The best interest of the child: Samiya A. Bashir examines changing dynamics of transracial adoption. (Report).
The NABSW's controversial statement, and the supporting position paper it released, was just the tip of a now long-running debate, carried out in the "best interests" of children too young to articulate the situation for themselves. The struggle to communicate about the subject was not limited to the adoptees. Everyone involved--children, adoptive parents, birthparents, and adoption professionals--was wading in uncharted waters with only the most limited language available to articulate the issues.
The NABSW took its position just five years after the 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, which annulled state laws against interracial marriages. A generation earlier, the idea of white parents wanting to adopt black children would have seemed almost unthinkable. But, between 1968 and 1972, approximately 50,000 black and biracial children were adopted into white families. The changing racial climate and shifting attitudes toward adoption combined with other factors such as the limited number of healthy, available white infants, to bring the unthinkable to the center of national debate.
For the past 10 years, transracial adoptions have counted for about 15 percent of U.S. adoptions. As the first sizable generation of transracial adoptees, born in the mid-60s to mid-70s, come of age, their experiences are finally being added to the debate which has long been waged without them.
Catherine McKinley explores her own experiences in her memoir The Book of Sarahs. McKinley, a biracial woman whose birth mother is Jewish and birth father is African American, was adopted by a white family in rural Massachusetts. "We don't have the voices of a lot of transracial adoptees," said McKinley. "There is a huge sea of stories that need to be out there."
Still, many adoptees find it difficult to have their voices heard. "They're all looking for this 'authentic voice,"' said McKinley. "If you don't offer the same predictable ideas about transracial adoption then people become really uncomfortable."
Waiting for Families
Proponents of transracial adoption argue that because black children are more likely to be in foster care than white children, stay in foster care longer, and are more likely to undergo multiple placements, opening the process to adoption across color lines is the answer to the problems of both children and would-be parents.
In Massachusetts, where McKinley was raised, only 5 percent of the population is African American. Yet, African American children represent almost 50 percent of children awaiting placement. Nationwide, 40 percent of children awaiting adoption are black. In urban areas, like New York City, those numbers climb to 75 percent. The average wait for a child in foster care to be placed is almost three years. For African American children, the wait can stretch to twice the average.
Many proponents of transracial adoption argue that there are not enough families of color who wish to adopt. In fact, it has been shown that black families foster and adopt children, often under informal arrangements, at a far higher rate than the general population. A 1977 study published by the National Urban League concluded that 90 percent of African American children born out of wedlock are informally adopted. A subsequent study, sponsored in 1984 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, showed that African American families adopt 4.5 times more than any other ethnic group.
Instead, the NABSW, along with a number of black adoption agencies, argue that families of color are routinely passed over in favor of white families. They claim that child welfare agencies, staffed primarily with white social workers, have long turned a blind eye to systems which stand in the way of joining prospective parents of color with children in need.
The North American Council on Adoptable Children's 1991 study, "Barriers to Same Race Placement," found that African American-run adoption agencies successfully placed 94 percent of black children with black families. Organizations like the Association of Black Social Workers' Child Adoption, Detroit's Homes for Black Children, the nationwide One Church, One Child Program, and Los Angeles's Institute for Black Parents all show successful intraracial placements.
The Black Pulse Survey, conducted between 1981 and 1993 and published by the National Urban League, found three million African American households interested in adoption. The study's numbers suggested that, were even a tiny fraction of those families allowed to adopt, any argument about a preponderance of children in search of loving black homes would be effectively moot.
Rooted in Inequality
The NABSW has claimed that its resolution, and the position paper that followed, was directed not at children or parents. Instead, it sought to redirect the discussion about transracial adoption to identify how seemingly race-neutral policies were actually carried our by a system entrenched in racially motivated decisions and practices.
Transracial adoption must be considered within the larger discussion of the impoverishment and annihilation of black families and communities, the NABSW argued, along with numerous community groups. The group claimed that child welfare workers have historically made relatively few retention efforts with African American birth parents and extended families. Black families who attempt to adopt through traditional means are often met with discrimination or discouragement. They further argue that fewer efforts are made to reunite African American foster children with their families of origin.
Significant institutional barriers exist, such as the bureaucratic systems that control the licensing and recruitment of foster and adoptive families, which often prevent or discourage families of color from applying to adopt. African American families who do apply are frequently screened out of the process due to racist attitudes, economic barriers, and a widespread lack of cultural understanding which frequently categorizes difference as pathology. Families of color are often markedly different from the normative, Eurocentric model and include greater involvement of extended families, more family members living together, and a wider division of childcare.
Foster care has become a billion-dollar business in which agencies receive between $15,000 and $100,000 per child, per year in government funds. The financial incentive for public agencies to recruit and retain children--lest they be out of business--is met by an equally discouraging financial burden placed on parents by private agencies.
Prospective parents can expect to pay between $5,000 and $50,000 to a private agency to adopt. Blacks are the "least expensive" children available, which, combined with a historical aversion to the buying and selling of African American children, often serves as a psychological barrier for black families seeking service. Consequently, 50 percent of black children placed by private agencies are adopted transracially.
Racial Politics in the Home
Few argue the destructive effects of leaving children to languish in the fractured foster care system. However, there is no agreement that transracial adoption is the way out.
