In adoption language, “special needs” usually means anything that makes a child less likely to be adopted, including disability, ethnicity, age, and being part of a sibling group. For the purposes of churches including adoptive and foster families in their body and serving them well, I define special needs in the same way I do for any inclusive ministry purpose:
Special needs in church are anything that can hinder a child or family from full inclusion in YOUR church.
In other words, special needs are equal parts what’s unique about the family you’re serving and what’s happening in your church structures, environment, and programming that might create obstacles for that family.
Let’s pause for one crucially important note, though: To be able to welcome the child or family well, we don’t need to change them. We need to be willing to change OURSELVES.
I know that’s hard. Historically, change has been hard for churches. Even when you consider disability, churches were excluded from the Americans with Disabilities Act because they fought against it, arguing that changes to their buildings would be too costly to consider, even though refusing those changes literally meant that many people with physical disabilities would be unable to enter those churches.
Let’s not do that again, church. Let’s say no to any action or lack of action that tells any person, “You’re not welcome here” or “Our church is only for those who look, act, behave, feel, or act like I do.”
So what are the four kinds of special needs found among children in adoptive and foster families?
- The usual ones: These are the special needs we commonly see among any other group of kids: Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and so on. Also, as churches aren’t limited to a finite list of qualifying criteria a family must meet before a child can be served, these usual special needs can include some extra outreach and support for a child who is new to the church and doesn’t know her way around yet.
- Short-term needs related to adoption or foster care: One example here is initial attachment needs. For a child born into a family, research shows that attachment begins in the womb as the baby gets used to his or her mother’s voice and soon after birth as the newborn responds differently to the scent of the parent than to that of other adults. For children who enter a family by adoption or foster care, that doesn’t happen. The parent-child relationship begins with a baby, child, or teenager meeting a complete stranger who they’ll be living with for a foster period or for the rest of their lives. That’s a major transition, and I’ll write in one of my next posts about how church leaders can be attachment informed to support these children and families well. For one of our four children who were adopted, attachment needs faded over time and aren’t much of a consideration anymore, though that’s not the case for many children in adoptive and foster families. A better example of a short-term special need is English language learning for children adopted internationally from cultures with different languages, as those needs dissipate over time as the child’s English proficiency improves.
- Long-term needs related to adoption or foster care: Especially for children with multiple placements, past trauma, or adoption after the preschool years, attachment isn’t a short-term need. For our three children who joined our family a year ago at ages 2, 4, and 6, attachment is definitely still a work in progress, and I expect it to be a lifelong consideration in our parenting for at least one, if not all three, of those dear ones. In addition to attachment and trauma-related needs, these long-term ones more common for children in adoptive or foster placements include fetal alcohol syndrome disorders (FASD), reactive attachment disorders (RAD), and mental illness.
- Sibling needs: For our family and many other Christian families who chose to adopt or provide foster care, we have children already in the home. I’ve seen great benefits of adoption for Jocelyn and Robbie, our biological children, and for Zoe, who was adopted but then had to adjust after we adopted a second time, but the challenges are real too. These siblings need love and TLC as their family realities might mean that Mom and Dad are spending a lot more time focusing on the new addition(s) and less time spent with them. If you’re tempted to dismiss this as being no different from the birth of a new child into the family, please re-read the previous three items in this list. It’s not the same. And these siblings sometimes feel displaced, uncertain, and confused, and they tend to externalize those emotions by acting out or internalize them by not admitting how they feel because they don’t think they’re allowed to do so.
In the coming posts, I’ll unpack five concrete things churches can do to say yes to families like mine. For now, though, consider these areas of special needs for adoptive and foster families. Knowing what we may be going through is a huge step in being able to love us well.
Finally, I know this was a long post, so I want to end with my sincere thanks: If you’ve read this far, you care enough to learn more. Even if you’re still feeling uncertain about what your church’s next steps should be, please know that you are on the right track by caring and educating yourself for our sake and for the sake of the children entrusted to us, whether it be for a season in a foster placement or for the rest of their lives in adoption.
Thank you for that.