Families Become More Diverse Through Adoption

Janine Zeitlin, News-Press (Fort Myers, Florida), November 19, 2008

When they first arrived home, Roxanne Roberts’ biracial adopted children believed they, like their new mother, were white.

Her son, then 2, used to cry in dispute when she told him otherwise. To teach them about their heritage, Roberts checked out library books. The pair, now 8 and 9, learned to call themselves “biracial butterflies.”

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Roberts and her partner of 12 years, Kenneth Roberts, who is black, are caring for seven black and biracial children ranging from 17 years to 3 weeks old, as well as a 24-year-old, who is white and has cerebral palsy, in their cozy but crowded six-bedroom home.

Transracial adoptions have become more common in Southwest Florida as prejudices about mixed-race families dissipate. From July 2004 to August 2008, 74 families have adopted transracially, according to the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, which contracts with the Department of Children and Families to care for foster children in this region and find them homes.

Under state law, black and biracial foster children are tagged as special needs. Research shows minority children wait longer than white children for adoption, are over-represented in the child welfare system and at higher risk for not finding a home.

{snip} About 77 percent of the ready-to-adopt foster children in this region are not white. {snip}

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“Our numbers for transracial adoptions are pretty healthy for our area. We’re constantly breaking down any barriers,” said Nadereh Salim, the network’s CEO. “Adoption doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process. You are blind to all that. For all intent and purposes, the kids could be green.”

However, a national study released in May questioned a federally mandated color-blind approach to adoption. It argued race must be one consideration given a child’s needs surging from racial and ethnic differences.

The executive director of the New York-based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute has been surprised by resistance to the report by backers of the current law, which bars the use of race, color or origin to deny or delay a child’s placement.

“Even if they think their approach is a better one, our common purpose is the same: to improve the odds of kids getting homes,” wrote Adam Pertman, the organization’s executive director, in an e-mail. “Isn’t it worth at least considering something that might work better?”

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It’s also hard to find black families willing to adopt, Seals said. Research points to cultural and social barriers in recruiting more minority families to foster and adopt children, and the adoption report noted there has been no enforcement of the federal requirement to expand the pool of minority foster and adoptive parents.

Seals closes many cases in which black foster children are taken in by relatives as guardians who don’t want to adopt them, although the dollars they could reap to support the child are far lower than that of an adoptive parent.

“The relative does not want to adopt the child because they want their daughter or their niece to still be the mother,” he said. “They have a much more informal social welfare system than white folks do.”

Challenges of adoption

Of the 93 adoptions the network completed in 2007-’08, 23 children were categorized as black and 70 were white, Hispanic or other, which percentage-wise nearly reflected the network’s breakdown of black children in care.

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The study, which was endorsed by seven national child welfare groups, analyzed the 1994 federal law, and found it has not led to equity in adoption rates for children. Black children still stay in foster care an average of nine months longer than white children, it stated.

Multiple forces may be at work. Black children are over-represented in the child welfare system. In Florida, a 2007 federal government oversight study found black children are over-represented at a rate of almost twice their proportions in the population. In explanation, it pointed to higher rates of poverty, hurdles in tapping support services and racial bias and difficulties in finding permanent homes.

For adoptive parents in Southwest Florida, race didn’t figure into their decisions, but they considered the implications.

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Foster children said they want stable families, no matter the color. Stephen, 12, who is white, and Tracey, 14, who is black, are up for adoption in Lee County.

“I stay with different races a lot,” Tracey said. “I like it. It’s not a big deal as long as you end with somebody who’s nice.”

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Among the concerns Salim has fielded in transracial adoptions is white parents who seek help in caring for their black child’s hair.

Before going through a transracial adoption, experts recommend people also mull questions of racism and how to instill cultural pride.

Rebecca McGuire, executive director of the Southwest division of the Children’s Home Society of Florida, an organization that handles private adoptions, recommends parents think critically about race before adoption.

“You’re bringing a child into a village and your network needs to be OK with it and you need to be OK if they aren’t,” she said, noting a white woman who adopted a black baby and eventually returned the child because her family struggled with it.

Some families want their adopted children to look like them and whites can be unwilling to adopt black children, she said.

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