Transracial Adoption

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transracial adoption

When this term is used, it generally refers to the adoption of black or biracial children by white adoptive families, although the term properly refers to any adoption across racial or ethnic lines, including what are probably the most frequent transracial adoptions in the United States-adoptions of Asian children by white parents.

It is unknown how many U.S. transracial adoptions occur because the federal government stopped collecting such data in 1975; however, it is known that black and biracial children who are infants and older and who need adoptive families are considered to be children with SPECIAL NEEDS by many professionals in the adoption field and defined as such by the state.

Many social workers believe a family of the same race is the best place for a child to grow up despite the federal laws prohibiting such racism. (See MULTIETHNIC PLACEMENT ACT.) The illegal discrimination apparently continues. But because black children usually wait longer than do white children for an adoptive family, some groups, including the NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR ADOPTION, believe that permanency, rather than racial match-up, should be paramount. According to Department of Health and Human Services Statistical (AFCARS) data, tens of thousands of minority children are waiting for adoptive families, and many have remained in foster care for at least two years.

It should be noted that the INDIAN CHILD WELFARE ACT OF 1978 severely restricts transracial adoption of Native American children by imposing American Indian requirements rather than state requirements on the adoption of American Indians by non-Indians.

Background of Transracial Adoption

Initially considered a liberal and positive act in the late 1960s and early 1970s, adoptions of black children by white parents plummeted after the National Association of Black Social Workers issued a strong position against transracial adoption in 1972.

The National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) is evidently still very opposed to transracial adoptions. The positions of NABSW and NASW do not reflect the views of Americans, white or black, as polls cited by Simon, Altstein and Melli show. In both 1971 and 1991, 71% of African Americans who were polled answered "no" to the question, "Should race be a factor in adoption?"

Lawsuits have been filed by white foster parents wishing to adopt their black foster child and denied by the state social services department. Similar suits have been filed in situations in which women who have some Indian heritage but who have never lived on a reservation want to place their children with white families. One case in the Maryland courts as of this writing is that of the child Cornilous Pixley. Pixley's mother, Katrina, was convicted of murdering his sister but the courts ruled the child should be removed from a white woman's custody and she should not be allowed to adopt him or have permanent custody. Cornilous's biological father favored the child staying with the white woman.

In cases involving divorced women who have subsequently married men of another race, lower courts have taken custody of the child away from the mother and granted custody to the father on the basis of race. Higher courts have almost always given the child back to the mother. Courts have decreed that race should not be a determining factor in deciding who shall have custody of children; for example, Palmore v. Sidot (1984) was a U.S. Supreme Court case that disallowed racial considerations. In this case, a white father tried to take custody of a child away from his ex-wife, who lived with her black boyfriend in a black neighborhood. The mother prevailed.

Recruitment of Black Adoptive Parents

Some people have concluded that blacks are uninterested in formal adoptions or that they adopt at a much lower rate than whites. Census Bureau data reveals this is not valid. (See ADOPTIVE PARENTS.) But blacks would have to dramatically increase their rate of adoption to "absorb" all the WAITING CHILDREN because blacks are heavily overrepresented in the foster care system. It must also be noted that many blacks consider INFORMAL ADOPTION to be a satisfactory solution to the problem of a child needing a family and have already "taken in" all the children they can cope with. On the other hand, some opponents of transracial adoption allege there are plenty of black families available to adopt, a claim not backed up by research.

Some black social workers insist that recruitment of black adoptive parents is inadequate and that white social workers impose standards used for whites on black prospective parents; consequently, many blacks are ineligible by virtue of age, marital status, income and other criteria, despite the many waiting black children. Limiting criteria with respect to the age of adopting parents, children in the home already and other conditions are often applied to white adoptive parents because of a more limited number of infants and toddlers needing families. Critics argue there is no "baby shortage" of black infants and toddlers, thus age and income criteria for black prospective adoptive parents should be re-examined. For example, an Ohio blue ribbon task force has suggested that the shortage of black families is so acute that black felons should be approved as prospective adoptive parents.

