• U.S.

Adoption in Black and White

6 minute read
Jill Smolowe

Beverly and David Cox never expected to make a permanent home for the baby girls they call by their initials, M.W. and T.W.; they intended only to provide foster care until the sisters’ schizophrenic mother or another relative assumed responsibility. But that was five years ago, before the Coxes purchased a swing set, stocked their home in suburban Delafield, Wisconsin, with The Lion King, Pinocchio and Aladdin videos, and learned to distinguish M.W.’s tastes (macaroni and cheese) from T.W.’s (jelly sandwiches, hold the peanut butter). It was also before the Milwaukee County Human Services Department asked the Coxes to adopt the girls, now 5 and 6, and the couple readily agreed. But on June 14, M.W. and T.W. were removed by court order to the home of an aunt. Since then the Coxes have been allowed to see the children only once, on July 28, when they all dined together at a rib joint under the strict supervision of a caseworker. “We raised these girls for five years,” Beverly says indignantly, “and now I can’t even take them to the bathroom.”

The reason, the Coxes believe, is that the girls are black and the Coxes are white. “The issue is biology, not race,” says Jeff Aikin of Human Services, which changed its position after the aunt demanded custody of the girls. But as Beverly remembers it, the aunt, who wants to care for the children without terminating her sister’s parental rights, said, “I don’t want the kids raised or adopted in a white home.” The Coxes have appealed the removal order–and phoned Hillary Clinton’s office seeking support. Two weeks ago, the First Lady ended her new syndicated newspaper column with a plea for fewer restrictions on interracial adoptions, writing that “skin color [should] not outweigh the more important gift of love that adoptive parents want to offer.”

Of the roughly 440,000 children who currently languish in America’s foster-care system, 20,000 are available for adoption, most of them older children between the ages of 6 and 12. Among the adoptable children, 44% are white and 43% are black. But 67% of all families waiting to adopt are white, and many of them are eager to take a black child. The hurdles, however, are often formidable. Though only three states–Arkansas, California and Minnesota–have laws promoting race matching in adoptions, 40 others favor the practice.

Many of these guidelines date from the early ’70s, when the National Association of Black Social Workers condemned interracial adoption, eventually branding such placements “cultural genocide.” Last year the NABSW softened its stance to make transracial adoption a third option behind preservation of biological African-American families and placement of black children in black homes. But this racial bias has long been opposed by many adoption advocates, who have recently found unlikely allies among conservative Republicans averse to any form of racial preference and eager to move children off government support.

This unusual coalition is pressing for new federal guidelines to make the adoption process color-blind. The welfare-reform bill approved by the House includes a financial penalty for states that delay or deny an adoption because of race, but the Senate has yet to debate the issue. Until the two chambers reach a compromise, the operative law is the Multiethnic Placement Act, which allows state agencies to consider race when making placements.

Meanwhile, the real-life consequences of the same-race requirements have emerged in a number of court battles. Most prominent has been the case of Lou Ann and Scott Mullen of Lexington, Texas, who filed suit in April to adopt two black brothers, ages 2 and 6, whom they have raised since infancy. Though Texas law bars race from being the determining factor in adoption, the Mullens charge that caseworkers delayed the adoption in order to seek an African-American home. Their case is bolstered by a separate class action against the state of Texas, filed jointly by lawyers at the conservative Institute for Justice in Washington and three liberal Harvard law professors–Elizabeth Bartholet, Randall Kennedy and Laurence Tribe–that aims to have race-matching practices declared unconstitutional. Argues Tribe: “Leaving African-American kids in foster care rather than allowing them to be adopted by loving parents inflicts very serious harm on children.”

Bill Mandel couldn’t agree more. In 1991 he and his wife became foster parents of Robyn, a three-day-old, crack-addicted black infant who had been abandoned on San Francisco’s Mission Street. For more than a year, the Mandels were never contacted by county social workers. But when they tried to adopt Robyn at age 14 months, the county sought to remove the child from their care, citing the lack of a racial match. The Mandels obtained a restraining order, then in May 1994 won the right to adopt. Mandel has little patience for those who worry about the child’s sense of identity. “Every parent has to address that,” Mandel argues, “regardless of race.”

Rita Simon, a sociologist at the American University in Washington, tracked 200 parents and children from interracial families for 20 years. In 1971 she found the youngsters understood their race was different from that of their parents, but did not seem bothered by the fact. Twelve years later, the kids–then teenagers–perceived their parents as “very, very committed” to informing their children about black issues. “They would say, ‘My God, not every dinner conversation has to be about black history,'” says Simon. When she returned again in 1991, the grown children told Simon, “We’re not Oreos. We may not share the same taste in music or even dress like children who live in the ghetto, but that doesn’t make us any less black.”

Harvard’s Kennedy notes that there is no consensus among African-American parents on how to raise a child. “I’m sure there’s a difference between the way Jesse Jackson raises his kids, Louis Farrakhan raises his kids and my parents raised me,” he says. Ruth-Arlene Howe, a law professor at Boston College, counters that efforts to ensure race-blind adoptions are “a major, major assault on black families.”

Try telling that to the Coxes, who worked hard to instill a sense of black identity in M.W. and T.W. They enrolled the girls in an interracial play group and an integrated Lutheran church, and were planning to move from their white suburb to a racially mixed neighborhood. But all that is on hold now, as the Coxes worry–and wait

–Reported by Wendy Cole/Delafield, Tammerlin Drummond/Miami and Sharon E. Epperson/New York

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