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Denying Access to Black Families Hurts Children

from Summer 2002 Adoptalk

by Diane Riggs

In June, findings from the 2002 National Adoption Attitudes Survey became public. The study, sponsored by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in cooperation with the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, tracks views about adoption, and identifies concerns that affect Americans’ willingness to adopt. When it comes to adopting children with special needs, the study found that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to seriously consider the option than white Americans. Unfortunately, a variety of barriers keep black families from adopting and compromise the well-being of children in foster care.

Barriers to Adoption

Zena Oglesby, director of the Institute for Black Parenting, asserts that black families face many of the same obstacles they did 10 years ago. Most agencies still operate under practices and guidelines developed from a white middle-class perspective, and outside of large cities, most public agency staff members are white. Some white workers are uncomfortable venturing into black parts of town to recruit families, and some black families are equally reluctant to approach a white agency.

With good reason, many black families link public agencies with unwanted intrusions–times when agencies monitor welfare recipients, revoke licenses, and remove children. Like much of the public, relatively few black families know much about the adoption side of public agencies, and many who do think they would be not approved to adopt due to their living situation, income, or background.

When black families do contact public agencies, their fears are often confirmed. Ruth Amerson, head of Another Choice for Black Children, a private black adoption agency in North Carolina, claims that the greatest barrier to adoption is workers’ belief that black families "don’t have what it takes" to adopt from foster care.

Since the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) was passed in 1994, workers have also struggled to understand what placement practices are now legal. High rates of worker turnover and fear of government reprisal hamper understanding of the law. Some workers even believe that MEPA prohibits agencies from placing black children with black families.

Consequences

The most obvious consequence of denying black families access to children is that fewer black children will find permanence. As of March 31, 2000, more than 53,000 black children were waiting for adoption, and in federal fiscal year 2000 more than 16 percent of black waiting children had been in foster care for more than six years (versus 8 percent of white children).* Around the country, black children and other children of color have historically spent more time in foster care than their white counterparts.

Teens who then age out of foster care often find themselves ill-prepared to successfully transition into productive adulthood. In March, the Chapin Hall Center for Children released a report titled Employment Outcomes for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care. In their study of California, Illinois, and South Carolina youth during the mid-1990s, researchers concluded that those who age out of care are underemployed and earn wages well below the poverty line. In Illinois, 41 percent of the black youth who aged out of care had no earnings from ages 17 to 20. Just 12 percent of the white youth leaving care in Illinois faced the same problem.

Black children placed transracially into white foster or adoptive families may also find themselves struggling to develop their racial identity. Black children who are completely isolated from the black community often lose cultural connections that give them a clear sense of who they are. They may not learn the survival skills for being a black person in a racist society. As adults, members of their birth community may even reject them for being "too white" while white strangers see only their color.

What Families Can Do

Ruth Amerson’s advice to black families who want to adopt is simple. "Put on strong armor and be prepared for an uphill battle," she says. When possible, prospective adopters should connect with black families who have successfully adopted to learn more about getting through the process. After that, families need to advocate for themselves every step of the way. Home studies may seem unnecessarily invasive and judgmental, but families must keep the end goal in mind: to provide a home for waiting children.

Once black families successfully adopt, they can help other black families by participating in agency recruitment efforts and training sessions. Within support groups, they can also prepare prospective adopters to handle the more challenging elements of obtaining approval to adopt.

What Agencies Can Do

In accordance with MEPA, agencies must recruit and retain families from the communities where children in care originate. To recruit black families, agencies must have a presence in the black community–through staff members of color or a physical space–and work collaboratively with community organizations. White agencies may want to publicly acknowledge that their practices have not been sensitive to black families, and ask the black community to help them improve their procedures.

To retain families of color, workers must look first at family strengths rather than finding reasons to reject a family. Does an applicant have a GED? Maybe she knows what it’s like to struggle in school and is well-suited to coach a child who is having a hard time with academics.

Common courtesy and reasonable accommodations help too. Make sure your agency is open evenings and weekends and that orientations and trainings are scheduled during these times. Offer bits of information when prospective adopters need it, instead of all at once. Treat every person with respect, whether he or she is qualified to adopt or not. Word of mouth about rude and disrespectful workers and agencies travels far faster than word of good workers and agencies.

Ongoing, formal training for workers is also key. Every worker and administrator should fully understand how MEPA affects family recruitment and the placement of children of color. Agencies also need training on cultural diversity and competency, and refresher courses about good case management practices.

Conclusion

Children of color enter care in disproportionately high numbers. In response, agencies must work to find and approve foster, foster-to-adopt, and adoptive families that reflect the racial and ethnic background of children in care. Good families of color are willing and able to adopt some of the 53,000 black children in care who need forever families. Let us all think carefully about the ways in which we limit their access to children, and open every door we can.

 


* Data obtained from information distributed by Penelope Maza, PhD of the Children's Bureau at the March 13, 2002 Child Welfare Conference in Washington, D.C.

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phone: 651-644-3036
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e-mail: info@nacac.org
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