Transracial adoption — most often white families adopting children of color — has a charged history in the United States.
The practice flourished in the aftermath of major conflicts such as World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, when widespread death and destruction left thousands of children without parents or adequate resources. It was in the 1940s when American families first became aware of the plights of such children and began adopting from abroad. Specific programs developed that sought to facilitate international adoption. One such program, Operation Babylift, brought more than 2,000 children from Vietnam to the United States. Such adoptions marked a shift in U.S. practices, which historically had aimed to place children with parents of similar races.
Gradually, children of color began to be placed in white homes, with mixed results: While some families suffered harassment and even violence, others had few issues. Between 1968 and 1972, approximately 50,000 black and biracial children were adopted by white parents. At the time, the adoption of black children by white families was motivated largely by the increasing number of black children in foster care and the seeming lack of black adoptive families. In the early 1970s, the number of transracial adoptions rose as white infants became less available and the number of prospective adoptive parents continued to grow.
The adoption of black children by white families has long generated controversy in the United States, sparking criticism from both blacks and whites, as well as from some adoption professionals. In 1972, the practice of transracial adoption was publicly challenged. At the national conference of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) issued a formal statement opposing transracial adoption, citing concerns that such placements compromised children’s racial and cultural identities and amounted to a form of cultural genocide. The NABSW worried that black children raised in white homes would fail to develop effective coping strategies to deal with racism and discrimination and would experience identity conflicts as they grew older. The NABSW also challenged traditional adoption practices, raising questions about institutionalized racism within the adoption profession. The organization pointed to existing evaluation criteria for prospective adoptive couples that routinely prevented black families from qualifying and claimed that agencies were failing to recruit prospective black adoptive families and were, in fact, even passing them over in favor of white couples. By 1994, however, the NABSW released a new statement supporting transracial adoption in the case of a documented failure to find a home with black parents.
In the same year, Senator Howard Metzenbaum authored The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA), which mandated that adoption agencies receiving federal funds could not deny or delay adoptions based solely on racial difference. This was written partly in response to the growing number of children in foster care. Because the language of that first act was open to interpretation, in 1996 Congress enacted the Inter-Ethnic Adoption Provisions (IEP), which specifically prohibited federally funded agencies from denying or delaying adoptions solely on the basis of race or national origin. These laws are designed both to decrease the length of time a child has to wait before being adopted and to eliminate racial discrimination. These laws have been controversial, however, and the debate surrounding transracial adoption has not diminished. Many people feel that transracial adoptees are emotionally scarred by their experience; others strongly disagree and suggest that the long-term outcome for transracial adoptees is very positive. Some suggest that the number of children in a particular racial group in need of foster care or adoption will always exceed the number of available families in that racial group. Others believe that current adoption practices are rife with racial discrimination and other barriers, and that greater efforts should be made to remove them. Still others advocate for more systemic support of economically and socially disadvantaged families in order to keep these families together and decrease the need for foster and adoptive placements. And finally, there are those who think that, for children of color, adoption into a white family is preferable to the impermanence and instability of foster care.
A report issued in 2008 by the nonprofit Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and endorsed by the Child Welfare League of America, the Adoption Exchange Association, the NABSW, Voice for Adoption and the Foster Care Alumni of America (among others) stated, however, that the act downplays race and culture too much.
The report stated that although transracial adoption itself does not produce psychological or other social problems in children, multicultural adoptive families do face some special challenges. Some public agencies have become hesitant to discuss race at all with adopting couples, however, for fear of being sued for discrimination. As a result, many new families go without the counseling and preparation they need to help them navigate the realities of living in a race-conscious society.
In its position statement on transracial adoptions, the North American Council on Adoptable Children, a group representing more than 400 American and Canadian child advocacy organizations, contends that adoptive parents of the same race as the child are best equipped to provide him or her with the skills and strength to combat racism. The council also states, though, that if an appropriate family of the same race cannot be found, transracial adoption is a better alternative for a child than long-term foster care.
One provision of MEPA calls for the diligent recruitment of adoptive parents of color. However, the 2008 report found that the provision has not been well implemented and is not being enforced adequately. The report called for better enforcement of the provision through greater resources and funding for recruitment.
Many studies show that about three quarters of transracially adopted children adjust well to their new homes, but experts agree that there are steps multicultural families can and should take to promote children’s well-being, self-esteem and sense of cultural identity, including celebrating cultures of all kinds, forming friendships with other interracial families, talking about cultural issues and adopting a no-tolerance policy on bias.
» Annual Report, U.S. Department of State. “FY 2009 Annual Report on Intercountry Adoptions: November 2009.”
» Bashir, Samiya A. “The best interest of the child: Samiya A. Bashir examines changing dynamics of transracial adoption.” Color Lines Magazine, 22 Dec 2002.
» Bratcher Goodwin, Michele. “Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families.” Cambridge University Press, 22 Dec 2002.
» Nixon, Ron. “De-emphasis on Race in Adoption Is Criticized.” The New York Times, 27 May 2008.
» Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. “Finding Families for African American Children: The Role of Race and Law in Adoption From Foster Care.”
» PBS. “Precious Cargo.”
» POV. First Person Plural, “Transracial Adoption.”
» Child Welfare Information Gateway. “Transracial and Transcultural Adoption.”
» The Adoption History Project. “Transracial Adoptions.”
» Davenport, Dawn. “Born in America, Adopted Abroad.” The Christian Science Monitor, 27 October 2004.
Development of Racial Identity
Racial identity might be defined as one’s self-perception and sense of belonging to a particular group including not only how one describes oneself, but also how one distinguishes one’s self from other ethnic groups. Racial identity in children develops in two stages: First, a child distinguishes race at a conceptual level, and second, he or she begins to assess his or her own membership in a racial group. This second stage usually occurs between the ages of 3 and 7. Children’s attitudes toward their own races are greatly influenced by their interactions with and observations of the attitudes of those around them. As adolescents, all children begin to establish separate identities from those of their parents. When children are of a different race than their parents, they may magnify the physical differences between them, and feel especially isolated as a result.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, psychology professor and president of Spelman College in Atlanta, found that one reason young people of color tend build their identities around their racial backgrounds is that they see themselves as differing from the dominant images in American society. And the white majority, which tends to see itself as colorless, encourages this further with questions and observations about those perceived differences. White adolescents, in contrast, are more likely to see themselves as “normal” in terms of ethnic background.
There are conflicting thoughts about how explicit race conversations should be between parents and young children. On the one hand, in families where the issue of race is not addressed, children get the message that it is inappropriate to express their feelings and that the topic is taboo and perhaps even shameful or embarrassing. On the other hand, in homes where parents dwell on the issue extensively, children may attach too much significance to it, causing self-consciousness and anxiety.
Adjustment Outcomes of Transracial Adoption
Considerable research has been conducted around the outcomes of transracial adoptions. A 12-year longitudinal study of 204 families and 366 children whose families included transracially adopted children, adopted white children and white birth children found that the transracial adoptees were as integrated into their families as the biological children. No significant difference in self-esteem was evident. After 12 years, with approximately half of the families still in the study, 18 adoptees had serious problems. However, in only one case was race a significant factor. All of the other problems could be traced to the children having been adopted at an older age (4 or older), learning disabilities, developmental delays or abuse before the adoption. Another review study found that the majority of transracially adopted children (75 to 80 percent) functioned well and demonstrated no more behavioral or educational problems at home or school than non-adopted children.
A Canadian study tracking families from Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec who had adopted internationally found that the self-esteem of inter-country adoptees when they reached adolescence was higher than that of the general population but lower than that of their siblings. A large majority of the adoptees reported being comfortable with their ethnic backgrounds, although 10 percent identified themselves as white, despite coming from Korea, Bangladesh and Haiti.
In 2009, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute published an extensive examination of adult adoptive identity based on input from 468 adults who were adopted as children. Specifically, the study compared the experiences of white adoptees to those of adoptees from South Korea. The resulting 112-page report is entitled “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption.” Central findings in that report include the following:
While the majority of Korean-born survey respondents reported experiencing race-based discrimination from strangers and classmates (and 39 percent from teachers), white respondents were more likely to feel discriminated against simply for being adopted, particularly within their extended families.
A significant majority of transracially adopted adults reported considering themselves to be, or wanting to be, white as children. By adulthood, however, the majority had reconciled their racial identities, whether through increased interaction with a “like” community, reconsidering their roots after experiences with discrimination or simply maturing.
» PBS. “Interview with Beverly Daniel Tatum.”
» Spelman College. “Biographical Sketch: Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.”
» Aboud, F. “The Development of Ethnic Self-Identification and Attitudes.” In Children’s Ethnic Socialization: Pluralism and Development. Jean S. Phinney and M.J. Rotheram, 32-55. Thousand Oaks, Cal.: Sage Publications, 1987.
» Hollingsworth, L.D. “Effect of Transracial/Transethnic Adoption on Children’s Racial and Ethnic Identity and Self-esteem: A Meta-analytic Review.” Marriage and Family Review 25 (1997): 99-130.
» McRoy, R.G. and E.M. Freeman. “Racial Identity Issues Among Mixed Race Children.” Social Work in Education 8 (1986): 164-174.
» Tizard, Barbara. “Intercountry Adoption: A Review of the Evidence.” The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 32 (1991): 743-756.
» Westhues, Anne and Joyce S. Cohen. “A Comparison of the Adjustment of Adolescent and Young Adult Intercountry Adoptees and Their Siblings.” International Journal of Behavioral Development 20 (1997):47-65.
» Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption.”
