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NACAC Seeks MEPA/IEP Changes

from Winter 2007 Adoptalk

In the 1980s, the case of Reece Williams, an African American boy killed by his same-race adoptive parents stunned child advocates. In October 1992, 60 Minutes aired a report highly critical of race-matching practices that prevented African American foster children from finding permanent families in a timely fashion. These events inspired Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum to champion legislation to end state policies and practices that strictly matched parents and children by race, and in October 1994, President Clinton signed Metzenbaum’s Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) into law.
MEPA contained three main provisions—two that barred racial discrimination, and a third that provided for “diligent recruitment of foster and adoptive families that reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of children in the state for whom foster and adoptive homes are needed.” The discrimination provisions prohibited federally-funded foster care and adoption agencies from delaying or denying placements due to race, color, or national origin and preventing any person from becoming a foster or adoptive parents based solely upon race. When making placements, agencies could consider race and culture as one of several deciding factors.
Little more than five months later, amid incendiary claims by the National Committee for Adoption and its allies that white parents were being unfairly kept from adopting black infants, a movement to remove MEPA’s race consideration “loophole” rapidly gained support. In an August 1996 omnibus bill, the Small Business Protection Act, provisions to alter MEPA were silently signed into law without any hearings or recorded statements. Known as the Interethnic Placement Act (IEPA)—and now as MEPA’s Interethnic Provisions (IEP)—the current law prohibits any consideration of race.

Statutory Language to Improve MEPA/IEP

  • A child’s best interests should always be paramount in placement decisions.
  • In any foster care or pre-adoptive placement, preference shall be given to placement with a child’s relative or fictive kin when those families can safely meet the child’s needs.
  • States, counties, and other agencies with responsibility for children in foster care must recruit and retain prospective foster and adoptive families from communities that reflect the racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic background of children in their foster care system.
  • Placing agencies must fairly and equally consider these recruited families for foster and adoption placements.
  • Placing agencies must assess a prospective foster or adoptive family’s ability to meet a child’s needs—including racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic needs—when making a foster or adoptive placement and, in placement decisions, must consider the child’s cultural, racial, ethnic, and linguistic needs as well as prospective parents’ capacity to address other needs the child may have.
  • When making transracial or transcultural foster or adoption placements, state, county, and other agencies with responsibility for children in foster care must provide training and other supportive services to ensure that foster and adoptive parents are adequately prepared and supported to meet their children’s racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic needs.
  • A foster or adoptive placement should not be delayed or denied due solely to the race, color, national origin/ethnic background, or primary language of either the child or prospective parent.
  • Financial incentives or penalties will encourage state, county, and other agencies with responsibility for children in foster care to comply with provisions listed above:
    • agencies that do not comply shall lose a portion of their Title IV-E foster care or adoption assistance funding; or
    • the federal government will develop an incentive program to reward agencies for recruiting families that reflect the racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic background of children in their foster care system, and for placing children with families who can meet the children’s racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic needs

During the debate over race-matching in adoption and foster care, no one ever questioned placing white children with white families. The prevalent policy was too entrenched, and the assumption of  children being “better off” in white families was widely accepted. Those who campaigned for a colorblind child welfare system failed to recognize, however, that about 50 percent of black children under age two were being transracially adopted despite a very willing and qualified pool of black adoptive families. Transracial adoption was also common for Latino babies and toddlers, even though that culture values caring for its own children.
Those who argued to eliminate race from placement decision-making claimed the change would reduce the overrepresentation of children of color in the child welfare system. Unfortunately, this has not happened and transracial adoption has primarily involved children under age five. Older African American youth continue to wait in foster care for permanent families.
Federal MEPA guidance removes race and culture from the adoption equation. As Wade Horn, the Assistant Secretary for Children and Families explained in a March 2003 Memorandum:

State child welfare agencies…must ensure that they do not take action that deters families from pursuing foster care or adoption across lines of race, color, or national origin. Whether subtle or direct, [such] efforts…cannot be tolerated. 

Federal regulations about international adoption practice, by contrast, focus on children’s best interests and assert that parents’ need to be prepared for adoption “outweighs any concern that the [required parent training] will discourage families from adopting.”

Unfortunately, MEPA regulations also emphasize penalties for considering race, while ignoring the provision requiring agencies to find prospective parents who reflect the diversity of children in care. With the threat of a lawsuit or fine looming overhead, some agencies have regrettably little incentive to recruit as widely and intensively as they should.

Because NACAC believes MEPA/ IEP is hampering agencies’ efforts to attract more foster and adoptive families of color and promote each child’s best interests, we want changes. NACAC is currently advocating for federal legislation to replace provisions of MEPA/IEP with statutory language that codifies the principles listed in the inset box.

The last bullet in the suggested language offers legislators the choice of a carrot or stick to promote children’s best interests in placement decisions. In today’s diversified but still racist society, we cannot comprehend how agencies can guard children’s well-being without recognizing how much race influences every person who lives in this country.

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