One fact that seldom reaches the debate is that 44 percent of children available for adoption nationwide are white children. However, most of those children are school-aged or have special needs. The greatest demand among all races is for the infants and toddlers who make up only 4 percent of all adoptable children. Some argue that the debate over transracial adoption is accordingly more concerned with the rights of whites to have access to adoptable infants than the rights of children to placement in loving and appropriate homes.
In a recent study, Amanda L. Baden, Ph.D., of St. John's University, argues that transracial adoptees' exposure and competence in their birth culture may nor be necessary for good psychological adjustment." The study, which was conducted through survey questionnaires with adult (ages 19-36) African American and Latina/o transracial adoptees, asserts that those who identified strongly with white culture fared no worse than those who identified with their birth culture.
The methodology behind Baden's study, which had no control group of intraracially adopted children, has been widely criticized by opponents and adoptees. However, so few studies of adult adoptees exist that her work is often offered as a credible resource in the defense of the practice. This is where the voices of the adoptees themselves become even more essential.
Jasper Steenhuis, a biracial man who was adopted into a large, multiracial family, was raised with "a large adoptive families' community," which he said fed him as he grew up.
But McKinley felt resentful of being forced to socialize with other transtacial adoptees as a child. "I felt terribly outside of everything and everybody," she said. "Truthfully my parents didn't tell me very much. My [white] brother often wasn't even referred to as adopted, and even when he was an 'adopted child,' I was a 'transracial adoptee.'"
McKinley insisted that having racial models throughout childhood and adolescence are crucial. "How do you find out where the line is between the black female experience and the transracial adoption experience?" she asked. "I have friends who grew up with black parents who had the same experiences. When I was little I needed a community where people could say, 'Girl, this is normal!"'
Baden asserts that "transracial adoptees who function adequately in the white culture, and who do not reject white culture, may report less psychological distress. If this relationship is shown to exist, it could suggest that psychological adjustment would naturally be poorer for those transracial adoptees who did not accept, or at least function well within, the culture of their parents."
For some this smacks of the very cultural genocide the NABSW warned against. "I don't believe that whole assimilation model," said McKinley. "I think people can pretend or buy into it to a particular degree, but I don't think it's true."
Still, McKinley pointed out that family is not necessarily the sole arbiter of racial identity. "There's a myth that you get your identity from your parents," she said. "It's a combination of so many things. I'm as black socialized as any of my peers, and I didn't get it at home. I think home sets an environment that makes you go out and search for things from the outside."
Steenhuis, whose adoptive parents are Dutch immigrants, faced compound hurdles on the road to racial identity, but he also had a great deal more peer support. The Steenhuises, a nursery school teacher and a university professor, had one biological child, and adopted eight more of different races. Two of his sisters are biologically related, Native and African American girls who were adopted together. One adoptee is white, and the others are various mixes of African American, Native American, and Jewish.
Although the family lived in a small, predominately white college town, his parents remained vigilant about providing role models of color to their children. "It may have seemed like a token gesture to make sure there was an Ebony subscription at my house," laughed Steenhuis, "but it did matter.
The Steenhuises were actively involved in transracial adoptive support groups and family organizations. The kids were also enrolled in a predominately black after-school program to counter their largely white school environments.
By high school, Jasper was involved in sports. He joined a track team, where he ran with a number of other African American kids. But his isolation from a diverse, neighborhood peer group still had its effect. "I'd wake up in the morning and hang out with the white kid across the street," said Steenhuis. To his African American friends across town, "I was a good friend, but we didn't grow up together, and that means something."
"My racial identity really became a big thing once I got to college," continued Steenhuis, "because you start over. Freshman and sophomore years were a whole new world. I went a little overboard," he added with a chuckle. "I probably didn't have to run for the Black Student Union presidency."
In 1994, the NABSW softened their position by saying that transracial adoption may be considered, but only after "documented evidence of unsuccessful same-race placements have been reviewed and supported by appropriate representatives of the African American community."
"You do have to put priority on matching people up with families that are of the same race," said Steenhuis. "The first priority is finding good parents, and then I think race should be an issue. It is more difficult, but effort counts in life. Parenting isn't easy, and no matter what child you raise it's going to be difficult."
Most agree that in the interim, the families that exist need to be supported. "I don't see any evidence that transracial adoption is going to stop," said Judith Ashton, a white adoptive parent and executive director of the New York Citizens Coalition for Children. "The best thing we can do is see that parents get the skills they need so they can do a better job."
"Parents are more accepting today of the fact that they cannot protect their child from the reality of racism," she added, "and that their task is not to protect but to prepare. It's evidence of another kind of racism, that sense of white privilege, that nobody made demands of us--nobody ever asked us what we had to bring to this child that was going to help develop a positive self-identity in a racist society.
As adoptees become mote vocal, adding their realities to the mountains of speculation, it may well be their experiences--more than the opinions of policy wonks, or even the parents themselves--that determine the future of the next generation of children in search of a loving home.
"Adoption is the best situation you can make out of a bad situation," said Steenhuis. "I had a great experience, but I can't tell you everybody did. There are definitely families where it didn't go well at all. Some of that is the baggage kids bring and some of it is because the parents were not really aware that: 'Hey, these kids are black folks, and their race does matter."'
Samiya Bashir, "The Best Interest of the Child." Samiya is co-editor of Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art.