Barriers to Adoption for Communities of Color

In recognition of National Adoption Awareness Month, Ed Gordon explores overcoming obstacles to adoption in communities of color. He's joined by Antoinette Williams, assistant director of domestic adoption for Spence-Chapin Services, and Lisha Epperson, mother of two children she adopted through Spence-Chapin.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Every year, thousands of infants are put up for adoption. A disproportionate number of them are African-American. Many of these children languish in the system until adulthood. Now some adoption agencies are trying to reverse that trend. One example is New York's Spence-Chapin Services. The private adoption agency has begun an outreach program into communities of color to educate and recruit more black adoptive parents. We're joined in our New York bureau by Antoinette Williams, assistant director of domestic adoption for Spence-Chapin Services, and Lisha Epperson. She's a mother of two. She adopted the kids through Spence-Chapin.

Ladies, welcome.

Ms. ANTOINETTE WILLIAMS (Spence-Chapin Services): Thank you.

Ms. LISHA EPPERSON: Thank you. Thank you.

GORDON: We should note that this month is National Adoption Awareness Month and, Antoinette, let me go to you. I mentioned in the billboard earlier--why is--and we should be honest about this--adoption still such a dirty word in black America.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, hopefully it's becoming less so, but I think in New York at least adoption is really confused with the foster care system. And we are aware of so many children who as you described languish in the foster care system. And I think also as openness in adoption becomes more and more important and prevalent, there are a lot of misconceptions about how it functions and what it means.

GORDON: And let's also be honest the idea as to not paint the black community as uncaring for children. We see often in black America what I call non-formal or kinship adoption.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Right. And I think...

GORDON: Talk to us about that.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. I think that--it's interesting that you mention that because one of our goals at Spence-Chapin as we go into various black communities and talk about how we do private adoptions is to let people know the similarities to what we in the black community have been doing for years and years and years. And my mother who's from the South used to say, `We would just throw a few more beans in the pot and be able to accommodate more children in our family.' Through openness, we're able to put families together, adoptive families and birth families, and allow children to maintain a connection to their biological heritage which as African-Americans, we intuitively know is important while having the support and permanency that adoptive families can provide.

GORDON: But people aren't as reticent to take in folks that aren't blood relatives.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I'm sorry?

GORDON: People aren't as reticent to take in kids that are not blood relatives we should note across the board, true?

Ms. WILLIAMS: They are not as retic...

GORDON: They are not.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well...

GORDON: In other words...

Ms. WILLIAMS: I'm not sure...

GORDON: ...what we see with kinship adoption is people almost feel an obligation to take in a sister's child...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Right. Right. Right.

GORDON: ...or a cousin's child, but if there is no blood relation...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Right.

GORDON: ...they are less reticent to take them in.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Right. That can be true because, you know, when the necessity to take in a child arises, the person who is doing the support in taking in may or may not be prepared to do so. People who move forward to adopt before making that decision are compelled usually by the desire to parent. Most of the families we see are facing some kind of infertility, and if not, they simply look at their readiness to parent emotionally, financially, and they come to a place like Spence-Chapin voluntarily to become parents...

GORDON: Now, Lisha, we should note...

Ms. WILLIAMS: ...so different motivation.

GORDON: ...that you've taken in two children. Tell us your story, please.

Ms. EPPERSON: I became a parent in 2001. I adopted my first child, my son Lee Chi(ph), and almost two years later, I brought home a daughter, Ela Naomi(ph), who is three. Like many people who have come to Spence-Chapin, I had fertility struggles and, you know, decided that parenting was something that I really wanted to do. We felt that it was something that I had to do in my life. My husband and I prayed and talked and prayed and talked and made the decision to have a family. And we never looked back.

GORDON: How big of a decision was it for you even though you struggled with infertility to take on as many people in the black community will suggest "someone else's child," quote, unquote?

Ms. EPPERSON: For me, of course, it's a huge decision to come to adoption, and like Toni(ph) explained there, you know, a lot of emotional work had to be done on our part before we even got to the agency, but that emotional work continues. I have relationships with both of my children's birth parents where we communicate regularly and we're learning as we're going along. You know, it's certainly not a relationship that life prepares you for. It's not an experience that life prepares you for. Most people believe somewhere in them that at some point when they want to have children, they're going to give birth to them. Nut when you're faced with that challenge, you know you have another path. And because it's a different path, you're still--you know, it's a path that you have to walk daily. So I'd say it's something that we're still learning, still growing, still pursuing, still--I can't--I don't know. We're still learning. We're growing every day with it.

