Black Adoption Myths and Realities
from Summer 2005 Adoptalk
by Sydney Duncan, MSW, ACSW
From 1969 to 2001, Sydney Duncan held the leadership role at Homes for Black Children in Detroit, Michigan—the first specialized African American adoption agency in the U.S. Since its inception, the agency has facilitated more than 1,700 adoptions, and inspired the growth of many other African American agencies. The mother of three (one who was adopted), Ms. Duncan has also become a highly respected author and speaker. Today she is president of Sydney Duncan Consulting and a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Children’s Justice.
Over the past 36 years, while promoting adoption opportunities for African American children, I have come to realize the depth of myths and stereotypes about black families and adoption.* Misconceptions flourish today largely because of negative and distorted media images, as well as the racial divide that continues to separate black and white communities. My purpose here is to challenge and try to correct some of the misperceptions about African Americans and African American families that greatly influence how we are viewed in relation to adoption.
Reality: African American families vary greatly
While some may believe that all African American families are alike, it is important to realize that the African American community is very diverse. In fact, social and economic disparity within the black population is greater today than ever before and the chasm between the ends of the spectrum is growing steadily wider.
For most African American families, life is reasonably good and, for some, it continues to improve. For the most part, their children are staying in school, staying out of trouble, and seizing opportunities to attend college and continue on to make their mark in the world.
By contrast, a minority of African American families live in poverty in urban ghettos with little hope of change. Conditions have worsened there, and prospects for a better life are dimmer than ever. In a sense, these families have never overcome the damage of slavery, Jim Crow, and subtle forms of discrimination that still exist.
In between are families who border on poverty, but eke out a living through low paying service industry jobs, and maintain crucial community and church ties. These working poor families, often headed by single women, have achievement values and high aspirations for their children—many of whom grow up and graduate from college. Unfortunately, however, too many of these families are losing children to the streets and sons to violence.
Reality: African American families are strong and stable
Contrary to the pervasive image of broken black families struggling in urban slums, the majority of African American families, let me repeat, are well and thriving. Less than 140 years out of slavery, and only two generations removed from the legal racism of Jim Crow laws, most black families earn incomes above the poverty line. Though generally less affluent than their white counterparts, fully 40 percent of African Americans have climbed into the middle and lower middle classes in the decades since the 1960s’ civil rights movement.
Where do stable black families come from? Many are descended from those who came north to work in factories and steel mills during the first half of the 20th century. Jobs available to black workers were often physically difficult, demeaning, and didn’t take advantage of their skills, but the pay was better than what the rural south offered. Once these workers’ families obtained an economic foothold in their new communities, they reached back to help other family members and friends move north, and started planning for their children’s future.
Others in this stable majority, often through parents’ sacrifices, found better educational and employment opportunities in the post civil rights era of the 1960s. They are the beneficiaries of desegregation and an expanding economy.
Historically, African Americans’ desire to give the next generation better opportunities, even at their own expense, allowed many to progress and start to realize the American dream. I think, for instance, about my grandmother who in 1910 worked as a live-in servant making $2.50 a month. She used every dime of her wage to provide my mother with a good education. This initial sacrifice, made more than 90 years ago, is part of the foundation and values on which my achievements and the achievements of my children are predicated.
Reality: African American children enter foster care because of poverty and drugs
The common denominator in African American families whose children swell the ranks of foster care is poverty, not abuse as many think. According to a study published by Leroy Pelton in 1989 and confirmed by more recent studies, a family’s lack of income is the single best predictor of child removal and out-of-home placement.
How a people fare has a lot to do with the economy and opportunity. Ample opportunity and a good economy help to shape positive attitudes and behaviors. In the same way, a poor economy and the absence of alternatives erodes the human spirit, destroys hope, and impairs one’s ability to resist the lure of chemicals that temporarily relieve a user from the constant misery of despair.
When well-paying manufacturing jobs disappeared in the 1980s and early 1990s and drug use in depressed urban centers began to rise, poor black neighborhoods were completely destabilized. Families already dispirited by poverty watched drug traffickers moving into vacant houses and could see no light at the end of the tunnel for themselves or their children. No viable support systems were available to lift them out of poverty or remove them from the toxic environment of drug trafficking and addiction.
As we might expect, due to the disparity in incomes and opportunities between whites and blacks, and between different groups of African Americans, almost all black children we see in the child welfare system come from a minority of African American families who are in the most dire straits.
Reality: The African American community responds to its children's needs
Due to the disproportionately large number of black children in foster care, some believe that the African American community is not dedicated to providing care for the neediest of its children. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
For more than two centuries, African American families have supported children in need by providing informal child care and foster care, and by welcoming relatives’ or friends’ children permanently into their families. The tradition of taking in needy or abandoned nieces, nephews, and grandchildren exists to this day, as evidenced by the high rate of informal and formal kinship care and adoption.
