Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA)

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Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA)

Since 1972, when the National Association of Black Social Workers first issued a public statement opposing TRANSRACIAL ADOPTION, controversy has raged about placing children with families across ethnic and racial lines. Concerned about the impact of this policy on children waiting for families and for its broader message about racism in our society, organizations such as the National Committee to End Racism and the NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR ADOPTION moved to action. They published studies, advocated with the courts and state legislatures, and testified before Congress, urging that federal law be changed to ban discrimination in adoption.

One U.S. senator took on this cause as his own personal mission, vowing to see the law changed before he left office. And, true to his word, Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) succeeded in attaching his bill, the Metzenbaum Multiethnic Placement Act, to another law moving through the Senate. His bill essentially required that those receiving federal funds could not delay or deny the placement of a child in adoption or foster care because of considerations of race or ethnicity.

Two years later, frustrated by the continuing unwillingness of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to issue regulations reflecting the spirit of his law, and receiving complaints about continuing discrimination, Senator Metzenbaum went back to Congress. He asked that the only bill ever to bear his name be repealed or amended to close loopholes in the law. Senator Metzenbaum's effort was successful and in 1996, MEPA was amended by the Removal of Barriers to InterEthnic Adoption (IEP) provisions, which were attached to another piece of legislation.

MEPA-IEP has been in place since 1996, but discrimination still continues, according to Senator Metzenbaum, who testified about the need for HHS to enforce his law in a 1998 hearing before the Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.

As of this writing, MEPA-IEP does not apply to the INDIAN CHILD WELFARE ACT, a piece of federal legislation that allows discrimination in placement of children who tribes wish to claim jurisdiction over. Only children with Indian "ancestry" are deprived of the protections of MEPA-IEP.

In their 1998 report to Congress, the General Accounting Office, which had reviewed compliance to MEPA in California, noted that "Under the amended law, agencies can no longer routinely assume that placing children with parents of the same race is in the best interests of a child. The amended legislation also put child welfare agencies on notice that they are subject to civil rights principles banning racial discrimination when making placement decisions." Also noted was the challenge to change routinely accepted social work practices of race matching that were no longer lawful.

The first challenge is for agencies to continue to change long-standing social work practices and the beliefs of some caseworkers. The belief that race or cultural heritage is central to a child's best interests when making a placement is so inherent in social work theory and practice that a policy statement of the National Association of Social Workers still reflects this tenet, despite changes to the federal law. The personal acceptance of the value of the act and the 1996 amendment varies among the officials and caseworkers, in our review. Some told us that they welcomed the removal of routine race-matching from the child welfare definition of best interests of a child and from placement decisions. Others spoke of the need for children-particularly minority children-always to be placed in homes that will support a child's racial identity. For those individuals, that meant a home with same-race parents.


A Guide to the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994, as Amended by the Interethnic Adoption Provisions of 1996 (Washington, D.C.: American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, 1998).

"Foster Care: Challenges Faced in Implementing the Multiethnic Placement Act," United States General Accounting Office Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Human Resources, Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives, September?15, 1998, GAO/T-HEHS-98-241.

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