According to a 1987 article in Ebony, "because of obstacles Blacks face when contacting adoption agencies, many begin the adoption process, become exasperated and then just forget about the whole thing."

The author says, however, that even those who oppose transracial adoption believe a white adoptive home is better than a foster home or an institution. "But opponents vehemently stress that such placement should be a consideration only after every possible effort has been made to place the child in a same-race family."

Organizations including ONE CHURCH, ONE CHILD, founded in 1981 by Rev. George Clements, a black Catholic priest, have been created to recruit qualified black adoptive parents and have successfully recruited numerous, although not enough, black parents.

Arguments Against Transracial Adoption

Authors Owen Gill and Barbara Jackson have summarized key arguments against transracial adoption. The authors believe there are two primary categories of objections: "criticisms based on discrimination against the black community" and "criticisms based on the anticipated experiences of a black child in a white family."

The criticisms based on discrimination against blacks in general include such views as blacks supplying healthy children to childless white couples who can't find enough Caucasian infants to adopt. In addition, say the authors, critics believe "trans-racial adoption takes from the black community its most valuable resource which is its children."

Fears for children themselves include the idea that the child will feel different and unaccepted, that he will not be able to create and maintain relationships with grandparents and extended family members and that the child will be unable to relate to members of the black community.

Racial Identity

A strong criticism of transracial adoption is that a white family could not give a black child an appropriate sense of his or her racial identity. The argument is that the child will feel inferior and different and will have low self-esteem. Studies have not appeared to bear this view out. The professional social work leadership and the child welfare establishment are united in opposing transracial adoption.

Support for racial and ethnic discrimination in adoption and foster care placement is not limited to the NABSW. The association is a subgroup of the National Association of Social Workers. In March 1998, Leslie Doy Long wrote in Social Work, the journal of NASW, "Transracial adoption of an African-American child should only be considered after documented evidence of unsuccessful same race placements has been reviewed and supported by appropriate representatives of the African-American community." In 1994, when Congress debated a relatively weak bill mandating some form of transracial adoption, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the NABSW, the Children's Defense Fund and the Child Welfare League of America all argued for policies promoting "minority parents for minority children," or same-race adoption.

Despite the evidence presented by Simon and Altstein, the Search Institute and Marietta Spencer supporting transracial adoption, some highly respected leaders of the social work community are still not convinced. In "five key points" concluding their chapter on transracial adoption, Triseliotis, Shireman and Hundleby fail to reflect the findings of research on two major issues: adjustment of transracially adopted persons as adults and the children with special needs. Triselitois et al. say instead, "There is, as yet, very little research concerning older, special needs transracial placements."

The essence of the argument against transracial adoption is that the children will grow up to be adolescents and adults without a strong sense of their racial identity. But Simon, Altstein and Melli report, ".?.?. we found that, both during adolescence and later as adults [emphasis added] the TRAS [transracially adopted individuals] were aware of and comfortable with their racial identity." Thus, if the outcomes for individuals who were transracially adopted are positive, then the sole remaining argument is a political one-that persons adopted across racial lines are somehow "lost" constituents of one or another partisan, racist, nationalistic or tribal voting bloc.

Attorney James Bowen published an article on a proposed "Afro-American Child Welfare Act," presumably modeled on the INDIAN CHILD WELFARE ACT.

Supporters of transracial adoption point to studies that indicate black children placed in white homes are generally well-adjusted and happy.

In a test measuring racial identity, children in both traditional adoptive families (black children in black families) and transracial families were tested at age four and again at eight to determine if they felt a positive sense of their racial identity.

Researchers Joan F. Shireman and Penny R. Johnson used the "Clark Doll Test" to determine the level of racial identity in transracially adopted children. The preschool transracially adopted children showed a marked positive identification as black: 71% of them identified as black compared to 53% of the traditionally adopted preschoolers. By age eight, the groups were virtually identical. Reseachers concluded that racial identity was constant for the transracial group and a later development for the traditional group.

