Black Families Adopting from Overseas

Our series on the black family continues with a look at African Americans who adopt children from foreign countries. NPR's Tony Cox talks with Thomas Atwood, president and CEO of the National Council for Adoption, and Sherry Redwood, who is in the final stages of adopting a child from Ethiopia.

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TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox.

All month long, we'll be exploring the dynamics of the family. Black families, like many American families, are changing in part because they're choosing more and more to adopt children from other countries.

The Department of Homeland Security reports that Americans adopted more than 20,000 children from overseas last year. White celebrities have gotten lots of attention for looking outside the U.S. to expand their families.

But what do black families look for when they choose to adopt abroad? And what's in store for a foreign child when he or she comes into a black American home?

Sherry Redwood is a Baltimore area entrepreneur and a black mother in the process of adopting a 15-month-old boy from Ethiopia. She joins us. And also joining us today is Thomas Atwood. He is president and CEO of the National Council for Adoption. Welcome, both of you.

Ms. SHERRY REDWOOD (Entrepreneur, Baltimore): Thank you.

Mr. THOMAS ATWOOD (President and CEO, National Council for Adoption): Thank you.

COX: Tom, let me begin with you. The State Department reports that intercountry adoptions are on the rise in the United States. Why do you think so many people are looking outside of this country to adopt especially, especially when there are still a lot of American children who need homes and families, and especially among that group, black children?

Mr. ATWOOD: Well, Tony, there are both some myths and some realities that cause people to turn towards - internationally for adoption. If you think about adopting an infant domestically, well, there are many more couples seeking to adopt babies and there are babies to be adopted. That's a reality.

But the - but when you look at adopting out of foster care, there's a myth there, and that is that the child is going to cause problems for the family. And that's not really, generally, the case. I mean, all of the children can be challenging to parents. But the - when you adopt a child out of foster care, you're going to know what you're getting into usually. So it's - that kind of reason for going abroad is based on a myth.

COX: So there people that think, basically, that it will be easier to deal with the system as well as the child if you get one from another country.

Mr. ATWOOD: There is a reality, too, Tony, to adopting out of foster care and that is that you foster parent a child for a few years and still not be able to adopt him or her. In the meantime, you've fallen in love with the child, and the - but the child may be returned. When you're adopting internationally, it has its own challenges, but it - in some ways, it's a little bit more predictable than adopting domestically.

COX: In what way would it be more predictable?

Mr. ATWOOD: Well, an agency can tell you when in any given a country how much time we're talking about, what the process is with some predictability. Now, there are some surprises in the international adoption, too, though. There can be some reactions, some nationalistic reaction within countries opposed to international adoption that can cause a country to shut down or slow down.

COX: Let's talk to Sherry for a moment about her particular experiences. Sherry, you and your husband have a kid in college and two teenagers, is that right?

Ms. REDWOOD: Yes.

COX: Now, you're adding to your family by adopting a child from Ethiopia. So question number one is this: Why did you look outside to U.S. to adopt to begin with? And secondly, why Ethiopia in particular?

Ms. REDWOOD: We looked outside the U.S. We really enjoy raising children and we feel like we have a lot to offer as a family. But we wanted to try to make the best impact that we could in terms of humanitarian gesture and humanitarian effort.

When you look at the situation in the pre-emerging and developing countries and you find that there - for instance, there's one doctor for every 35,000 people, and you find that only 11 percent of a population has access to safe water. And you see that there are children there who need a good home and who could benefit from the potential here in America. That made it an easy choice.

Ethiopia, specifically, we chose - we were definitely looking for an African country because we are African-American and we want the child to be comfortable in America, you know, racially and also socially. Ethiopia, in particular, because it's one of the countries that has a cooperative stance, and the agency that we're working with is already there with non-governmental programs to assist the country as well as to do the adoption.

COX: Now, have you had any personal experience with the domestic adoption agencies here? And secondly, has the process with Ethiopia gone as you would have expected, because Tom just said that on occasion, international adoption can go - he didn't say more smoothly, but that was sort of the implication.

