Intersection of Special Needs Within the Permanency Population
For as long family units have existed, there have been parents who were unable to care for their children, and children who needed permanent families. These needs have been met through formal and informal arrangements. For centuries, families and communities have informally absorbed children and taken on the set of responsibilities necessary. Formal adoptions by unrelated adults is a more recent phenomenon, historically laden with secrecy. It has not been until recently that an openness in formal adoption has been recognized and utilized.
The concept of permanency further broadens the perspective to include arrangements other than adoption, so long as the chid has an adult who is committed for a lifetime (Pathways to Permanency, 2012). Take for example legal guardians in the form of grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings, distant relatives, family friends, or even neighbors. As we gain more knowledge on how permanency impacts child development, we better understand that it is the permanent connection, whatever the legal status, that makes a difference.
There is not a universal definition for “disability.” Its meaning depends on context and various federal, state, and local definitions. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 defines a disability based on functional limitations, whereas some other laws based disability on diagnosis (citation). It is critical to know that disabilities can be temporary or permanent; they can be present at birth or acquired in life; and just because a diagnosis exits, does not automatically mean it is legally defined by federal or state law as being a (dis)ability. For children a part of the Child Welfare System, having special needs may mean a lengthy stay in foster care and a higher change of aging out (citation).
Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory argues that each individual child is an inseparable part of a large, complex social structure that consists of the micro-, meso-, and macro-systems of social relations. It is imperative to examine the lives of special needs children within the permanency population through this framework in order to understand the complexities of their life experiences. It is then that we will be able to effectively examine current policies and develop new ones.
The chapter “Identities and Social Locations: Who Am I? Who Are My People?:” describes the microsystem as being the immediate environment of an individual. This system is concerned with the experiences of one’s self, their families, and peers. In this system we are able to define ourselves according to our own preferences and we seem to have some control over our social location (Kirk & Okazawa-Rey, 2010). The reading also highlights the role of a home.
A home can be a location or a sense of location where an individual seeks belonging, comfort, acceptance, and security (Kirk & Okazawa-Rey, 2010). While this is a true definition, it assumes that most people inherently understand the concept of a home. The examples provided described an individual who had material objects but suffered from physical abuse, or an individual who grew up in a loving home but later shifted values and now suffers from alienation.
Both of these examples give the benefit of the doubt that no matter how terrible one’s home life truly is, they are still being provided something, their home is providing them with love or with a roof like it is supposed to. But what about the children who grow up with no concept of a home, or lack the understanding of what a home provides, or whose experiences have taught them that a home is a privilege as opposed to a right? When you move to multiple new homes every year, a home is not where you grow up. When you are a part of the child welfare system, a home is not where your family is. And when you suffer from verbal, physical, and/or emotional abuse at the hand of your guardians, a home is certainly not where your basic needs are met.
In addition, the challenges that occur within a home are exasperated when the child has a (dis)ability. Increased need for care and attention negatively impacts child-guardian relationships and can make it difficult to find child care. According to the ecological systems theory, the parent-child relationship is transactional, meaning children and parents affect each other and are affected by each other. For adopted children, the primary experience is of the adoptive family, but the biological and foster families also bring their own set of experiences.
It is not uncommon for placements to fall under risk, especially when the parent or guardian has difficult responding to the needs of the child. Since children with special needs tend to have difficulties with attention, behavior, and emotional control, the development of parent-child relationships can be challenging. The process and the experiences it produces for our students goes beyond being simply a catalyst which shifts perspective (Kirk & Okazawa-Rey, 2010). Rather, it is repeated process that systematically produces feelings of inferiority and misunderstanding, goes beyond being simply a catalyst that shifts perspective. Rather it is systematic, repeated, trauma…
The meso-system is the connection between the individual and other systems. It is where expectations and interactions within a particular community are used to categorize each other and determine what relationship, if any, exists (Kirk & Okazawa-Rey, 2010). The links within the meso-system are important to understanding the relationships within micro-systems. Children’s experiences in other contexts, outside of the family experience, alters their perceptions and influences behavior.
Adopted children often retain memories of their biological family and may even still have contact with them. The relationship between adoptive parent and adoptee is affected by the relationship the child has, or does not have, with their biological family. If their lives were previously abusive or neglectful, they will carry that psychological impact with them in all their relationships. Many children’s family of origin story has been, and continues to be, difficult, stressful, and emotionally exhausting.
