Should Race Be a Factor in Adoptions?

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Noah Addis / Star Ledger / Corbis

Dorothy Beck, center, braids the hair of her son Isaiah, 7, while her two-year-old twins Joshua, left, and Serena look on at their home in Sicklerville.

Should adoption agencies discriminate by race, or even by a person's racial sensitivity? According to current U.S. law, no. Since 1996, it has been illegal to consider race when determining whether families are suitable to raise adopted children — the law was intended to increase adoptions of black children, who are disproportionately represented in the foster care system, by making it easier for whites to take them home. But a new study suggests that approach is short-sighted. "Color-blind" adoption, the report contends, allows some white parents — who may not be mentally ready or have the appropriate social tools to parent black children — to raise youngsters, who may, in turn, experience social and psychological problems later in life.

The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a non-profit that studies and provides education on adoption, examined national statistics and studies on transracial adoptions — those in which adoptive parents and adopted children are of different races — in the U.S. over the past two decades. In its report, "Finding Families for African American Children," the institute argues that race should be a factor in adoption placement, and that agencies should be allowed to screen non-black families who want to adopt black children — for their ability to teach self-esteem and defense against racism, and for their level of interaction with other black people. The authors' recommendations reflect the findings that transracial adoptees report struggling to fit in with their peers, their communities and even with their own families. The study also says that minority children adopted by white parents are likely to express a desire to be white, and black transracial adoptees have higher rates of behavioral problems than Asian or Native American children adopted transracially; they also exhibit more problems than biracial or white adoptees, or the biological children of adoptive parents.

The problem may be traced, at least in part, to the 1996 Multiethnic Placement Act—Interethnic Adoption Provision (MEPA—IEP), which Congress passed in response to headlines about white parents who wanted to adopt black children but were thwarted by race-matching policies. The legislation, which prohibited any adoption agency receiving federal funds from factoring race into decisions on foster care and adoption, was meant to widen the pool of prospective permanent homes for black children. Instead, according to the Donaldson Institute and supporters of its study, the law had a chilling effect on agencies that might want to facilitate transracial adoptions, prohibiting them from preparing white parents for race-specific challenges they might face raising black children. That's because, under MEPA-IEP, agencies may not create race-based programs; any classes or tools must be given to all parents equally, regardless of ethnicity.

That lack of support for transracial adoptive parents doesn't help their children, the study suggests, calling on governmental social service agencies to work with minority- and faith-based organizations, and to provide adoptive families with follow-up support specifically tailored to their situation. "We don't know [exactly] what families will experience once they've adopted a child," says Toni Oliver, a representative for the National Association of Black Social Workers and founder of Roots, an adoption agency in Atlanta. "But there's no way at this point for the family to even come back to the agency and get support after the fact." Even the Jolie-Pitts of the world could use some help, says Oliver, describing one white couple who have adopted both internationally and transracially: "The dad said to me, 'We really thought we had this intercultural thing down. But we didn't understand what race meant until we adopted our black children. That's when we got the stares.'"

Overall, the new study found, regardless of the race of their adoptive parents, black adopted children were no different from other kids in levels of self-esteem. But, the authors write, "black children had a greater sense of racial pride when their parents acknowledged racial identity, moved to integrated neighborhoods, and provided African American role models. Black children whose white parents minimized the importance of racial identity were reluctant to identify themselves racially." But is it necessarily catastrophic to eschew a strong racial identity? Not everybody thinks so. "All adopted children face challenges with being adopted," says R. Richard Banks, a Stanford Law professor and author of The Color of Desire: Fulfilling Adoptive Parents' Racial Preferences through Discriminatory State Action. "To some people, saying we want children to develop a positive identity means a positive racial identity. But it could be a good thing not to have a strong racial identity. The difference is a reflection of our beliefs about what black people should be and what white people should be."

Banks likens the debate over transracial adoption to the question of whether same-sex couples can be suitable parents. "It is true that [the children of gay couples are] more likely to experiment sexually when they're older, and they're less likely to be he-men or girly girls. But you could argue that that's a good thing to not have such starkly defined gender differences. It's a question of what counts as a good sexual identity." Treating parents differently because they want to adopt across racial lines would suggest "there's something abnormal about transracial adoption," says Banks, adding, "mostly these issues reflect our own anxieties about seeing mixed-race families."

Indeed, such anxiety is reflected in the national statistics. Since MEPA-IEP was passed in the mid-1990s, the proportion of transracial adoptions has risen only modestly — from 17.2% in 1996 to 20.1% in 2003. Meanwhile, the government has not compelled agencies to recruit foster and adoptive parents who reflect the ethnic make-up of children in the system, even though the law says they must, so racial disparities have persisted within the family services system. Black children are adopted less frequently and more slowly than kids of any other race. Fifteen percent of U.S. children are black, but they account for nearly a third of children in foster care and a third of those awaiting adoption. White children are five times as likely as to be adopted than children from any minority group, and are adopted out of foster care an average of nine months sooner than black children.

Still, says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Donaldson Institute, we're doing a disservice to children if we try to ignore those racially based anxieties. "We just want to assess whether people are ready to parent a child who's going to face racism," he says. "Helping kids feel comfortable in their own skin leads to better outcomes." That can certainly be accomplished by finding the best parents for the children who need them regardless of race, but also by supporting adoptive families with consideration for their ethnic make-up. Says Pertman: "Nobody's saying black kids shouldn't have white parents, but does anybody really think we live in a fully color-blind society? It's a nice ideal but it's not reality."