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Race and the Business
of Domestic Private Adoption

by Beth Hall, Joe Kroll, and Ruth McRoy, Ph.D.

Published in the Fall 2010 issue of Adoptalk

Beth Hall is the director of Pact, An Adoption Alliance (www.pactadopt.org) and co-author of Inside Transracial Adoption. An adoptive and birth father, Joe Kroll has been the North American Council on Adoptable Children’s (www.nacac.org) executive director since 1985. Ruth G. McRoy, Ph.D. is a highly respected researcher in the areas of child welfare, adoption, and diversity. She is also the Donahue and DiFelice Endowed Professor at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work and NACAC’s board president.

Despite all we have learned about prioritizing children’s best interests, the private adoption system often seems to favor white adults’ interests over those of children of color. Such practices both devalue children of color and discourage families of color from becoming adoptive resources.

The two black mothers quoted below express frustration at being discounted by the private adoption system:

Looking on the Internet, it is upsetting to see how few families of color are visible. I know we are out there. It is important to me as an African American woman that people see us as viable families and resources. Instead, ads are filled with offers of discounts if we are “willing to take” a fully African American child. Don’t they understand [that]…that child is my first choice? It angers me that they would devalue me and my children based on our race….I could never work with an agency that discounts in that way—even if it means paying more. Annette, Daniel and Eli’s adoptive mom

They told me…to look at white families for my baby because it is hard to place black children unless they are mixed. But I felt that my child needed parents who were the same race. …[W]hen I found out they were charging the parents more depending on the race of the child,…I left and found the family of my dreams.  Shayla, Ezra’s birth mother

Some adoption agencies use racist practices under the guise of serving children, while actually serving more affluent adult clients’ needs and the agency’s bottom line.1 Even adoption professionals who strive to put children’s needs first are not always equipped to explore racism in their practices—they may lack experience working with populations of color, or may not see any need to appeal to or attract families of color.

Two Key Issues
Some adoption agencies’ fee structures assign children different values according to their race. When a couple seeking a white baby is charged $35,000 and a couple seeking a black baby is charged $4,000, the situation is reminiscent of a practice outlawed nearly 150 years ago—the buying and selling of human beings. According to one study of parents (mostly white) who adopted through a private adoption facilitator and/or agency, higher demand for non-African American babies than African American babies “is equivalent to…at least $38,000 in adoption finalization costs.”2

Many licensed agencies use sliding fee scales based on the race of the waiting child or do not disclose their fees up front. Race-based fees perpetuate a racist value system and too often allow well-intended white practitioners to believe they are serving hard-to-place children through discount pricing. In this way agencies can avoid the question of how well their practice is really serving those children and if their reduced fees are even keeping qualified families from adopting.

Money should be left out of the equation when children, especially children of color, are involved. As researcher Ruth-Arlene Howe wrote recently, “Today when children are voluntarily relinquished shortly after birth, their adoption is more like a business transaction than a child welfare service.” She also cautions that some “assert that the growth and privatization of baby adoptions, especially involving African American and other biracial or mixed youngsters of African descent, sets the stage for an anachronistic recommodification of African Americans.”3

The fairest fee structure is a sliding scale tied to the applicant family’s income. Families who are best qualified to care for a specific infant should be encouraged to apply, confident in the knowledge that their income will not prevent them from being considered. Some larger and smaller agencies throughout the country already use income-based fee scales, but everyone should.

Income-based fee schedules would also resolve the dilemma of explaining to birth parents and adoptees of color that they are literally not worth as much as a white child. As adoptive parent Dawn Friedman wrote on her parent blog:
The uncomfortable truth was that the fee break [for our child] made a difference to our budget….But I can’t lie to my daughter—even by omission—and the racist fee structure is now part of her adoption story. 4

Initial placement concerns too often overshadow outreach and support. Across the nation, independent agencies, attorneys, and facilitators recruit expectant mothers through the Yellow Pages and other forums. Some of these same professionals are creating African American placement programs that offer services to expectant mothers, but do little to recruit African American families or prepare white families to parent children of color.

For many African Americans, the very thought of paying for a child is repugnant. The fact that black infants are less expensive than white infants is simply insulting from a valuation standpoint, and the idea that there is a different price tag tied to different infants smacks of baby selling and treating infants more as saleable goods than unique human beings. Agencies that hope to attract families of color need to gain a far better understanding of how to effectively work with communities of color.

Adoption professionals who value diversity and making the system accessible to families of color know income-based fees are a means to recruit more qualified families for infants of color. Not only are race-based fee structures unethical and offensive, they poorly serve children of color by discouraging well-qualified parents from accessing the system that is supposed to benefit children who wait.

By the same token, agencies should provide white parents who adopt black children with the education and support they need to adequately prepare their children to live as people of color in our society. Ill-equipped parents who see no reason to address racial identity issues are destined for a rough ride. Transracially adopted adults are clear: if they could not live with same-race parents, they needed chances to access places and people who could help them explore their identity and culture and evaluate how they fit into their families and community.

Nationally, the federal Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services has set a precedent that requires public agencies to institute a colorblind approach to parent preparation. As a result, many transracial adoptive parents lose out on the specialized education and support they need and crave.5 At the same time, the government neglects to enforce the mandate that agencies recruit families whose racial and ethnic make-up reflects that of waiting children. Through this dichotomy, our federal government promotes transracial placements.

And, though these laws apply only to public agencies, their lack of enforcement underscores societal discomfort with rules that disadvantage white people. It seems that striving to place children of color with parents of color is somehow an affront to white families rather than a legitimate service to children who need families.

Conclusion
In a perfect world, agencies would not charge fees to place children, so there would be no financial incentive to cater to more wealthy clients or appraise a white child differently from a child of color. The focus would instead be where it should be: on the unique needs of each child who awaits placement.
We must also remember that placement is just the beginning of the adoption journey. Adoptive parents must receive the encouragement and education they need—about race, development, and adoption-related issues—to successfully adopt and help their children grow into healthy adults who have a clear sense of identity and family, as well as certainty in their intrinsic worth.

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Endnotes
1  McRoy, Ruth G. 1989. “An Organizational Dilemma: The Case of
Transracial Adoptions.” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 25(2): 145–160.
2   Baccara, Mariagiovanna, Allan Collard-Wexler, Leonardo Felli, and Leeat Yariv. 2010. Gender and Racial Biases: Evidence from Child Adoption. London: Center for Economic Policy Research.
3   Goodwin, Michele Bratcher, ed. 2010. Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families. Cambridge University Press.
4   Friedman, Dawn. 2008. “Half-price Adoptions: Should We Tell Our Kids?” http://loveisntenough.com/2008/05/09/half-price-adoptions-should-we-tell-our-kids/.
5   McRoy, Ruth G., Maryanne Mica, Madelyn Freundlich, and Joe Kroll. 2007. “Making MEPA-IEP Work: Tools for Professionals.” Child Welfare 86 (March/April): 49–66.


North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
970 Raymond Avenue, Suite 106
St. Paul, MN 55114
phone: 651-644-3036
fax: 651-644-9848
e-mail: info@nacac.org
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