Civil Rights: Adopting Racism

The most pernicious racial set-aside


When Matthew O. was only a few days old, doctors at the Texas hospital where he was born begged workers at the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services (DPRS)–the state agency responsible for neglected and abandoned children–to find him a home. Born with syphilis and addicted to crack cocaine, Matthew had no chance of returning home with his mother, who had a history of abandoning her children to the state.

When he was nine days old, Matthew found a home with Lou Ann and Scott Mullen, a veteran foster family in excellent standing with DPRS. The Mullens spent long and sleepless nights helping Matthew overcome his body's addiction and fell in love with him along the way. Whenever they would ask DPRS workers about adopting him, they were told there was "no way" because Matthew is black and would go to a black home–despite a state statute prohibiting DPRS from using race to delay, deny, or otherwise discriminate in adoption placement.

The Mullens are a multiracial family. Scott, who is white, and Lou Ann, who is Native American, were stunned that race stood in the way of giving Matthew a permanent home. In their eight years of foster parenting, they had provided a home for 22 children, 14 of whom were African American. (In fact, through a private agency they had adopted a biracial former foster child.) DPRS had praised them for their outstanding ability to parent children of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

DPRS had no problem leaving Matthew with the Mullens for nearly two years, but when it came to placing him for adoption, Matthew was suddenly removed from his home and placed with a black family. The family had also agreed to adopt Matthew's brother, 6-year-old Joseph, who had spent most of his life in the state's "care." Within seven weeks, this family had a change of heart and gave both boys back to DPRS. Instead of putting them with the Mullens, DPRS sent the boys to yet another group of strangers, a black foster family. When Lou Ann and Scott told DPRS they wanted to adopt both boys, they were told no–DPRS wanted to spend another six months looking for a black family. An adoption supervisor said the boys would go to a group home before they would go to the Mullens.

With the assistance of the Institute for Justice, Matthew and Joseph have filed a class-action suit challenging the state's discriminatory practices. Not surprisingly, since the lawsuit was filed, DPRS claims it never discriminates and has now turned the boys over to the Mullens in a pre-adoptive placement. If all goes well, Matthew and Joseph will finally have a permanent home, after two-and-one-half years and lots of unnecessary foster placements. Others will not be so fortunate. Matthew, his brother, and the Mullens are only one group of victims of a long-standing pernicious race distinction in adoptions that Congress may soon overthrow.

Social workers across the country have a longheld practice of preventing the adoption of minority children by different-race parents, calling interracial adoption "cultural genocide." Since the infants and children involved don't have lobbyists, their voices go unheard as they get shuffled from foster home to foster home. Meanwhile, the social workers search for homes that will supposedly promote these children's "cultural awareness"–never mind the other ingredients, such as love and stability, that make childhood and life fulfilling.

Interracial adoption began in the United States after World War II and increased considerably in the 1960s as a result of the civil rights movement, which brought much attention to the dilemma of minority children in foster care. But in 1972, the Detroit-based National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), concerned about the rising rates of interracial adoption, released a statement asserting that "black children belong, physically, psychologically, and culturally in black families in order that they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future." The policy was adopted by the Child Welfare League of America the following year and applied to all nonwhite children.

In 1991, NABSW reaffirmed its position that "black children belong to black parents," claiming that interracial adoptees not only lose their heritage and become prejudiced against blacks, but also are harmed because their white parents are unable to teach them the skills necessary to survive in a white, racist society. The paper states that even "the most sensitive, loving, and skilled white parent could not avoid doing irreparable harm to an African American child." With that, NABSW made clear that the color of a child's skin, not his or her need for love and stability, would dictate whether and where a child got a home. Today, the NABSW has modified its position, tolerating interracial adoption, but only as a last resort.

By definition, "last resort" means minority children will suffer delays or denials of adoptions where their white peers will not. There are an estimated 500,000 children in the foster care system. The Washington-based American Public Welfare Association says that 40 percent of all children awaiting placement in adoptive homes are black, though blacks represent only about 12.3 percent of the general population. Furthermore, 67 percent of families interested in adoption are white, while 31 percent are black. Despite efforts to recruit more black families–who already adopt children at a higher rate than whites–it is impossible to find enough black families to keep up with the needs of the increasing numbers of black children in foster care.

