Opening black homes, minds to adoption

March 21, 1995|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

In one room of Adoption Together's airy office suite in Kensington, an upscale community in Montgomery County, 15 white adults grieve childlessness and share stories about the stress of waiting for babies to adopt.

In another room, social worker Esther Best makes appointments at two African-American churches and Howard University's radio station in her daily quest to find black families interested in adoption.

The contrasting scenes reflect a sad fact of life: Healthy white babies are spoken for at birth, but it can take up to three months to place a black baby.

African-Americans, for reasons cultural and financial, are less inclined than whites to adopt children. Across the country, agencies are fighting to change that by hiring people like Ms. Best to reach out to the black community.

It's not a job Ms. Best ever thought she'd have.

An effervescent 34-year-old from Trinidad and Tobago, she earned a master's degree in social work from Howard University last year, expecting to work with troubled teen-agers or people afflicted with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

But through an acquaintance, Ms. Best learned that Adoptions Together was looking for a minority recruiter, and she got the job. It has turned out to be a serendipitous match for a woman with a gift for empathy and the perspective of a mother raising a 2-year-old daughter of her own.

Even as she helps a birth mother decide whether to give up her baby, Ms. Best feels protective of the adoptive parents who will be devastated if the arrangement falls through. At times, the emotional give-and-take drains the vibrancy from her voice.

"You find yourself divided," she says. "It takes a lot out of you."

The job also has tapped her deepest emotions as a black woman, forcing her to withstand occasional blows to her racial pride.

When one black couple rejected an infant because he was "too dark," Ms. Best, whose complexion is the darkest in her own large family, sought refuge in a relative's adage: "The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice."

Faith fuels her efforts. "Kids never end up where they're not supposed to be," Ms. Best says.

When she arrived at Adoptions Together last year, Ms. Best established Building Black Adoptive Families. Patterned after the centuries-old African-American custom of informal adoption within extended families, the program embraces the concept of family in the broadest sense of the word.

Not all adoptive parents need to be the young married couples agencies typically look for, Ms. Best says. Single men and women, those with modest incomes and those no longer considered young can make qualified adoptive parents.

"We have this new and burgeoning group, especially single professional women," Ms. Best says. "[They realize] Mr. Right probably is not going to come along. They look at the reality of the black community, the studies impacting black males, and think, 'What do I do? Do I wait? Do I try artificial insemination?' "

For such women, adoption is a viable option.

Denise H. Lloyd, an animated 45-year-old insurance executive, is the kind of woman Ms. Best is talking about. She recently adopted a baby girl and broke off an engagement because her fiance didn't want to deal with the child.

"Men come and go," Ms. Lloyd says with a dismissive wave. "Children stay."

On this day, Ms. Best is paying a post-placement visit to Ms. Lloyd at her Washington business. Nestled in a crib in Ms. Lloyd's large corner office is Kai Elon, born 10 days earlier at Baltimore's Mercy Hospital.

Ms. Lloyd and her staff are elated with Kai Elon's sweet presence. Her godfather, a colleague of Ms. Lloyd's, beams foolishly when the baby rests in his arms. And Ms. Lloyd's own mother, the office receptionist, couldn't be more proud.

"Hi, Munchkin, give Mommy a belch," Ms. Lloyd murmurs to Kai Elon after a feeding.

Visits like this one are the bright spots in a job that can be frantic and depressing. In less than a year, Ms. Best has had her share of frustrations. The lowest point was taking back a baby she'd placed when the teen-age birth mother, whose parental rights had not yet been terminated, changed her mind.

On her way to retrieve the child, Ms. Best was so heartsick that she had to pull her car off the road and vomit. When she arrived at the would-be adoptive mother's home, she and the woman sat on the living room floor and cried.

Life's 'imbalance'

Ms. Best must cope as well with the anxiety of birth mothers upset about the dearth of families interested in adopting.

"Black birth moms feel envious that our white birth moms can review a family," Ms. Best says. "It's the imbalance in life. Some people will have too much, and some will never have enough."

Her goal is to give black birth parents that same chance to choose a family by "having our own pool of parents. She's had some success -- same-race placements for black infants have more than doubled since she arrived -- but the pressure is always on.

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