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Expectant Moms Face Cultural Hurdles with Adoption

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Expectant mothers of color who desire to place their children in adoptive care sometimes face diffculty finding other families of color to adopt, based on cultural preferences. Betsy Bartholett, faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, is joined by Melanie Markley, a Houston Chronicle reporter who recently profiled one woman's experience.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're going to turn now to two stories that concern one of the most difficult decisions many families ever have to face: the decision about whether to continue an unwanted pregnancy and what to do if a decision is to continue. It turns out that race adds another complication to this question.

We've all heard stories about families going to great expense and difficulty to adopt children overseas. It is said that the pool of available children to adopt in the U.S. is small, but that turns out not to be the case with African-American children. It turns out that increasingly, birth mothers are insisting that their children be placed with black families, but public agencies will not guarantee that. Only a limited number of black families go the private agency route because they object to the fees for either a financial or philosophical reasons. So as a result, African-American babies in some cases are languishing, awaiting adoption.

With us now to talk about this is Elisabeth Bartholett. She is faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School. And Melanie Markley is a writer for the Houston Chronicle. She recently reported on black birth mothers who were having trouble finding African-American homes for their children. Welcome. Thank you both for joining us.

Professor ELISABETH BARTHOLETT (Faculty Director, Child Advocacy Program, Harvard Law School): It's good to be here.

MS. MELANIE MARKLEY (Reporter, Houston Chronicle): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Melanie, if we could start with your article. You highlight a birth mother who wants very much to find an African-American family to adopt her child. First I'd like to ask, how did you get on to this story?

Ms. MARKLEY: We actually received an email from Catholic Charities. They were trying to find African-American families to adopt nine babies who were born or about to be born, and their mothers had come to the agency and specifically asked for African-American families. They themselves were African-American and wanted to keep their babies within the same race of adopted family. They sent us an email saying they had these nine mothers, but had no perspective families and asked for our assistance in finding families.

When I saw the email, it struck me as a major issue, and one that I was rather surprised to see, knowing - as you mentioned - the lengths that many white families go to adopt healthy babies. And so I started looking into it. I did speak with one of the mothers. She is due next month, and was getting very nervous that a family was not going to be found for her baby.

MARTIN: And just briefly, if you could explain why this was so important to this mother and the other mothers that you spoke to. Why did they feel it was so crucial?

Ms. MARKLEY: The mother felt that she wanted her baby to be raised in a family that fully understood the culture, that could raise her child in an environment where the child would be able to learn about his or her culture and background, and as she mentioned, would better understand how to tell the child about the background of slavery and everything that the black people had been through.

MARTIN: Professor Bartholett, if you would talk to us about this, is this a national issue? Do you find this mismatch between desire and available homes to be true nationally?

Prof. BARTHOLETT: I think there's no evidence that I've heard of for two decades that there's significant phenomenon of black birth mothers willing to go to desperate lengths to try to place their kids with black adoptive parents. Indeed, I think the evidence is just the opposite, that 10 years ago, when race-matching was still a phenomenon in the public agencies, when public agencies were still trying to place black infants with black adoptive parents, many black birth mothers were…

MARTIN: And presumably other way as well, white parents - families with white children?

Prof. BARTHOLETT: And - right. They were doing race-matching both ways. But at that time, there were lots of black birth mothers who went to the private system to escape that race-matching regime because what race matching tends to produce is delay for children in placement. I think what most black birthmothers want, like most white birthmothers is to have their kids placed as soon as possible, and that's what the public agencies are doing. The reason that race matching was eliminated in the public adoption system was because Congress felt that it wasn't fair to black children to have them waiting for same race adoptive homes.

Ms. MARKLEY: So what you're hearing is something new, something distinct. What you're saying is - just let me make sure I understand it. You're saying that it used to be the norm that public agencies would match by race, and that has now been outlawed.

Prof. BARTHOLETT: That was outlawed by Congress in 1994 in a law that was strengthened in 1996 called the "Multi-Ethnic Placement Act."

MARTIN: And so to degree that black mothers went to the private agencies was to avoid that, because they were looking for the best home. This is quite interesting. So what do you make of what you're hearing from Melanie? Do you think that that perhaps that black mothers feel more race consciousness now than they perhaps did before? Or is there something…


MARTIN: …anomalous going on here?

