Transracial adoption policies and practices: the US experience.

Author:McRoy, Ruth

According to the Queen's speech to Parliament on 9 May 2012, the UK Government will introduce a new Children and Families Bill that will 'stop local authorities from delaying adoptions in the hope of finding a perfect racial match for the child, if there are couples waiting to adopt' (Ramesh, 2012). This proposed policy, in response to recent data from England, suggests 'black children are three times less likely to be adopted than white children'. This troubling statistic continues to cause concern as the Government seeks to find a solution, including strategies that may result in an increase in the number of transracial adoptions. Specifically, the Government has made it clear that it is unacceptable for a child to be denied loving adoptive parents solely on the grounds that the child and adopters do not share the same racial or cultural background.

The concern about increasing the likelihood of permanency through adoption for minority ethnic children in the UK is not new. Between 2008 and 2009, approximately 2,700 white children were adopted compared to only 410 mixed-race children and only 90 black children in the UK. Moreover, disproportionately high numbers of minority ethnic children are in the care system (Owen and Statham, 2009). Approximately one in ten children in care is black and one in nine children in care comes from a racially mixed background (Doughty, 2010). Black, mixed-race and Asian children typically wait to be adopted on average three years longer than white children (Pidd, 2010).

In 2010, then Children's Minister, Tim Loughton, noted that:

Too many children languish in care because social workers hold out for the 'perfect match' rather than deciding whether the 'would-be' adoptive parents would provide a good home. (Pidd, 2010)

Currently the law requires social workers to give 'due consideration to a child's ethnicity, culture, religion and language' (Adoption and Children Act 2002, Section 1(5)) in placement decision-making. Many believe that by shifting to a new policy and practice framework which includes promoting transracial adoptions, the chances of children from minority ethnic backgrounds being adopted will increase. However, others suggest that attention is needed in understanding the reasons why so many black children enter the care system, why so few of them are adopted and what can be done to increase the number of minority ethnic families adopting children in care.

As in the US, transracial adoptions have been very controversial in the UK. For example, in 1983 the UK Association of Black Social Workers and Allied Professionals stated:

The most valuable resource of any ethnic group is its children. Nevertheless, black children are being taken from black families by the process of the law and being placed in white families. It is, in essence, 'internal colonialism' and a new form of the slave trade, but only black children are used. (Sissay, 2012)

Reflecting on how this position statement affected his life, Ben Douglas (2011), who had been in the child welfare system in the UK, recalled:

Three decades ago, a team of social workers tried to ruin my life. Armed with a conviction as absolute as it was deluded, they fought tooth and nail for two years to prevent a couple from adopting me. Their objections had nothing to do with moral fibre, financial stability or--perish the thought--the love the prospective parents had to offer. No, it was because I was black and they were white.

Both in the US and the UK, these practice and policy dilemmas have been discussed and considered for years as the politics of race and ethnicity have continued to evolve and be debated (Kirton, 2000). Currently, the English Government is seeking to establish a policy that will minimise the consideration of a child's ethnicity and, in consequence, promote transracial adoptions of minority ethnic children in the UK. Similar debates occurred in the US prior to and after the passage of the Multi ethnic Placement Act of 1994 and the Interethnic Provisions passed in 1996. This article explores factors leading up to the passage of this transracial adoption legislation in the US and provides a contemporary look at current practices and outcomes for children in the US child welfare system.

Adoption practices in the US: historical background

In the US, during the 1920s, adoption agencies were established to help child less white married couples adopt healthy white infants. Many of the infants available for adoption were relinquished by young white unmarried women (McRoy, 1989). However, by the 1960s and 1970s, with the availability of effective contraception, legal abortion and increased social acceptability of single parents raising children, adoption agencies faced a dramatic decrease in the number of healthy white infants available for adoption (McRoy and Zurcher, 1983). By the early 1990s, only about three per cent of white unmarried mothers placed their infants for adoption compared to 31.7 per cent in the 1960s. However, the desire for couples to adopt continued to increase, as approximately two million white couples sought to adopt children (especially infants) by the 1990s (McRoy, 1994).

A historic look at the situation of African American children reveals a very different picture. Services for African American children were separate and unequal during that time period (Billingsley and Giovannoni, 1972) and vulnerable and orphaned African American children were cared for within the family or by fictive kin. Unlike white unmarried mothers, very few single African American mothers placed their babies for adoption. Most children were cared for within the extended family and kinship networks were a protective factor for many older children who were unable to be raised by their birth families (Billingsley and Giovannoni, 1972; Testa, 1997; Schwartz, 2011). Also, African American children who received public child welfare services were more likely to be offered foster care services rather than adoption (McRoy, 2004b). This was one of the reasons why African American children ended up remaining in care longer than white children, as they often did not receive opportunities for a permanent family through adoption.

A variety of other factors may have led to fewer placement options for African American children needing adoption. For example, African American families who sought to adopt children often faced racial discrimination from child welfare service providers, creating a barrier to being approved as adoptive parents. Often there were very few African American staff working in traditional adoption placement agencies, and many white staff lacked training in recruitment and retention as well as service delivery to African American families. These factors led to a short supply of approved African American prospective adoptive families for children in care, exacerbated by the belief by some adoption agency staff members that African American families were not interested in adopting (Lakin and Whitfield, 1997; McRoy et al, 1997). Due to the limited options for placement, African American children were frequently labelled 'hard to place'. As time progressed, there continued to be more white prospective adopters than white children available for adoption. By 1972, there were approximately 119 white families approved for adoption per 100 white children waiting to be adopted, whereas the figures for 'non-white' approved adoptive homes were approximately 50 per 100 'non-white' waiting children (Smith, 1972; McRoy and Zurcher, 1983).

The growing over-representation of black children in foster care and the focus on strategies to enhance interracial relations during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, led many to suggest that transracial adoptions with white families might be a plausible solution (Simon et al, 1994). However, this led to much debate and some resulting practice and policy changes. For example, in 1958, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), a private organisation of approximately 400 private and public child welfare agencies that developed and issued standards for adoption practice, 'cautioned that children with the same racial characteristics as their families can be more easily integrated into the community' (McRoy, 1989, p 149). However, ten years later, in 1968, the League altered this statement, suggesting:

In most communities there are families who have the capacity to adopt a child whose racial background is different from their own. Such families should be encouraged to consider such a child. (Child Welfare League of America, 1968, p 34)

During this period, the nation was trying to move away from racial segregation and even the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League called for consideration of transracial adoptions (Benet, 1976; McRoy, 1989). Between 1967 and 1972, over 10,000 black children were transracially adopted (Costin, 1979).

However, not all groups readily accepted this development. For example, in 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) issued the following strong statement:

Black children belong physically and psychologically and culturally in black families where they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future. Only a black family can transmit the emotional and sensitive subtleties of perceptions and reactions essential for a black child's survival in a racist society. (National Association of Black Social Workers, 1972, pp 2-3)

The NABSW...

To continue reading