Adopting Across Racial Lines

HOWARD ALTSTEIN

November 18, 1992|By HOWARD ALTSTEIN

Of America's approximately 40,000 adoptable children, it is estimated that about 40 percent are non-white.

One reason white children are adopted at rates higher than non-white children is that adoption agencies continue to believe that only a family whose race is similar to a child's is equipped to raise that child. The consequence of this thinking is that many non-white children remain without permanent families, usually in foster care. Keeping these children in foster care is absurd, costly and child-damaging.

It may also be unlawful.

Last spring, the Chicago Office for Civil Rights issued a ruling which should have an impact on our nation's system of placing children with foster and adoptive families. The ruling found that Michigan's Department of Social Services ''uses criteria or methods of administration which result in the exclusion, limitation and/or segregation of minority (black) children relative to adoptive and foster-care placements in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.'' Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.

In non-legalese, Michigan was found, in its attempt to find racially similar foster or adoptive families for minority children, to be deliberately withholding these children from white families willing to foster or adopt them. This practice resulted in white children being adopted at a rate 30 percent quicker than African-American children.

My colleague, Rita James Simon, and I have conducted and published research extending over 20 years on white families adopting racially and culturally different children. We have spoken with hundreds of trans-racially adopting families and their children.

Our data strongly support such adoptions as benefiting the entire family. Minority children growing up in white homes overwhelmingly thrive, on any acceptable measure of success. They do well in school, have African-American, white, Hispanic or Asian-American friends, have strong emotional ties to their (adopted) parents and extended families, and possess positive racial attitudes, awareness and identities.

Regrettably, our data have been politicized by some to the point where child-welfare agencies and practitioners (social workers) are reluctant to consider our findings. They hesitate for fear of being termed racists.

What have we found that is so disturbing? We describe trans-racial adoptees' positive relationships with their adoptive parents, siblings, extended family members, friends, communities and in some cases wives or husbands. We describe how these young people see themselves as human beings, as African-Americans, Hispanic, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, as men and women, as husbands and wives.

What should be evaluated are our findings that with some (expected) exceptions, the overwhelming majority of adoptees are comfortable with themselves and with their chosen professions and worlds, and that the emotionally charged rhetoric of those who oppose trans-racial adoption have not been realized.

It has always been our position that in-racial adoption is the placement of choice and should be the first to be considered. Only when honest and diligent attempts at locating racially similar adoptive families fail should a cross-race adoption be considered. We also recognize the validity of minority groups' allegations that agencies have at times engaged in racist policies and practices by not strenuously enough recruiting minority adoptive families and using culturally inappropriate criteria in establishing adoptive eligibility. These must be being rectified.

But until there are enough African-American families for all the African-American children, Hispanic families for Hispanic children, and so on, trans-racial adoption should be seen as a realistic option, for America's adoptable children.

There can be no better way to demonstrate the importance of ''family values'' than to offer one to a child who otherwise, in most cases, would be without one.

Howard Altstein teaches in the School of Social Work of the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

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