When Homes for Black Children formed 36 years ago, traditional child welfare agencies put almost every black child who entered the child welfare system into long-term foster care. Newborns were considered unadoptable (many workers did not believe any other African American family would want them) and workers did little to reunify children and birth parents.
At the same time, most African Americans did not even know these children were in the system. Very few worked in child welfare and white workers generally knew very little about stable African American families or their potential as resources for the children. When the first story about Homes for Black Children and the need for adoptive families was published, there came a deluge of responses from African American families interested in adopting.
Inspired by Homes for Black Children’s initial success, a solid network of specialized agencies, founded and led by African Americans, has responded to our children’s needs in the past few decades. Based in Los Angeles County, the Institute for Black Parenting is the largest of the black adoption agencies. It was founded in 1976 by a local chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers under the leadership of Zena Oglesby and Cynthia Willard.
In 1980, Father George Clements started the first One Church, One Child program. Father Clements, who recognized the importance of and strength in black church traditions, rallied the African American religious community to promote adoption one congregation at a time. Through a federal grant awarded in 2003, the National Network of Adoption Advocacy Programs (NNAAP) was formed to promote and enhance faith-based adoption efforts modeled on the One Church, One Child program.
Other black agencies include the ROOTS Adoption Agency in Atlanta, Mississippi Families for Kids, Another Choice for Black Children in North Carolina, and REJOICE! Inc. in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. ROOTS was incorporated in 1992 under the able leadership of Toni Oliver, an expert in training and preparing families for adoption. Mississippi Families for Kids is headed by former NACAC board president Linda West, and the nationally acclaimed Another Choice, which opened in 1995, has the dynamic Ruth Amerson at the helm. REJOICE!, a newer agency formed in 1998, is already having success placing and supporting teens.
Reality: African American families are willing and able to adopt
At the time Homes for Black Children was formed, the prevailing belief in child welfare was that African American families were poor and already had as many or more children than they could afford. For some, that belief remains. We, however, knew that there were black families who were financially, emotionally, and spiritually capable of adopting. We knew about families who postponed having children to build a solid economic foundation for their lives, and then found they could not give birth.
In our first six months of operation, more than 700 families from across the U.S. called or wrote to us about adopting. In our first year, with a staff of six, Homes for Black Children placed 135 African American children in adoptive homes—more than the other 13 metro Detroit child welfare agencies combined.
These days Homes for Black Children, now very capably led by Jacquelynn Moffett, focuses much of its work on family preservation and prevention efforts. Even so, the adoption program—which Linda Lipscomb (formerly Whitfield) heads—still averages 40 completed adoptions per year, including placements for older children, sibling groups, and children in residential settings. In addition, about 20 approved African American families are continually waiting, desperately hoping to adopt young black children.
Other African American adoption agencies have similar pools of waiting families, so I am deeply saddened when I hear of agencies sending young black children to other countries for adoption because they believe there are no African American families who would adopt them. I am even more saddened to know that someday these children may grow up to believe that no one who looked like them wanted to take care of them.
The perpetuation of this myth, I believe, is the result of looking at adoption as a service to families (who must then bear the brunt of the cost) rather than a service to children. Put another way, it is all about the money.
Almost all forward thinking agencies strongly believe that adoption is a service to the child and, as such, the cost must be a public responsibility. Adoptive families are resources for children, and when we move away from this understanding, children start to become commodities. Given African Americans’ history of having been bought and sold during slavery, the thought of an agency selling (or a family buying) a black child today is understandably abhorrent. To protect our children, adoption must be viewed, and financed, as a service to the child.
Overcoming Myths about Black Adoption
Slavery and Jim Crow are difficult facts of life for American descendants of Africans. But to define us only in relation to the oppression we suffered, or those who became casualties of that oppression, is to ignore our vibrant life, strengths, and values. These are our realities:
- Most African American families are making a decent life for themselves and their children. They find support and comfort in family, community, and church.
- When black children enter foster care, extreme poverty and drug use are the most common underlying causes.
- Recognizing the plight of African American children without parents, black families have been responding to and helping children for centuries. Over the past three plus decades, a network of African American adoption agencies has also dedicated itself to finding homes for children of color.
- When adoption is presented as a service to children, and recruitment efforts involve and reach sensitively into the black community, African American families will come forward to adopt.
There are yet many challenges that African American families and children must confront and overcome. But the broader community must not ignore black families’ strength, determination, and capacity to care for African American children. Our dreams live in our hopes for our children, and I believe that our families’ strengths will continue to fuel new and healing child welfare practices for children of color.
List of African American Adoption Agencies
* The author uses "black" and "African American" interchangeably.
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