Ms. REDWOOD: I - we have not had a relationship with a - with domestic adoption, although, we would not rule out foster care and I can comment on that later. When we decided to go with an international adoption, my husband and I - and we explained to our family it's a tenuous process, although, you know, you do what you can. It is arduous and it is tenuous and you always have to remember that, although, we have been - we have had a child referred to us, something could happen politically or just within the government agency that administers the adoption process and they could call us tomorrow and say it's all off.

COX: Mm-hmm.

Ms. REDWOOD: And you - I think you have to go into it with that expectation.

COX: Tom, I want to talk a little bit about what Sherry made reference to with regard to Ethiopia and a sort of political/social consciousness that she and her husband had with regard to where they wanted to adopt and why.

Ethiopia was ranked number five on the list of countries where Americans adopt children. Haiti ranked number 11. Why are those countries particularly attractive do you think?

Mr. ATWOOD: The biggest factor in a country being open to international adoption is simply the policy of the government. If the government is open to this child welfare program, then adoptions will proceed. If they're not, they won't. Because adoption agencies are eager to serve the children. This is what brings adoption agencies into this line of work. It's desiring to help children, and they will go where they have a cooperative government.

We are delighted to see the growth in the number of African adoptions. There are - there are still many - it's still, you know, very small amount compared to the orphan challenge in Africa. And for that matter, that's true of any country of origin for international adoption. But Ethiopia has been a country that has grown in its commitment to this child welfare program.

But as she said, this can be - this can change in a moment. Fortunately, every country of origin is - has a double-mindedness towards international adoption because the natural instinct of a country to want to be able to take care of their children themselves. And to a certain extent, we would - you can respect that. However, we really have to look at it from the perspective of the child.

COX: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ATWOOD: The child has a greater interest in having a family than growing up in a country in which he or she happens to have been born, while domestic adoption is certainly the preferable option and a great option for a child. If it's not happening, then we shouldn't let national boundaries and national pride prevent children from having families.

COX: I want to talk to Sherry some more, specifically about her adoption, but I have one more question for you, Tom, and it's this. We mentioned that Ethiopia was number five on the list, Haiti at number 11. What country, just curiously, is number one on the list of countries that Americans most adopt from internationally?

Mr. ATWOOD: China, then Guatemala, Russia, Korea and those countries have been the highest ranking for quite sometime.

COX: For a long time. Mm-hmm.

Mr. ATWOOD: Sherry is right, by the way, I want to just make sure we're clear on this, that adoptions - all type of adoptions are challenging and have their process idiosyncrasies that are going to be challenging and emotional for parents to deal with, but international adoption is a good option. And basically, people have to explore them all. Adoption is a calling.

COX: Well, let me just stop you there, only because I want to…

Mr. ATWOOD: Yeah.

COX: …first of all, let people know what we're talking about and who we are.

You're listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. And I'm Tony Cox.

If you're just tuning it, we are talking about blacks adopting children overseas with Thomas Atwood whom you just heard, who is president and CEO of the National Council for Adoption, as well as Sherry Redwood, who is a mother and entrepreneur in the Baltimore area, and she is in the process of adopting a child from Ethiopia.

And I want to go to you, Sherry, now to talk about your adoption of this young Ethiopian boy. In this country, the United States, there's a premium for adopting black boys. They are harder to place. Adoption agencies will tell you both privately as well as out of foster care, as well as out of county adoption agencies around the country. Number one, why did you select a boy?

Ms. REDWOOD: We have two boys and we have a girl - one girl and two boys. And we have thoroughly enjoyed all three. However, we live in Baltimore, Maryland, and the climate on the East Coast, especially in Baltimore, Maryland, as across the country, for black males is not great. But we feel like we kind of figured it out a little bit on how to raise black males successfully. Baltimore has a female mayor who's African-American and the head of the city council is African-American.

You look at statistics across the country about African-American females - and they have had very good results and then very successful. So since we had a choice, we felt like, you know, what can we do - what can we do to make an impact and, you know, we chose the gender that we felt is having trouble, but we feel like we would be able to support this child and bring out his potential so that he would be successful.

COX: One of the challenges facing adoptive parents is to blend the adopted child into the family where there are already birth children. You not only have that challenge faced - that you are facing with your new adopted child, but you also have the additional burden of bringing in a person from another culture and another country and also blending that experience into being here culturally. How are you going to do that and explain who he is to him?

