read online forums and blogs where mothers are honest about their joys and struggles. But more than that, research the type of medical intervention, therapy and other treatments the child may need. Parents with children on the spectrum sometimes employ an entire therapy team including a speech therapist, occupational therapist and an applied behavior analysis technician. Echoes of naive ideologies like “my love will be enough,” are simply not good enough for a special needs child who deserves a parent who realizes just how much more a special needs child needs.
Many adoption specialists agree: if you want to adopt a special needs child you need to be realistic about how tough it is going to be. The best thing you could do is research; educate yourself about the condition of the special needs child you want to bring into your life, and do some serious soul searching about whether you are truly prepared. Preparation, an intact support system, financial readiness—in addition to unconditional love—would be a good starting place.
Even then, you may still be caught unprepared. Often international adoption agencies dealing with special needs children are vague (sometimes purposefully so) on details about the child’s special needs. There is also the risk that the child suffered trauma, and trauma can disrupt a child’s development in ways which no prospective parent may expect.
So is there an upside to any of this? Who could actually be up to the momentous task of taking in a special needs child, providing for emotional, physical and possibly a myriad of medical needs?
When the Stauffers rehomed their adopted son, the public was reassured that the little boy’s “new mommy has medical professional training and it is a very good fit”. This is not to say that only someone in the field of medicine would be a good fit for a special needs child. Rather their background probably contributes to a more realistic view of a special needs child, and the challenges the journey may entail.
A forever home?
Potential long-term trust issues of adopted children are something that prospective parents need to be aware of and consider before looking into special needs adoption. The reality of adoption is that a child who experienced the trauma of being separated from his/her birth mother, may be subjected to further challenging circumstances in foster care facilities. The process of settling in with an adoptive family brings its own issues; and sometimes after all that the adoption is dissolved or the child is rehomed.
It is for this reason that many adoptees feel phrases like “a forever home” or “a forever family” are mocking their reality. An adoptee, removed from birth parents, may have a very different idea about the word “forever”. These phrases are probably used in a hopeful way, a new start for a child in his/her permanent home.
But to many this is just false hope, especially when statistics say that up to 5% of adoptions are legally dissolved—the percentage of children rehomed illegally may be even higher. Even if adoptees stay with adoptive parents, life’s usual disruptors like divorce, death and estrangement are realities at odds with the hopeful ideology of forever.
Perhaps the focus should shift from forever to structure, stability and fulfilment of extraordinary needs in the now. A prospective parent should ask hard questions like, “If my child is diagnosed with further special needs, if trauma means attachment will be challenging, if disabilities means the child needs full time support—will I cope?”
More than love
Adoption received a Hollywood makeover when Angelina Jolie and Madonna adopted internationally, and introduced the world to their multicultural families. Celebrities adopting children internationally fueled debates about white savior complex—where helping others is self-serving, or according to the Urban Dictionary: “White savior refers to western people going in to “fix” the problems of struggling nations or people of color without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs(by loopdeloop97 March 08, 2012)”.
Perhaps emotion should take a backseat to research and studies identifying individuals who would and would not be an appropriate parent for a special needs child. This goes against our idea of a warm, cuddly adoptive mother saving a special needs child; and perhaps that’s the point.
An older study (Rosenthal & Groza, 1990) examined factors influencing special needs adoption outcome. Influential factors included: age of the child, presence of other children in the home, placement number, age of prospective mother, financial aspects like family income, and type of placement.
These factors are obviously used by agencies to screen prospective parents, but they should also be used by parents who want to adopt. Researching the kind of homes where these children thrive should be an important step for those who want to adopt a special needs child. The authors ((Rosenthal & Groza, 1990) concluded their study by saying that characteristics implicated in negative adoption outcomes should be evaluated with great caution.
Before thinking about the legal or financial implication of adoption, a motivation and reality check is necessary. Connect with mothers of special needs children online, ask the important questions, and be honest about facing similar challenges on a daily basis.
Myka Stauffer had many families defending her choice. Anonymous posters told of their own experience of rehoming a child after incidents of violence, aggression and inappropriate sexual behavior towards siblings and parents. These families feel the Stuaffers were judged too harshly by people who know nothing about the reality of a child whose behavior is so disruptive that family life implodes.
Fortunately, special needs adoption stories where a child thrives and where the adoptive parents feel a deep sense of purpose, fulfilment and love show that special needs adoption may be an extraordinary and positive journey for the child and parents.
These stories don’t necessarily subscribe to a patronizingly happy ending in a forever home. Rather, prospective parents who are willing to research and ready themselves for the difficult journey with a child whose life has probably included trauma and little trust will be prepared.
Such a parent will not see themselves as a savior. A warrior is probably more apt, for these parents are prepared for the many battles, with hope for a victorious resolution over adversity.
Rosenthal, James & Groza, Victor. (1990). Special-Needs Adoption: A Study of Intact Families. Social Service Review – SOC SERV REV. 64. 475-505. 10.1086/603782.