State Department Gets Adoptive Family Preparation Right
from Sping 2006 Adoptalk
by Diane Riggs and Joe Kroll
Finally, a U.S. federal agency has the right idea about preparing parents for adoption and has published guidance insisting that service providers counsel parents about raising a child whose cultural, ethnic, or racial background may differ from theirs. The government now openly acknowledges that it is in children’s and parents’ best interests to provide a thorough background about each child and how his or her medical, educational, and social history may play out in an adoptive family.
This welcome acknowledgement of how important issues of race and ethnicity are in adoptive families appeared February 15, when the State Department issued final regulations to bring the U.S. closer to implementing the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000 and ratifying the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. Established in 1993, the Convention aims to prevent abuses and protect children, birth parents, and adoptive parents who are involved in international adoption. One way the new rules protect children and adoptive parents is through a comprehensive pre-adoption training requirement—a model that we believe could greatly enhance preparation practices for parents who adopt from U.S. foster care.
Preparing Parents under the Hague Regulations
Section 96.48 of the new regulations, “Preparation and training of prospective adoptive parent(s) in incoming cases,” places an emphasis on honestly disclosing key information to optimize the chances for successful adoptions. The regulations only call for 10 hours of training (in addition to the home study), but mandate that training address the following topics:
- long-term implications for families who become multi-cultural through intercountry adoption
- characteristics of children available for adoption, and conditions in the country from which a prospective parent hopes to adopt
- the way in which malnutrition, environmental toxins, maternal substance abuse, and other risk factors can affect children
- how children may react to being taken from familiar surroundings
- how institutionalization affects children
- attachment disorders and other emotional problems that institutionalized children and children who have experienced multiple caregivers may experience before and after adoption
- information about the adoption process specific to the child’s country of origin
In addition, to help prospective adoptive parents “be as fully prepared as possible for the adoption of a particular child,” those who train parents are to counsel them about the child’s medical, social, developmental, educational, and birth history. This counseling includes a focus on “[t]he child’s…cultural, racial, religious, ethnic, and linguistic background.”
Commentary that accompanies the final regulations indicates how committed State Department officials are to promoting successful intercountry adoptions. In response to one commenter’s concern that the training requirement might “scare” parents and deter them from adopting, officials firmly reply: “We believe the need to ensure that families be adequately prepared for adoption outweighs any concern that the curriculum will discourage families from adopting.”
Preparing Parents under MEPA/IEAP
By stark contrast, the often confusing guidance that has followed passage of the Multi-ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) of 1994 and the Interethnic Adoption Provisions (IEAP) in 1996* has been interpreted to expressly forbid general discussions of race, culture, and ethnicity. While individual cases may warrant some race-related conversations, a Health and Human Services (HHS) Informational Memorandum from 1998 declares, “There should be no routine consideration of race, color, or national origin in any part of the adoption process.” Another section of the Memorandum reveals that “HHS does not define culture,” and in any case, public agencies “may not use culture as a replacement for the prohibited consideration of race, color, or national origin.”
These policy issuances are all public agencies have to judge how they should prepare families who are adopting transracially. While the Hague regulations, published as a matter of public record in the Federal Register, include a specific section on parent preparation, issuances related to MEPA/IEAP are effectively silent on the matter. The most recent word on MEPA/IEAP rules—a March 2003 Memorandum issued by Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, Wade Horn—explains restrictions on race considerations this way:
It is equally intolerable to erect needless barriers in a thinly veiled attempt to discourage or dissuade individuals from pursuing transracial adoption. State child welfare agencies, and the entities with which they contract, 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, efforts to thwart foster care and adoption across lines of race, color, and national origin cannot be tolerated. [ACYF-CB-IM-03-01]
When compared to the State Department assertion that parents’ need to be adequately prepared for adoption “outweighs any concern that the [parent training] curriculum will discourage families from adopting,” HHS strictures on public domestic adoption practices seems especially harsh and inflexible. Even the tone of HHS Memorandums—emphasizing penalties for agencies that consider issues of race, culture, and ethnicity when placing children into permanent homes—differs greatly from the State Department’s expressed concern for families’ and children’s best interests.
What's in Children's Best Interests?
Both the Hague and MEPA/IEAP rules assert the primacy of children’s best interests, but they diverge on how best to safeguard those interests. The Hague regulations insist that agencies counsel parents about issues related to ethnicity and national origin and what it means to be a multicultural family, and MEPA/IEAP demands that agencies turn a blind eye to such considerations. MEPA/IEAP even goes so far as to say that if an agency has two home studied families who are equally able to parent a child—one who shares the child’s race or ethnicity, and one who doesn’t—the agency cannot consider race in choosing one over the other.
Hague regulations instruct agencies to tell parents everything they might expect so they can be “adequately prepared” to parent an adopted child of another race, ethnicity, or culture. If parents have second thoughts about adopting because of the information, officials imply, it is better for all concerned that they make an informed choice to put off adopting, rather than finding out they can’t handle the child’s issues after she comes home. MEPA/IEAP, by denying parents any race-related information that might cause them to reconsider a transracial placement, effectively impairs parents’ ability to meet the needs of a child of another race or culture.
In our view, children’s best interests are served when agencies work to honestly inform would-be parents about children who are available for adoption—including the effects of abuse and neglect, in utero exposure to alcohol or drugs, and issues of race, ethnicity, and national origin. Though at times muted, racism in America is alive and well, and children of color must know how to navigate racism and be proud of their racial identity. Placement with a culturally naive white family, while better than no family at all, does not adequately address a child’s need to know how to live in the world as a person of color. Children’s best interests, in short, are not served by uninformed, unprepared families.
As NACAC’s position statement, “Race/ Ethnic Background and Child Welfare,” reads in part:
NACAC believes that every child should be placed with a family who recognizes preservation of the child’s ethnic and cultural heritage as an inherent right. Therefore, education regarding ethnic and cultural heritage must be a local and federal priority.
Before a child is placed, we believe family members must be thoroughly assessed for their ability to appropriately address issues of racism and identity, as well as their capacity to help the child heal from past abuse, neglect, or instability. In addition, as NACAC’s position statement asserts, “When transracial or multi-ethnic placements are made, full appreciation and consideration should be given to the child’s need for close identification and interaction with his/her culture of origin.”
The more disconnected a family is from members of the child’s ethnic/racial culture, the harder it is for the child to adjust to the family and gain a positive sense of identity. How can that possibly be in the child’s best interest?
NACAC sincerely hopes that the State Department’s model guidance about preparing parents to raise a child of a different race, ethnicity, culture, or national origin will inspire HHS to reexamine its policies. As the Hague regulations affirm, race matters. As long as agencies live under the threat of severe penalties for observing reasonable best practice standards concerning children of color in care, many of those children will be denied meaningful connections with their heritage. And if we truly want to protect children’s best interests, we cannot pretend that race simply doesn’t exist.
* The Interethnic Adoption Provisions, which were tucked deep within the Small Business and Job Protection Act of 1996, significantly altered the Multiethnic Placement Act by disallowing any consideration of race, ethnicity, and national origin that may delay or deny a child’s adoptive placement, and imposing penalties for actions that violate the rule.