Types of Adoption
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Children, Youth and Families identifies a number of different types of adoption, mostly determined by origin of the child and qualities of the adoptive parent or parents. Broadly, there are domestic and international adoptions; foster, kinship, stepparent and private or independent adoptions; adoptions by single parents and couples; and same-race and transracial matches.Closed and open adoptions can differ widely from each other, especially as a child grows older and potentially becomes more curious about his or her birth family. In closed adoption, no identifying information is shared between the birth parents and adoptive parents. Adoption records, which contain only non-identifying information about the birth family, such as age, race, medical conditions and reason for making an adoption plan, are sealed after the adoption is final and may or may not be available to the child when he or she turns 18, depending on local law.
Open adoption allows for varying levels of communication between the birth and adoptive families, from picture and letter sharing to phone calls conducted with or without an intermediary, to ongoing visits after the adoption is finalized depending on the choices of the participants and the professionals assisting with the adoption. Adoptions of older children are more likely to be open, as such children may already know information about their birth families or may want to keep in touch with siblings placed elsewhere.
No comprehensive national statistics on domestic adoptions have been kept since 1992, but in 2001 it was estimated that there were 1.5 million adopted children in the United States, representing 2.5 percent of all U.S. children. This number includes several categories: those adopted by stepparents; those placed by birth parents (usually as infants); and those adopted out of the foster care system.
Access to Birth Records
Access to birth records has been publicly debated formany years. In nearly all states, records for all adoptions (see distinction between closed and open adoptions above, under “Types of Adoption”) are sealed when the adoption is complete, but most states also have procedures in place under which birth parents and adoptees can access identifying and nonidentifying information about each other from an adoption record while still protecting the interests of both parties.
Information is divided into two categories:
- non-identifying, such as birth parents’ age, appearance, ethnicity, religion, medical history, education level and reason for the child being placed for adoption, as well as the existence of siblings.
- identifying, such as addresses, workplaces and names, that could lead to identification of the birth parent or adoptee.
Every state allows adoptive parents or guardians access to non-identifying information about a child’s birth parents; most states allow adoptees access to the same information, though sometimes not until after adoptees reach the age of 18.
Currently, 18 states allow birth parents access to nonidentifying information about an adopted child’s health and social development; some states release this information to birth siblings as well.
Exactly what information is available and the procedures involved in obtaining it vary from state to state. Nearly all states also have procedures in place under which identifying information can be released with a person’s consent. If consent hasn’t been given, and a person feels he or she has a legitimate reason to contact a birth parent or biological child, he or she may act through the court but must prove that the need for the information outweighs the other party’s right to privacy (ie. medical necessity, etc.).
Some states have, however, imposed restrictions on the release of information. For example, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas require an adoptee to undergo counseling before reaching out to his or her birth parents, and Connecticut reserves the right to prohibit the release of information it deems potentially seriously disruptive to any of the involved parties.
About 30 states have mutual consent registries through which involved parties can indicate their willingness or unwillingness to be contacted; some states employ a confidential intermediary system through which an impartial intermediary is given access to sealed adoption records in order to conduct a search for birth family members and seek consent for contact.
» Child Welfare Information Gateway. “Access to Adoption Records: Summary of State Laws.”
» Kershaw, Sarah. “In Adoptee’s Search for Roots, Loss and Gain Collide.” The New York Times, 10 August 2008.
» North American Council on Adoptable Children. “Race and Ethnicity in Child Welfare.”
In the early 2000s, a number of state legislatures considered (but did not enact) measures to prohibit adoption and foster parenting by gay men and lesbians. Until recently, Florida was the only remaining state to explicitly prohibit gay adoption. In September 2010, however, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal lifted the three-decade ban on gay adoption and faced no appeal from the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Though gay adoption is now legal in every state, many states erect high hurdles that effectively prevent or impede the practice. Mississippi, for instance, allows a man or woman to adopt alone but bars second-parent adoptions by same-gender partners. Utah prevents all unmarried couples from adopting. Meanwhile, the District of Columbia and a number of states — including California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Vermont — have policies that deter discrimination against sexual orientation in adoption cases. The Urban Institute/Williams Institute estimates that, as of 2007, approximately 65,500 adopted children were being raised by gay or lesbian parents. There is little research on adoptions by gay and lesbian parents, but studies, including one by the American Psychological Association, show that children reared in adoptive gay and lesbian families fare just as well as their counterparts. Other research shows that children of LGBT partnerships fare better than those of single parents of any sexual orientation and may outperform children of heterosexual couples in some areas, such as school involvement.
» American Psychological Association. “Sexual Orientation, Parents & Children..” Adopted by the APA Council of Representatives July 28 & 30, 2004.
» Couwels, John. “Florida won’t appeal ruling stopping adoption ban by gay men, lesbians.” CNN, 12 October 2010.
» Gates, Gary, Lee M.V. Badgett, Jennifer Ehrle Macomber and Kate Chambers. “Adoption and Foster Care by Gay and Lesbian Parents in the United States.” Urban Institute.
» Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. “Expanding Resources for Waiting Children II: Eliminating Legal and Practice Barriers to Gay and Lesbian Adoption From Foster Care.”