Prof. BARTHOLETT: I think there are 10 families that she's found in Texas. I don't think this is a significant phenomenon of lots of black mothers desperate to find same race homes. I just believe that most birth mothers want what the law now provides, which is expediting kids in placement. So, you know, of course, you're always going to find some number of families. I'm sure that a fair number of birth mothers black and white think that they - all things being equal - would like their kids raised in a same race home. Just lots of people believe that. But I think when you press people to say would you like to have your baby held for months and years waiting for the same race home, very few birth mothers would choose that.

MARTIN: And talk to me, if you would, about this idea, because one hear is this. And often, what one hears is not the case. Is there a shortage of available African-American families willing to adopt, relative to the number of African-American children who are available to be adopted? Is there mismatch there?

Ms. MARKLEY: They're absolutely is. There's a mismatch because black children are being surrendered or removed from their birth parents at a rate that's twice the rate of their population percentage. So that means we have, you know, roughly half or more than half of all the kids in foster care, depending on the area you're in. But on a nationwide basis, over 40 percent of those kids are African-American. Over half of the kids waiting for placement are kids of color, and overwhelmingly, the people waiting to adopt are white. So there's a huge mismatch, and that's the reason that if you have race-matching policies, black kids won't get placed.

MARTIN: And are white families…

Ms. MARKLEY: …it's not that black parents are adopting. They're adopting it about the same percentage that white people are adopting. It's that there's a double the percentage of kids waiting for placement.

MARTIN: And are white families willing to adopt African-American children?

Prof. BARTHOLETT: Absolutely. I - they do adopt them when they go abroad. Almost always, that's a transracial adoption of some kind or other - kids from different racial backgrounds…

MARTIN: But that doesn't necessarily mean they're African-American. It could be - or of African descent.

Prof. BARTHOLETT: It doesn't, but…

MARTIN: …one hears more about, China, Guatemala, Latin American seem to be -when season…

Prof. BARTHOLETT: Latin America, they're almost always significantly Indian kids, but there are lots of African-descended kids that are being adopted. I mean, almost always, it's kids of color in international adoption. You're right. There's a huge phenomenon of Chinese adoptions, but most of the kids in Eastern Europe are not the, you know, the white Eastern Europeans. They're gypsy kids. So it's transracial adoption of one kind.

You're right. It's not all African descent transracial. But there are also studies by, you know, very well-respected social scientists showing the willingness of white parents to adopt across racial lines, to adopt older kids, to adopt kids with disability. Up until 1994, the public adoption system in 50 states was not willing to place kids across racial ones.

MARTIN: Melanie, the - one of the things your report indicated was that some of the black families that Catholic charities had approached were trying to -approach in Houston as prospective adopted families - objected on philosophical grounds to paying fees for the adoption process. That was new to me. Will you tell me a little bit more about that?

Ms. MARKLEY: I was told by some of the agencies I talked to, as well as some of the experts I had talked to in the area that one of the things that they had heard was the fact that paying thousands of dollars in fees to adopt a child was very reminiscent of the slave auctions when human beings were bought and sold. And so this was very distasteful to a lot of people in terms of adopting a child.

MARTIN: And would that be because the experience that most of these families had previous have with adoptions, taking in a family member? Or was it just that's just the whole concept was new?

Ms. MARKLEY: Well, I - no, I think that certainly, we know that African-American families traditionally do take in family members, even acquaintances, even friends and raise them, and this has been a long-standing tradition. So certainly, it's not that black families don't want to adopt or opposed to adoption - quite the contrary. But what their view was that paying, in some cases 10,000, maybe $20,000 in fees to pay for this child, and it's not really buying the child according to the agencies, because they have costs to cover. They have the adoption fees. They have the legal fees. In some cases, they have the mother's medical fees or medical costs. So, basically, they say that they're just covering their costs. But when that amount is upwards of $10,000, this is viewed by some, apparently, in the African-American family as buying a child.

MARTIN: Melanie Markley is a writer for the Houston Chronicle. She joined us from KPFT in Houston, Texas. We were also joined by Elizabeth Bartholet. She is the faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, and she joined us from the studios at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. MARKLEY: Thank you.

Prof. BARTHOLET: Thanks.

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