GORDON: Ms. Williams, let me ask you this.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And if I...

GORDON: One of the things that we see and Ms. Epperson talked about it is the new day of adoption to a great degree. Often in the past, the idea that a child was adopted, was hidden not only often from the child but from the community...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Right.

GORDON: ...but we see a more open society and a movement to incorporate and blend all of the people involved.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Right. And we've learned over the years most places like Spence-Chapin are what we call full-service agencies and we provide services to people who want to surrender their babies into adoption, people who want to adopt and adopted persons over their lifetime. And what we've learned through adult adopted persons is that hiding adoption doesn't work for anybody; that somehow often these young people who are now older adults but were placed into adoptive families as infants under the closed adoption system learned in the worst of ways that they had been adopted and ended up feeling betrayed by their families. So that was one act of adoption that we learned just did not work and does not work for anyone. We learned from birth parents as they became more vocal over the years that the closed adoption system left them guilt-ridden, wondering if their babies had been well taken care of, and it left adoptive parents looking over their shoulders constantly about where this birth parent or when this birth parent might emerge. So they...

GORDON: We should also note that for young black kids in the adoption system, there are a disproportionate of African-American children in the system because unfortunately when it comes to adoption, whether it be the hurdle of the cost of adoption or something other, the stigma that continues in the African-American community, many of these children are bypassed, and as I said, just stay in the system through adulthood. What does this do, Ms. Williams, to them psychologically?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well--excuse me--I think what you're talking about now is the foster care system, and although that's not where my expertise is, I am aware that children--I think research now shows that babies benefit from early permanence, that within--it's seen that children need permanency within the first months of life to build good mental health. And I would imagine that for any person who even if they find themselves in a family system but that family has for whatever decisions--usually economic in the foster care system--decided not to embrace them as a full family member permanently that that would leave them feeling somewhat less than. Spence-Chapin established a program with the New York City Child Welfare System that we call Collaboration for Permanency where we looked at the population of infants who came into the foster care system with a goal of foster care two years later were still in that system now with a goal of adoption. And almost half of them had been in more than one foster care home in that short two-year period. So we identified that population as ideal for our services. It looked to us like those birth parents may be people who would benefit from what we call option counseling at Spence-Chapin.

GORDON: And, Lisha, let me ask you before we let you go the idea of what these two children have brought into your life. Often we think about providing for them but don't look at the returns. Certainly they provide to those who are now raising them new sunshine, I would imagine, in your life.

Ms. EPPERSON: Oh, certainly. I tell everyone that I am living my dream, and I certainly believe that my children in some way have saved my life just as in a way that I may have saved theirs. It's been miraculous.

GORDON: Well, do you believe--had you been able to have children of your own, you would have ever looked to the idea of adoption?

Ms. EPPERSON: I think I might have and that maybe I'm unique in that respect. But when my husband and I were dating, we talked about, you know, having biological children and we talked about adopting. So when we were faced with this struggle, it was a natural progression for us to just jump right into adoption.

GORDON: And, Toni, finally...

Ms. WILLIAMS: And if I may...

GORDON: ...with about 30 seconds...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Sure.

GORDON: ...if you would, if people want to look into adoption, what's the best way for them to educate themselves?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, you can contact a place like Spence and come to an information meeting. Our information meetings happen every month, and they're not only for people who want to parent and who want to go through adoption but who want to learn about adoption. There are a number of books that you can access online or in the library about adoption, but I would say it may be best to start at the source and go to an adoption information meeting.

GORDON: All right. Antoinette Williams is assistant director of domestic adoption for New York's Spence-Chapin Services and Lisha Epperson, a mother of two. She adopted her kids through Spence-Chapin, and she and her husband are lovingly rearing those two little monsters I'm sure we'd say affectionately.

Ms. EPPERSON: Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes.

GORDON: I thank you both for being with us. Appreciate it.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

Ms. EPPERSON: Thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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