Transracial Adoption Revisited – What the Research Says
The Evan Donaldson Adoption Institute released a new report titled “Findings Families for African American Children: The Role of Race & Law in Adoption from Foster Care”, authored by Susan Smith, Ruth McRoy, Madelyn Freundlich, and Joe Kroll. I love the Donaldson Adoption Institute. Their website is one of the first places I go when I am looking for research on particular adoption related topic. The authors of this report are some of the biggies in the field, and the same could be said for the list of organizations that are supporting this report. But, all admiration aside, the tone of this report troubles me. Keep in mind that the focus of this report is on transracial adoption from US foster care, but the issues raised would apply to transracial domestic newborn adoptions and transracial international adoptions.
I summarize the report more fully on the Adoption Research page of this website, but here are the highlights. The report summarizes the research into transracial adoption and how the kids and families fare over time. The early research (1970’s and 1980’s), based primarily on black kids adopted as infants into white families and kids adopted internationally (mostly Asian), found that transracially adopted children compared favorably to children placed in same-race families. The main findings of the recent, “more rigorous” research were summarized in this report as follows:
- Transracial adoption in itself does not produce psychological or social maladjustment problems in children
- Transracially adopted children and their families face a range of challenges, and the manner in which parents handle them facilitates or hinders children’s development
These finding support what most of us would expect: Transracial adoption poses special challenges to families, but children and families can and do thrive in these placements if parents are prepared to handle the issues raised in raising a child of a different race. The third major finding of the recent research on transracial adoptions– children in foster care are at special risk and need families up to the challenge– is also no surprise. I’ve read a good deal of this research and agree with the report’s summary.
The report makes several recommendations, the primary ones being:
- Amend the federal law governing adoptions from foster care to permit race to be considered as one factor (but not the sole factor) in selecting parents for children from foster care, and allow the preparation of parents adopting transracially.
- Enforce this law’s requirement to recruit families who represent the racial and ethnic backgrounds of children in foster care, and provide sufficient resources to support such recruitment.
OK, so far, so good. These recommendations seem reasonable and firmly grounded in the research and common sense. I especially support the idea of providing more money and energy to recruiting black and Hispanic families to foster and adopt kiddos from foster care. But I begin to get uneasy when I leave the executive summary of the report and move to the body of the report, the bulk of which focuses on the harms of transracial adoption, and why it should be avoided. Although the Report acknowledges that research has not shown that transracial adoption is harmful to kids, they seem to focus on the parts of the research that address the challenges of transracial adoption. Most important, they gloss over what is to me the main point: yes, transracially adopted kids have added challenges, but these challenges are minor by comparison to the challenges they would face if they remain in foster care.
Perhaps a little background would be useful at this point in the discussion. The federal law that governs the adoption of children from foster care (other than Native Americans) is the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994, as amended by the 1996 Removal of Barriers to Interethnic Adoption Provisions, altogether known by the rather bulky acronym MEPA-IEP. Prior to MEPA-IEP, the reality for many kids of color who ended up in foster care was pretty dismal. The testimony at the Congressional hearing for MEPA and IEP were full of stories of black kids growing up in foster care because social workers were reluctant to place them with white families. There were numerous examples presented of African American kids being removed from their foster families who had raised them from birth and wanted to adopt them because the foster family was white. MEPA-IEP basically said that social workers couldn’t use race as a criteria for denying a kid a home. The premise was that kids need families more than they need matching families.
Should Race Ever Be a Factor in Adoption Placement?
Now, as always, the devil is in the implementing. According to the new Adoption Institute report, many states have interpreted MEPA-IEP to mean that race can never be a factor in deciding on adoptive placement. They cite the down-right bizarre interpretation that MEPA-IEP prohibits social service agencies from even training prospective adoptive parents on the potential issues they may face as a transracial family, and on how to best raise a child of another race. I’ve read MEPA-IEP, and how someone could come up with that interpretation is beyond me and is one of the reasons that governmental bureaucracies scare me spitless.
But the Adoption Institute report seems to undermine the essence of MEPA-IEP and that seems equally extreme. The way it was before was a travesty for children of color, with many being raised in foster care rather than in real families because a family of their race was not readily available. Children need parents above all else, regardless of whether their skin tones match. This is common sense and it is also supported by all the research-new and old, as even this report acknowledges. My fear is that if we aren’t careful, race will again become THE factor, rather than one of the factors.
If you drop all the regulatory and legal BS, it seems so logical. We don’t live in a color blind society and transracial families face additional challenges. These challenges are not insurmountable, but the issues of race do have to be addressed. All things being equal, a same-race family is preferable to adopting across racial lines.
An Adoption Example
It’s easier to explain my point with an example. Let’s say we have an eight year old African American boy that the psychologist and social worker believe would be best placed in a two parent family with no younger children. (Not a particularly uncommon situation with children who have been abused.) Two families have expressed interest in adopting him. (Unfortunately, this is an uncommon situation since older black boys are the hardest to place, and there is usually not a line waiting to adopt them.) One is a white couple with older children, and the other is a black couple with older children. Both are experienced loving parents. This seems a no-brainer to me—the child should go with the African American family. But what if the only same-race placement option at the time the child enters care is with a single mother with two children younger than eight. This is less clear to me and the answer would depend on how strongly the psychologist and social worker feel that our eight year old needs a father and no younger siblings. Assuming that they had good reasons for stating these needs, I’d lean toward the white couple absent extenuating circumstances. I also wouldn’t make our boy wait in foster care while a same race couple could be found. And if our boy lands in a white foster home and bonds with that family over time and they want to adopt him, well, that one is a no-brainer to me as well. They have become his family and, again, absent extenuating circumstances, the child deserves not to be yanked away from his family just because he is a different race.
My fear is that if we scrap MEPA-IEP, we will go back to children languishing in foster care while a same race family is being sought. I don’t think this is in any child’s best interest. The research is clear that transracial adoption by itself is not harmful to children. Training, education, and on-going support can help these families and children succeed. If MEPA-IEP is not being interpreted to allow this, then change the interpretation, not the law.
Guardianship is Not the Same as Adoption
I am particularly troubled by the Adoption Institute’s suggestion that same-race guardianship be considered equal to adoptions. I don’t get it. I understand that placement with extended family is often best for children, but this extended family needs to be in the form of an adoptive placement. Kids need parents. A guardian is better than nothing, but not as good as a forever parent. Why should children of color have to settle for second best? If it is money that is standing in the way, why not argue for upping the adoption subsidy.
Research and common sense are aligned with what’s in the best interest of children. The birth family must first have help to heal since it is usually in the child’s interest to be raised by his biological parents. But, let’s face it, this is not always possible; not all parents are capable of parenting and not all families can heal. An adoptive placement—a permanent, real, forever, even-when-you’re-obnoxious home—should be found. The extended family is the first place to look. If that’s not possible, or not in the best interest of the child, then find an adoptive family. This was the premise of MEPA-IEP.
Race is one factor amongst many that should be considered when looking for the best adoptive placement. Children need permanence, and they need it as soon as possible after being removed from their biological families. They should not have to wait long periods of time for a same-race family and they should definitely not have to forego having a family because a same-race placement couldn’t be found.