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Study of '94 Adoption Law Finds Little Benefit to Blacks

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A 1994 federal law that paved the way for more white adults to adopt black children has left many parents ill-equipped for the situation and has not achieved the goals of giving black children an equal chance of being adopted and recruiting more black adoptive parents, a study concludes.

The study, being released today, found that the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) did succeed in increasing the rate of black adoptions, but only by a small margin, and that black children still disproportionately end up in temporary foster homes.

Because the law forbids discussion of race during the adoption process, it prevents social workers from preparing white parents for the challenge of raising black children in a largely white environment, said the report, titled "Finding Families for African American Children: The Role of Race and Law in Adoption From Foster Care." It cited studies showing that dark-complexioned children in white homes tend to struggle with identity issues related to skin color, self-esteem and discrimination that their new parents are often not equipped to handle.

"To say that we need to be colorblind is an arguable notion," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York, which commissioned the study. "It's a wonderful notion in a perfect world. But most of us would agree that we're not there yet."

"Color consciousness does not mean you're going to do race-matching with kids," Pertman said. But "if you're white and you're adopting a black kid, maybe you could use a little coaching on that issue as you help your kid grow up. The law says you can't be trained to do that. Are we giving parents the optimal tools to succeed in bringing up their families?"

The report reflects concerns expressed by black social workers during a furious debate in the mid-1990s, while Congress enacted the law. The National Association of Black Social Workers opposed MEPA, arguing that white adoptive parents, no matter how loving, would have difficulty dealing with the racial issues their children would confront.

"We always felt race was important in placement decisions, and families need to be prepared for the impact of race on their decisions," Toni Oliver, a spokeswoman for the association, said last week. "For families to be denied, that has a detrimental impact."

But the president of the National Council for Adoption said the report is incorrect in asserting that MEPA requires a colorblind approach to transracial adoption. "Some state agencies have misinterpreted and executed the policy this way, but . . . guidelines are quite clear in allowing certain considerations of race," said the group's president, Thomas C. Atwood.

"There are additional challenges and responsibilities involved in parenting transracially adopted children. This is no revelation. I do not know of anyone who argues against this point," Atwood said. "However, the vast majority of transracial adoptive families are well aware of this reality and handle it quite well."

When MEPA was being considered, the debate over transracial adoptions split between people who held Atwood's view and those who sided with black social workers. Critics such as former senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), a MEPA sponsor, said the social workers favored "race-matching," a position she called extremist when so many black children were up for adoption.

Before the passage of the law, black children typically languished in foster care an average of nearly three years. Alarmed by those numbers, Harvard University sociologist Randall Kennedy castigated the social workers during that time, saying that there is "no justification for racial matching" and that the notion that same-race parents could better help children cope was dubious.

The law had not significantly changed the situation, the new report found. In 2006, black children represented 15 percent of the nation's children yet made up 32 percent of the half a million in foster care. Black children still waited longer for adoption than white children, and the adoption rate for black children barely rose from 17 percent of those awaiting adoption in 1996 to 20 percent in 2003.

The law did result in significant improvement in research into interracial adoption, the report said, including studies showing that black children adopted by same-race parents do not tend to experience race-related self-esteem issues as sharply as black children adopted by whites.

The report cited a 2006 study of dark-complexioned adoptees in white homes, which found that "for many children . . . a white skin color was so desirable that they rubbed themselves with white body lotion, cream or white chalk, or, alternatively, tried to wipe off the brown color."

Dark-complexioned children adopted from outside the United States were often similarly troubled. Children "adopted from Sri Lanka and Colombia who expressed the wish to be white or to have been born into the family had more behavior problems," the new report said.

A 2003 study quoted an adoptee living with a white family in a predominantly white community as saying: "If we lived in a different neighborhood, I'd feel more comfortable. People wouldn't ask me so many questions or call me names. I feel a little more comfortable around people who are my color because I know they won't call me names."

Despite these issues, the new report, written by Susan Livingston Smith, program and project director for the institute, supports interracial adoption. It concludes that the practice "itself does not produce psychological or social maladjustment problems in children."

But, Smith wrote, "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."

The report urged Congress, which is reconsidering the law, to require better assessments of whether prospective parents can fulfill a child's needs, including those related to race. It also recommended racial coaching for parents who are willing to receive it. Finally, the report said the Department of Health and Human Services should enforce the law's provision calling for more efforts to recruit black adoptive parents.

"It's in the best interests of the child," Pertman said.

Atwood said the recommendation "is both misleading and dangerous." He said it would create a giant loophole that would make placement decisions "vulnerable to subjective and ideologically driven considerations."

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