Make Adoption Policies Colorblind

The current debate in congress over Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum’s bill pertaining to interracial adoption policy provides an opportunity to reevaluate the National Association of Black Social Workers’ 20-year opposition to cross-racial adoptions. The number of black children waiting in foster care for adoptive homes continues to grow despite efforts to find more African American families willing to adopt these children. At the same time, the number of white children available for adoption declines, as white families are discouraged from interracial adoption. The only thing that can be said about this issue with any certainty is that adoption practices are on the verge of change.

The way society handles adoption has changed with the culture. In ancient Rome, adoption to secure an heir was a common practice. In colonial America, orphans and “illegitimate” children apprenticed with tradesmen beginning at an early age…in a form of indentured servitude. In the latter half of the 19th century, the contemporary concept of adoptive families (i.e., mimicking biological families) emerged. Instead of viewing adopted children as laborers or servants, states enacted laws that treated adopted children as the biological children of their adoptive parents. Today, some adoption experts argue that the time has come to abandon adoption policy that selects adoptive parents based upon biology for a more inclusive policy. These experts claim the policy punishes the many kids awaiting adoption.

Any discussion of interracial adoption must include a critique of NABSW’s position. In 1972, NABSW published a paper opposing interracial adoptions. In it, they took a “¼ vehement stand against the placement of black children in white homes for any reason.”

It is significant to note that NABSW’s opposition to interracial adoptions came on the heels of the civil rights movement. Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, such adoptions were uncommon, even unlawful in many states. However by 1971 interracial adoptions surged to a peak of 2,574 black children adopted by white parents annually. That number dropped to 831 by 1975, three years after NABSW published its stated position against interracial-racial adoptions.

Traditionally, adoption agencies place children with adoptive parents of the same race, religion, and ethnic group. Today’s debate is over expanding the traditional same-race approach to adoptions to include interracial adoption. Critics of this inclusive approach argue that black children will lose their cultural heritage and sense of identity if raised by white parents. Sandi Ililonga, who is black and was adopted by her white parents at age 12 disagrees. She says her interracial adoption was far superior to the alternative¼ a foster home. In 1991, while adoption experts, social workers, and politicians debated, 17,500 African American children were in need of adoptive homes.

The latest studies of interracial adoption do not support critics’ claims that such adoptions expose children to prejudice and make them uncomfortable with their racial identity. The University of Maryland School of Social Work conducted such a study. The 20-year study of 200 white parents and their predominately African American, adopted children surveyed the children in 1991, when the children were in their early to mid-twenties. Howard Altstien, study co-author, reports finding none of the conflicts he had expected. “These children are comfortable with their racial identity and racial awareness. They’re comfortable with their attitudes about themselves.”

Another recent study of 64 private and 23 public child-placing agencies reported that the public agencies placed over 90 percent of their black children in black homes, while the private agencies placed nearly half their black children in white homes. NABSW claims that the higher placement rate of black children with white families by private agencies is due to policies that discriminate against black families. NABSW states emphasis on high income, educational level, residential status and other “white middle class” attributes eliminates many black applicants. Critics of NABSW’s stance against interracial adoption say a claim of discrimination against potential adoptive African American families is not credible. Instead, they say the high percentage of single parent families in the African American community is the barrier to adoption, not racism.

Change is in the winds. White foster parents are in court in six states¼ Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Washington, New York and Ohio¼ challenging laws that they claim infringe upon their right to adopt African American children. So even if Senator Metzenbaum’s bill fails to eliminate the barriers to interracial adoptions, the U.S. Supreme Court may do the job. In 1993, the Court demonstrated it’s willingness to eliminate race from public policy by returning a North Carolina redistricting case. In that decision, the Court ruled that states could not create political districts along strictly racial lines unless compelling reasons other than race can be shown. This same standard must be applied in adoptions.

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Originally Published: 13 January 1994, Montgomery Advertiser

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