Overcoming Adoption’s Racial Barriers
Nick Mebruer and daughter Maggie. A judge at first blocked the Mebruers’ effort to adopt a black child
When Martina Brockway and Mike Timble, a white couple in Chicago, decided to adopt a child, Ms. Brockway went to an adoption agency presentation at a black church to make it clear they wanted an African-American baby.
Their biological daughter, Rumeur, 3, is accumulating black dolls in preparation for her new brother or sister. Black-themed children’s books like “Please, Baby, Please” by the filmmaker Spike Lee and his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, share shelf space with Elmo and Dr. Seuss.
But the couple’s decision provoked some uneasy responses. One of Mr. Timble’s white friends asked, “Aren’t there any white kids available?”
Ms. Brockway’s black friends were supportive. “But,” she said, “I also sensed that there was maybe something they weren’t saying.”
Mr. Timble cut in. “Like maybe they were thinking, ‘What do these people think they are doing?’ ”
Ms. Brockway and Mr. Timble are among a growing number of white couples pushing past longtime cultural resistance to adopt black children. In 2004, 26 percent of black children adopted from foster care, about 4,200, were adopted transracially, nearly all by whites. That is up from roughly 14 percent, or 2,200, in 1998, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect at Cornell University and from the Department of Health and Human Services.
“It is a significant increase,” said Rita Simon, a sociologist at American University, who has written several books on transracial adoption. “It is getting easier, bureaucratically and socially. With so many people going overseas, people are also increasingly saying, Wait a minute, there are children here who need to be adopted, too.”
The 2000 census — the first in which information on adoptions was collected — showed that just over 16,000 white households included adopted black children. Adoption experts say there has been a notable increase since 2000.
The reasons for the increase are varied. The Multiethnic Placement Act and its amendments prohibited federally financed agencies from denying adoption based on race. The foster care system has sharply changed in recent years and now includes financial incentives for finding more adoptive families.
The combination of legal changes and greater embracing of multicultural families — Americans have adopted more than 200,000 children from overseas in the past 15 years — have lessened resistance from both blacks and whites. The long wait for white children and the high costs of international adoptions — typically $15,000 to $35,000 — also play a role.
And agencies are offering courses to help adoptive parents enter the process with more cultural openness and awareness.
Ms. Brockway and Mr. Timble decided to adopt after a physically and emotionally wrenching first pregnancy — their daughter was delivered at 25 weeks. They did not want to deal with the long wait for a white infant, and adopting from overseas did not appeal to them.
“Some people see Asian or other ethnicities as closer to white, more acceptable, easier,” said Ms. Brockway, a teacher. “That’s just not us. We feel like we have the open arms and minds to be a good match to an African-American child.”
In practice, however, decisions about adoption placements are still influenced by racial considerations, many families say. Since 1994, white prospective parents have filed, and largely won, more than two dozen discrimination lawsuits, according to state and federal court records. Many more disputes have been settled in arbitration.
The loaded jumble of viewpoints and anxieties related to transracial adoptions of black children are complex and often contradictory.
Rhetoric around the issue has softened considerably since the National Association of Black Social Workers, in 1972, likened whites adopting black children to “cultural genocide.” The group removed the genocide reference from its policy statement in 1994, but it still recommends same-race placements. And organizations like the Child Welfare League have argued in recent years that while race need not be the primary consideration in placements, it should not be disregarded.
Many blacks still worry that white families cannot equip black children to navigate the country’s complicated racial landscape.
“Adoption, like everything else in this country, gets filtered through the lens of race,” said Joseph Crumbley, a black social worker in Philadelphia and a consultant on transracial adoptions. “For blacks, it is about how comfortable can whites be in dealing with the issue of race when their race is in conflict with the race of the child.”
At the same time, some blacks view international adoptions by whites as a slight to black children in need of permanent and stable homes. “I can’t help but wonder why Angelina and Brad can’t adopt an African-American baby here with so many in need,” said Ishia Granger, 36, a black friend of Ms. Brockway.
More than 45,000 black children were waiting to be adopted from foster care in 2004. There are no reliable national figures for private adoptions.
Advocates of black adoption criticize adoption agencies as not doing enough to recruit black families. But one strategy agencies use, in part, to recruit black families — reducing fees for African-American adoptions — seems to some critics like a literal devaluing of black children. And while current adoption laws impose penalties on federally financed agencies that discriminate, there are no penalties for failure to identify black adoptive families.
Both black and white families, at times, feel discriminated against. Charlene White, a black adoptive mother in Richmond, Va., said that when she and her husband, Malachi, began the process in 1997, a counselor asked them about drug and criminal records — questions a white couple they knew who were also adopting were not asked.
“It was definitely because we were black,” Ms. White said.