Because the majority of transracial adopters lived in primarily Caucasian neighborhoods, the researchers speculated whether or not racial identity would remain the same or change as the trans-racially adopted children grew older and into adolescence.

Longitudinal studies have provided the best vindication for transracial adoption. Simon, Allstein and Melli are not the only researchers to find good adjustments among transracially adopted children. Writing in the Albany Law Review about adoption research published by the Search Institute, Barbara McLaughlin noted, "in one recent study of transracial adoptees, children placed in families of a different race in most of the emotional indicators scored similarly to or higher than children of racial adoptions. On a host of measures, African-American and Asian children adopted across racial lines do as well and often better than non-adopted peers."

Longitudinal Studies

Researchers Rita Simon and Harold Altstein have extensively studied transracial adoption in longitudinal studies.

The largest longitudinal study of children adopted from Korea by Americans, by Marietta Spencer, a consultant on post-pdoption services from St. Paul, Minnesota, had similar findings. In her study of 162 persons, Spencer reported that their results were uniformly positive. The age range of those in Spencer's research was 18-32 years, with the majority in their mid-20s.

Preparing for Transracial Adoption

The approach, as of this writing, used by some critics of transracial adoption is that MEPA is being complied with and that workers are not discriminating based on ethnicity. The claim of some is that everyone who is white and wants to adopt transracially should demonstrate that they have the "cultural competency" to parent a child of another ethnic group.

The debate on transracial adoption is likely to continue as increasing numbers of black and other minority children enter the foster care system. Native American Children, because of the impact of the indian child welfare act, are the most overrepresented (in terms of their population) in the foster care system.


R. Richard Banks, "The Color of Desire: Fulfilling Adoptive Parents' Racial Preferences Through Discriminatory State Action, Yale Law Journal, January 1998.

Melinda Beck with Elisa Williams, "Willing Families, Waiting Kids," Newsweek, September?12, 1988, 64.

James S. Bowen, "Cultural Convergences and Divergences: The Nexus Between Putative Afro-American Family Values and the Best Interests of the Child," Journal of Family Law 26 (1987-88): 487-543.

Beth Brophy, "The Unhappy Politics of Interracial Adoption," U.S. News & World Report, November?13, 1989, 72-74.

Lise Funderberg, "Who Should Adopt Our Children?" Essence, January 1998.

Owen Gill and Barbara Jackson, Adoption and Race: Black, Asian and Mixed Race Children in White Families (London: Batsford Academic and Educational, 1983).

Walter Leavy, "Should Whites Adopt Black Children?" Ebony, September 1987, 76-82.

Jacqueline Macaulay and Steward Macaulay "Adoption for Black Children: A Case Study of Expert Discretion," Research in Law and Sociology 1 (1978): 265-318.

Barbara McLaughlin, "Transracial Adoption in New York State," Albany Law Review 60, 2 (1996).

National Committee For Adoption, 1989 Adoption Factbook (Washington, D.C.: National Committee For Adoption, 1989).

Shari O'Brien, "Race in Adoption Proceedings: The Pernicious Factor," Tulsa Law Journal 21 (1986): 485-498.

R. Rosnati and E. Marta, "Parent-Child Relationships as a Protective Factor in Preventing Adolescents' Psychosocial Risk in Inter-Racial Adoptive and Non-Adoptive Families," Journal of Adolescence 20 (1997).

Joan F. Shireman and Penny R. Johnson, "A Longitudinal Study of Black Adoptions: Single Parent, Transracial, and Traditional," Social Work 31 (May-June 1986): 172-176.

Rita J. Simon and Howard Altstein, Transracial Adoptees and Their Families: A Study of Identity and Commitment (New York: Praeger, 1987).

Rita James Simon, Transracial Adoption (New York: Wiley, 1977).

Paul Stubbs, "Professionalism and the Adoption of Black Children," British Journal of Social Work 17 (1987): 473-492.

Triseliotis, Shire and Hundleby, Adoption: Theory, Policy and Practice (Herndon, Va.: Cassell, 1997).

Find more information on transracial adoption

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