Ms. REDWOOD: Well, we had - most people who are adopting internationally have to take classes in adopting and the challenges and the emotions and how to bring a child into the family. And so you learn certain things. And one of the things they stress is that from early on - as early as you can, you incorporate the idea that this child is from a different culture and we will have pictures - we're very fortunate that we do have pictures of him when he was young and through stories and just keeping that in front of him, and also, of course, education in Baltimore is very close to Washington, D.C., which I think is probably the largest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia.

So we have tremendous access to the Ethiopian culture, which we, as a family - I'm from the American South and I have always incorporated my experiences there with my children. And my husband's from Jamaica and we have certainly incorporated that. And so that's a very, very big part of bringing him into the family as educating the children, our biological children, as well as family members and everybody.

Ethiopia, in particular, is a very ancient society and culture. It's the cradle of civilization. It's where it's all started. So it's very important. And we really honor and are glad to have the opportunity to sustain that culture in our child.

COX: One more thing more for you. Do you all look alike in - or is that going to be an issue in terms of your adopted child from Ethiopia standing out from the rest of the family?

MS. REDWOOD: Well, that's - and you know what, that will be very important for him. And, you know, we would never go to Asia or somewhere like that. And I think that is important because he does, he will blend in. I - my children kind of run the gamut, but people have said that I resemble the people of Ethiopia, and he looks like one of my children when they were young.

COX: Okay. And he is one of your children.

MS. REDWOOD: He is one of my children.

COX: Yes, he is.

MS. REDWOOD: He looks like, yeah, he's related to us.

COX: Tom, here's a question as we're coming down toward the end of the interview. We've seen some controversy over adoption in Africa particularly several French aide workers who were arrested in Chad for allegedly trying to take more than a hundred orphans to Europe for adoption. Chadian officials are saying that it was an attempted kidnapping.

What are - for people that might be considering this who are listening, what are the red flags to be careful of when dealing with international adoption agencies?

Mr. ATWOOD: Well, you want to work with an accredited adoption agency. You want to work with some agency that has a clear track record. This group in Chad was - by all reports, was violating the law. And you do not want - you need to - you don't want to violate the law here. It's not necessary. You can succeed in adoption, and it's very important that people comply. And when they don't, as far as we're concerned, the agency should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law because it harms other adoptions. It harms the reputation of adoptions when something like that - what has happened in Chad occurs.

So people just basically need to look at the adoption agency they're working with, compare, shop like you would with any other choice you're making and be sure of that agency. And you can check references and you can check the National Council for Adoption Web site.

COX: What are the things, Sherry, this is the last question. It'll be for you. We've got a little over a minute or so to talk about it.

One of the things that happens with adoptive parents, at least those that I've had contact with here in California, is that they have a certain level of fear and anxiety before the adoption takes place. And once the adoption has happened, then they begin to find a way to make it work.

What advice would you give to someone listening to you now who is considering adopting, whether it'd be domestically or even internationally as you have done, about what they should be concerned about and what they can look forward to?

Ms. REDWOOD: I think as Mr. Atwood said, you know, first, find a reputable, experienced agency. Also, if you're - I would say, adopt within a family, single adoptions, of course, for single people, have certainly happened, but you need a lot of support, so have a support system.

And I think lastly, have an open mind. Try to be open because you're going to be - whether it's domestic or internationally, you're going to be finding out a lot about yourself, and also, you're going to have some procedures that are sometimes uncomfortable, and you just have to kind of keep an open mind and keep going.

COX: One really quick thing. Is language an issue for you?

Ms. REDWOOD: His - the Amharic language?

COX: Yes.

Ms. REDWOOD: It's - it is - we are practicing. It's a difficult language. He's only 15 months old, so we're hoping that it'll be okay. But we're willing to try to communicate with him with what we know.

COX: Well, good luck with that. Tom, Sherry, thank you both coming on.

Ms. REDWOOD: You're welcome.

Mr. ATWOOD: Thank you for having us.

COX: Sherry Redwood is a mother and entrepreneur in the Baltimore area and Thomas Atwood is the president and CEO of the National Council for Adoption.

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