The ecological systems theory emphasizes the interconnectedness of experiences within certain contexts. When apart of the child welfare system, students are at risk of disruptions in school and with peer relationships. Poor achievement in school is often associated with the experience of multiple placements and a general lack of stability (citation). The high rate of behavior problems with special needs children in the welfare system affects peer relations and school adjustments, which impacts parent-child relationships at home. Special needs children are typically socially isolated from other students, and often connect with deviant peers (citation). Their risk in developing peer relationships greatly impacts the quality and attachment of parent-child relationships.
Although current permanency and adoption policies support the recruitment of adoptive parents for children with disabilities, many challenges still exist. Barriers to achieving permanency for children with disabilities include (but are not limited to) a lack of prospective parents willing to adopt, child welfare agency practices, and court biases. Youth with disabilities in the U.S. may be less likely to have reunification or placement with relatives as a priority in their permanency plans. They are also more likely to be placed in group homes or residential treatment facilities than family foster care, decreasing their opportunities for permanency or adoption (Citation).
In terms of recruitment, child-specific recruitment strategies are a promising practice. One study found that agencies were more successful in recruiting adoptive parents for chlildren with disabilites wehn those prospective parents were sought for their ability, rather than their willingness to adopt a child with special needs. (citation). Preparation and full disclosure about a child’s disability is an important factor in permanency stability for children with disabilities. Adoptive parents who received full information and disclosure about a child’s disability reported higher satisfaction and stability in parenting a child with a disability (citation).
Children with disabilities often require a great deal of professional post-permanency support. Adoptive families may need to schedule and transport the child to many appointments and therapies and work with the child’s school regarding accommodations and Individualized Education Plans. In addition, many children with disabilities exhibit challenging behaviors that require specific parenting strategies. When adoptive parents receive full disclosure and information about the child’s disability, as well as pre-placement training and affordable and accessible post-placement supports, they are better prepared to meet the needs of their children.
Ferri and Connor’s article In the Shadow of Brown: Special Education and Overrepresentation of Students of Color focuses on the disproportionate placement of black students in special education classes. Unfortunately, there exists a lack of studies that seek to combine the experiences of special needs students with the experiences of children affected by permanency. There is even less data when those students are of color. African American students identified as having special needs are most often identified as having disabilities that fall into one of the following categories: learning disabilities, emotionally disturbed, developmental disabilities, and speech and language disorders (citation).
In fact, black students are three times more likely to be identified as mentally retarded as their white counterparts, two times more likely to be identified as emotionally disturbed, and one and half times more likely to be identified as having a learning disability (Ferri & Connor, 2005). In addition, African Americans are disproportionately represented in child welfare. African American children represent 14 percent of the general child population in the United States but represent 31 percent of the children placed in out of home placements (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011). The issue of African American children being overrepresented in both child welfare and special education has existed for a while, but solutions to these disparities have yet to come.
Call to Action
Since legislation and public attitudes are always changing, it is imperative that educators (professionals) stay up to date on current terminology and definitions. For example, the term “mental retardation” was commonly used and found to be appropriate in many educational and medical settings during the 20th century. There has since been a shift to using the term “intellectual disability” instead. Also, the phrase “put up for adoption” originated from orphans in New York City being rounded up and placed on trains to take them out west to find families.
Often times, in exchange for care, these families wanted work to be performed on the farm. Children were literally “put up” on trains ration platforms so potential parents could view them. Understanding the historical and cultural context of adoption provides inside to the societal views that shape the experience of those who are part of the adoption constellation. It also helps us see how the language of adoption has evolved with society’s changing perceptions, and how we can influence change through the words we use.
As a means to overcome, I suggest turning to bell hooks’ ideas on democratic education. In the article, educators are challenged to “teach beyond the classroom setting, to move into the world sharing knowledge” as a means to learning diverse teaching methods (hooks, p. 43). By integrating knowledge from the outside world into the classroom, educators are able to reify their place in society, outside of the academic world. This enriches the learning and teaching experience alike by modeling to students that academic knowledge is not limited to the classroom or to school campus. This gives students the unique opportunity to experience learning as a process, as opposed to a practice or an event.
Children within Montessori educational settings are encouraged to work at their own pace, with the burden of completion, tested, and grades. The freedom provided by being encouraged to follow and develop their own interests is the type of freedom that allows special needs students to flourish. Also, within the Montessori design in an emphasis on peace, cooperation, and respect. These values make the classroom environment more safe and secure as students are less likely to be teased or ostracized.