A white judge initially denied Nick and Emily Mebruer’s petition to adopt a black child, ruling that the Mebruers, a white couple who live in rural Lebanon, Mo., were “uniquely unqualified” to parent a black child because of their limited interaction with black people and culture. The ruling was overturned, and their daughter, Maggie, is now 3.
“We felt like it was an indictment of us and our entire community,” said Mrs. Mebruer, a family doctor, as Maggie played with a black doll in the center of the living room and danced to the Australian children’s group the Wiggles. “It was assuming that we didn’t have the desire or the capacity to learn.”
The Mebruers did not explicitly set out to adopt a black child. But when the Kansas City office of Catholic Charities called one spring afternoon to say that an infant was available and that they needed the couple’s decision within hours, the race of the child, Mr. Mebruer said, was secondary.
White families adopting black children are increasingly learning that the “love is enough” approach to adoption that families bring to the process is often met with skepticism.
Psychologists, researchers and adoptees themselves say many children adopted transracially in past decades suffered from philosophies focused on assimilation, with little or no acknowledgment of racial and cultural conflict.
Robert O’Connor, 39, who was raised by a white family in Rush City, Minn., recalled his struggles growing up in a small town with few other blacks. Throughout his youth, he said, he felt awkward around other blacks. He did not understand black trends in fashion or music or little things like playing the dozens, the oral tradition of dueling insults.
“I always felt like I had this ‘A’ on my forehead, this adoptee, that people could see from a far distance that I was different,” said Mr. O’Connor, who now researches transracial adoptions as assistant professor of social work at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.
Today, some agencies are working to avoid mistakes of the past. Ms. Brockway and Mr. Timble are adopting through the Cradle, a Chicago agency that gives transracial adoptive parents extensive counseling as well as a course on “conspicuous families.”
One exercise meant to assess parents’ comfort level in confronting racial issues lists a roster of stereotypes including, “lazy,” “passive” and “athletic,” and asks parents to assign them to the race or ethnic group to which they are often applied.
Judy Stigger, a counselor at the Cradle and herself a white adoptive mother of two black children, now adults, makes the issues tangible to prospective parents by relating personal stories. She tells about the time when her son, then a teenager, reached into her purse at a McDonald’s and a clerk called security; and the time when her daughter began crying while looking through congratulatory cards sent by family and friends when they took her home.
“Was I supposed to have been white?” her daughter, then in the third grade, asked. Ms. Stigger had never noticed that the children on all of the cards were white.
“It’s about getting people to realize that they should not be thinking about being, as one 8-year-old put it to me, ‘a white family with a weird child,’ but a multiracial family,” Ms. Stigger said. “The way most white people use the term ‘colorblind’ is just silly. We want to create color aware families, not colorblind families.”
Ms. Brockway worked for years in predominantly black schools and now tutors children in foster care. Mr. Timble, who owns a promotional printing business, has a cousin who has adopted four black children. They live in an ethnically diverse section of northwest Chicago.
But after working through the adoption process, Ms. Brockway said, they are considering moving to a neighborhood with more black professionals and finding a more diverse church.
For some adopting families, public reaction defies assumptions. Katherine and Ryan Liebl were dining recently in the Oak Park neighborhood of Chicago, where they live, when a black family asked them where they had adopted their son, Matthew, now 8 months old.
They responded that he was from Chicago and steeled for disapproval. Instead, they said, the family cheered: “Yeah, domestic baby. Good for you!”
The Liebls, who adopted through the Cradle, were chosen by black birth parents from profiles submitted by black and white adoptive families. The same birth parents had previously chosen a black couple, Dana and Drayden Hilliard, to adopt two older children. So the Liebls’ son Matthew has two biological siblings being raised by a black family in a nearby suburb.
The two families have become friends and are raising the children as siblings, getting them together about once a month.
The Hilliards said they were surprised that the birth mother chose a white family. “But wherever a child can find love, black, white or purple, that is all right with me,” said Ms. Hilliard, 39, a program analyst. “I do feel that if parents adopt transracially they owe it to their child to keep them connected with their heritage. But we are happy to be a resource for that.”
The two families do not know for sure what attracted the birth mother to them, but they said worldliness seemed to have trumped race. The birth mother commented to each that their expressed love for travel would offer her children a chance to explore the world that she never had.
“We feel like we struck gold,” said Mr. Liebl, 31, a lawyer. “Matthew has these siblings that he will know and this level of contact between us that is authentic and not forced.”
In the personal letters that the Cradle requires adoptive parents to submit to birth parents, those adopting transracially are asked to include examples of how they would bring diversity to a child’s life.
Ms. Brockway said it had been a difficult exercise. She wants to include pictures with black friends, but not too many. She wants to write about her black students, Mike’s black relatives and co-workers, their activities in black communities — but not too much.
“I don’t want to appear over the top, trying too hard, like we think we’re cool because we have black friends.” she said. “And who is to say what any birth mother will think is important or how any one views or defines diversity and culture. These things are different for everyone.”