By JOHN IWASAKI
Four years ago, Sara Cole thought she was prepared to welcome a black infant into her family, dutifully reading books and articles on transracial adoptions that an adoption agency recommended. Through the first three years of adopted daughter Rosie’s life, Cole busied herself with being a mom. The sociological effect of the adoption never seemed particularly relevant to the white woman. Then about a year or so ago, Rosie started piping up. “That person looks like me. That person has curly hair like me,” she would say when she saw other African-Americans.
“I thought this was a big deal,” Cole said Tuesday as Rosie, 4, played on her lap in the living room of their Montlake home. The adoption of black children by non-black parents will be discussed by a panel Thursday as part of the Which Way Seattle? series presented by the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas. Social workers, adoptive parents and those who have been adopted will consider the challenges and history of transracial adoption of black children and the ways the African-American community can preserve families while acting in the best interests of the child.
African-Americans made up 4.2 percent of the child population in Washington state but 10.5 percent of those in foster care, according to 2006 statistics. About 8 percent of foster children adopted in each of the past two fiscal years have been black. Some linger in the system for years for lack of adoptive parents of any color. “Race matters,” said Billy Hancock, family recruitment specialist at Amara Adoption Service in Seattle and the father of three biracial children. When he asks prospective parents what ethnicity they prefer in their adoptive child, red flags go up if applicants “list everything but certain people” or say they’ll accept any child “as long as there’s some Caucasian in them.” On the other hand, those who insist they are colorblind may need another kind of wake-up call.
“They say, ‘We’re not prejudiced.’ That’d be great if we lived in a society (where everyone truly acted) like that,” said Hancock, an African-American. The adoptive family might not be welcome at the extended family Thanksgiving dinner. Some friends might drop them. If the adoptive child makes a fuss in the checkout line at the grocery store, other customers might ask, “Where’s the real parent?” That does not mean prospective parents should avoid adopting black children, only that they should go in with their “eyes wide open,” Hancock said. Many parents enter into transracial adoptions with a “naive bliss,” a state that endures as long as the child is a cute preschooler, said Maddy Day, family development coordinator for Antioch Adoptions in Redmond.
Racial issues often become unavoidable by the time the child reaches school age, as children begin to contemplate differences between themselves and their adoptive parents. “Understanding each other’s customs and mannerisms is an important part of understanding each other,” said Day, who is partly of West Indian descent. For the transracial family, that might mean making lifestyle changes, such as moving to a neighborhood that is racially diverse, or learning something as simple as daily grooming. Cynthia Reed, a Bellevue mother who adopted a black boy, changed churches and is part of an African-American congregation in Rainier Valley. Adopting Isaac 11 years ago this month made her aware of “racial tensions, ‘white privilege’ and things like that,” she said. “As a white person, I was oblivious to it. It’s made me more sensitive, a little less arrogant than I used to be.”
When Penny Nelson adopted a baby girl who was part African- American and part Native American, the white Seattle woman said she “pulled (the child’s hair) into a top knot and put a ribbon around it.” She later met an African-American woman who told her, “Girl, you’ve got to do something about this kid’s hair.” Ideally, foster children should be placed with families who look like them, said Nelson, who has two biracial daughters. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the ideal situation,” she said. “Most kids, we know, are being moved from foster home to foster home. If that’s the alternative, let’s place kids in homes that are loving and give them the best start on life, no matter the color of the parents.”
Nelson and her then-husband adopted her daughters in the late 1960s, a time when news stories told of unwanted children being fathered overseas by American servicemen. Cole and her husband, Bill Barnes, adopted Rosie — and eventually plan to adopt another black child — because they want a large family and feel a responsibility to raise foster children as part of that plan. Reed said she and her husband, Steve, chose adoption because, as Christians, they felt they should adopt a child where the need was greatest. Before and after the adoptions, the parents prepared by taking classes offered by adoption agencies, reading books and talking with other parents.
Karen Whitgrove, a social worker who focuses on African-American infant adoptions for World Association of Children and Parents in Seattle, said prospective parents usually have given a good deal of practical thought to transracial adoptions. “As they look at extended family and the community, on occasion people have said, ‘Maybe this is not the right fit for us,’ ” she said. “Maybe they rethink their plans. For the most part, they maintain their plans.” Cole took Rosie to summer camp in California for transracial adoptive families, a time to interact with those who understood what she and her daughter were going through. “My biggest responsibility is to prepare her for how people perceive her and make decisions based just on how she looks,” Cole said. “I think that’s the challenge for parents of any child of color.”