Black children tend to languish in the foster care system twice as long as white children, while white parents who would adopt them are turned away. This, despite studies and a general consensus among most child-welfare experts that the most important factor in a child's well-being is an ongoing, stable relationship with a parent figure. And every white parent turned down brings the minority foster child that much closer to never being adopted.

Virtually all of the evidence against interracial adoption is anecdotal; there is not a single scientific study that shows interracial adoption to be harmful. Rita Simon, professor of sociology at American University, and Howard Alstein, professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, conducted the leading longitudinal study of the impact of interracial adoption on adoptees and their families. Their 20-year multicity study of approximately 200 parents and their adopted and natural children, compiled in Simon's book The Case for Transracial Adoption, found that interracial adoptees do not lack self-esteem or racial identity when they grow up; and indeed in some instances are actually more comfortable with their racial identity than their peers adopted within the same race. The study also shows that children of interracial adoptions grow with the same sense of pride and develop the same family relationships as birth children raised in the same households.

Interestingly, some of the parents studied invested more time and effort teaching their children about their culture than parents of the same race did. Transracial adoption may require some extra effort, but the parents' desire to overlook race should be, in and of itself, sufficient evidence of those parents' unconditional love and capacity to parent. Simon proposes replacing race with the best interest of the child as the standard for adoption.

Congress is already moving in this direction. Last year, the Multiethnic Placement Act was passed to require child-welfare agencies to "work to eliminate racial, ethnic, and national origin discrimination" in adoption placements. Unfortunately, as a result of interest-group pressure, the final version of the act, signed into law by Clinton earlier this year, permits agencies to consider racial, ethnic, and cultural background as one of a number of factors to be used to place a child in an adoptive home, leaving the social workers with the loophole they need to disguise racial discrimination. Furthermore, white couples are required by the law to undergo extensive "multicultural training" before attempting to adopt minority children.

This year, the House wants to go farther. Thanks largely to the efforts of Rep. Jim Bunning (R–Ky.), the House this year passed a new Multiethnic Placement Act, which removes all remaining barriers to interracial adoption and prohibits agencies receiving federal dollars from denying or delaying the adoption or placement of a child in a foster home based solely on the race, color, or national origin of the child or potential parents. Under Bunning's bill, states or agencies that violate this law will lose all their federal funds. Similar legislation is being championed in the Senate by John McCain (R–Ariz.), and is currently in the Senate Finance Committee.

But such federal action is not enough. The last remaining state statute banning interracial adoption was struck down as unconstitutional in 1972, but most states–up to 43–still have laws that permit the use of race by state agencies in adoption decisions, with Arkansas, California, and Minnesota requiring race to be a consideration. Governors, mayors, and welfare leaders at the state and local level need to overturn such laws and make interracial adoption and speedy placement a part of their legislative agenda.

Yet even an express prohibition on race matching may not be enough, as the Texas DPRS has demonstrated. Social workers will continue rejecting interracial adoption until a rule of law is established to prohibit racial discrimination in adoptions. Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet, a longtime advocate of interracial adoption and author of the 1991 University of Pennsylvania Law Review article "Where do Black Children Belong? The Politics of Race Matching in Adoption," notes that "[t]he problem isn't that we don't have the right federal law. The problem is that we don't have any organizations that could support the right kind of legal challenge to what's going on."

But for now, social workers around the nation continue to jeopardize the well-being of the 100,000 minority children in foster care for the sake of preserving a mythical racial or cultural purity. This is a crime against both the children and their potential parents. As the country moves to eliminate the color line from public policy, color-conscious adoption policies, particularly pernicious because of their innocent and helpless targets, ought to be the first to go.

Nina Shokraii is director of outreach programs at the Institute for Justice, a public interest legal foundation in Washington, D.C.