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By Rosemary Black
September 22, 2009 / Daily News
Katherine Heigl's decision to adopt a special needs child rather than endure an ever-lengthening wait for a healthy child “made the adoption process much quicker,” as she explained on Ellen DeGeneres’ chat show.
The actress and her husband, Josh Kelley, are now parents to 10-month-old Naleigh, born in South Korea. They’re also joining the growing numbers of prospective adoptive parents choosing to add a child with medical issues to their family rather than wait to take home a healthy child.
As the number of children available to adopt from other countries is dwindling, more babies with disabilities that range from a cleft palate to heart disease are being brought home by their adoptive families.
“We’ve seen a lot more interest in special needs babies,” says Nancy Dykstra-Powers, director of Bethany Christian Services, which she says is the largest adoption agency in the country. “I used to have a really hard time placing babies with disabilities but there's a real demand for them now.”
Cory Barron, foundation director at the St. Louis-based Children’s Hope International adoption agency, says that this year so far, 62 percent of the children placed by that agency have special needs, as compared to 13 percent in 2005. It’s due, he says, to the fact that the wait for healthy children grows ever longer.
A couple wanting to adopt from China can expect a wait time of four years, he says, while a special needs child can be picked up within four to six months after the adoptive family’s paperwork is completed.
“People look at the waits and say, could we handle a child who is missing a limb or who has HIV/AIDS,” Barron says. “They’re starting to think, okay, there are other children besides healthy ones out there who need a home as well.”
Adoption from China in particular has slowed down because there simply aren’t enough children available. Domestic adoptions are up in China, and as the per capita income there has risen, more couples can afford it, Barron says.
His agency also handles adoptions in Ethiopia, and this year, close to 10 percent of children placed by Children’s Hope from Ethiopia had special needs.
Russia, another popular country for Americans to look when they want to adopt, is not only a lot more expensive but more complicated. A Russian adoption can cost $35,000 to $45,000 and involve several trips there, Barron says.
While it can seem like a wonderful idea to give a home to a special needs child, experts warn that it’s not a decision to make lightly. Some of the children’s medical issues, like heart disease and cerebral palsy, can require lifelong care and drain a family’s financial and emotional resources. Many of these children are older when they join their adoptive families, since it can take longer to place a child with special needs.
“And with an older child, attachment and bonding with the parents can be difficult,” says child psychologist Michelle Reitman. “The older a child is, the more difficult it is. And if there is not good bonding these kids become oppositional and defiant, and more at risk for dropping out of school when they are teenagers.”
Recognizing the commitment in time, energy and money is crucial, says Nina Epstein, a partner at Goldweber Epstein LLC, says.
“You have to be a very focused and committed person to adopt a child with special needs,” she says. “Taking on this commitment, while it may advance you to the head of the line in terms of getting a child sooner, is something to consider very carefully. It’s virtually impossible to reverse an adoption.” Yet, she adds, “People who do this are remarkable.”
Dykstra-Powers says her agency is now placing some children with very severe medical challenges. “But the people who are adopting them are amazing,” she adds. “It is wonderful when people have it in their hearts to adopt a child with special needs.”