Transracial Adoption Challenged
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, we've been talking all year about whether the country is ready to elect a woman as president, but what about all the other jobs in politics? How are women doing in attaining political office both in this country and around the world? We'll talk with a distinguished panel of political observers about this in just a few minutes, and we'll hear from another trailblazing political leader, Mexico's former President Vicente Fox.
But first, the sensitive issue of interracial adoption. A disproportionate number of African-American kids in foster care, often languishing for months, while capable white parents stood by waiting to adopt. That was the situation that prompted the Multi Ethnic Placement Act of 1994. That federal law prohibited agencies that received federal funds from taking race into account in most decisions about adoption. But a new study says that that approach is unfair to the kids. That too often white parents are unprepared for the job of raising black kids, and that capable black parents aren't being recruited. Here to talk more about this is Adam Pertman - he's executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which conducted the study - and Jay Rapp. He and his partner are the adoptive parents of two African-American daughters. Welcome to you both.
Mr. ADAM PERTMAN (Executive Director, Even B. Donaldson Adoption Institute): Thank you.
Mr. JAY RAPP (Adoptive Parent of African-American Children): Thank you for having us on.
MARTIN: Adam, this was a very hotly debated issue in the nineties as I'm sure you will remember.
Mr. PERTMAN: Oh yeah.
MARTIN: Professionals in the field were adamant that black kids belong in black homes, but a lot of activists and lawmakers came to agree with them. They said that there are just too many African-American kids in foster care. They're languishing there when they could be in homes. They said this is a settled issue since 94 again in 1996 when they revisited it. Why did you feel your organization wanted to reexamine this issue?
Mr. PERTMAN: Good question. The answer is we're a research and policy organization. We're not practitioners. We don't put kids in homes, but the people who do, we kept hearing back from them that it's not working. That they felt their hands were tied. That they weren't preparing parents properly. That they weren't reaching out to more parents who could give these kids homes because the law wasn't being enforced in a way, they as practitioners and doing this day to day, thought would be best for those children. And so what we do at the institute is look at big issues in adoption and see what works, what doesn't work, and try to, or suggest, practices that might work better for children. And so we took this on, and for a year we studied it, and we looked at all the research, we talked to a lot of people, we had dozens and dozens of contributors, legal and social and all other kinds, and we came to the conclusion that a dozen years after the law was passed, as well intentioned as it might have been, it simply wasn't doing the job it set out to do, and so we made recommendations that we hope if they're followed will help more kids get homes, and will help those families function better.
MARTIN: What job is it supposed to do that it's not doing? I mean it's hard to argue the fact that at least the number of black kids being moved out of foster care has improved somewhat hasn't it?
Mr. PERTMAN: It has improved somewhat, but it's part of a bigger picture, and this is part of what you do when you study it is you try to isolate pieces of it, and when you do you learn that the number of all children, black, white, Hispanic, Native American, all kids have come out of foster care at a higher rate over the last ten years, but it's not because of this law MEPA, Multi Ethnic Placement Act. It's because of the Adoption Safe Families Act, and financial incentives to the states, and the result of that was almost immediate. The states were getting more money for more placements, and suddenly we saw more placements, big shock. So all that is good, but when you isolate MEPA, you don't see that uptake, and the avert explicit intent of MEPA was to decrease the disproportional number of African-American kids in foster care, and that disproportionate number remains just as high as it ever was.
MARTIN: And I want to bring Jay into the conversation, but I'm still not understanding from you what's the problem, and what is the relevance of keeping race out of the issue, and how does that relate to the problem as you see it?
Mr. PERTMAN: Sure. Two separate things, I'll try to make them quick to give your other guest time. One is that this federal law mandates that - what's called diligent recruitment. Active recruitment in the communities from which these kids come, the kids in foster care. That has not been enforced, not in any significant way. So the result is we have not grown the pool of potential adoptive parents and we still have tens and tens and tens of thousands of kids, black, white, and other, who remain in foster care because we haven't recruited enough parents from them, especially ones who the research indicates are the most likely to adopt them. This is not to say there should be race matching, but it's clear that as a kid gets older, the more likely adoptive parents for African-American kids are African-Americans. So we have not done that due diligence that the law mandates, and so we haven't increased the pull. That's one.
Two, the color blindness is more relevant to preparation than it is to recruitment. What we - what the law prohibits is a white parent from getting specific training in dealing with the issues that they may face, or that their kid may face, growing up. It simply does not permit it because we're supposed to be color blind in all respects. Not just in how you place kids, and not just in tearing down barriers so more of them get homes, but in all respects. So that means that a black parent can't learn about issues of race, racism, identity, et cetera, unless all parents get exactly the same training.
MARTIN: OK. All right. Let's hear from Jay about this. Jay, when you were thinking about adoption, and you've been on this program before and talked about initially you adopted as a single dad, did you think about race as a factor?
Mr. RAPP: Absolutely. I definitely thought about race as a factor. The agency that I - the adoption agency that I worked with, you did have to go through a certain amount of training, a certain amount of education in order to understand some of the challenges that we would be facing in terms of transracial adoption, and raising an African-American female.
MARTIN: Did you see the training as trying to discourage you from adopting across racial lines or to prepare you?
Mr. RAPP: To prepare me. Definitely to prepare me. You know, as a white man, or as a white male, I felt very strongly that I needed that preparation as well, and I wanted to make sure that I understood and knew some of the challenges that I would face, and not even challenges, just practical aspects of raising a child of another race in terms of hair and skin care, all those practical aspects. So I did think it was important. I did think it was valuable. And the only thing that I worry about is sort of mandating the training, and how would that look then for perspective adoptive families.
MARTIN: What are you worried about? You're saying that if you mandate the training that that would become a proxy for race matching? It would become a proxy for trying to discourage white families?
Mr. RAPP: Well, it could, and that's the thing that I would worry about is the question that raises in my mind is who then oversees this, and what kind of training do you make available? Not that it's insurmountable by any means, but I do think those are important questions to ask, you know, as we talked about before, children aren't moving out of the foster system any faster, so you don't want to - you don't want to necessarily put up additional barriers to make it even harder than it already is.
MARTIN: Can I just ask you briefly, if it's not too personal, why did you want to adopt a child of another race?
Mr. RAPP: To me, and this certainly isn't a race blind comment, but it did, to me, the race and ethnicity of the child did not matter to me. I wanted to be a parent, and it just wasn't a factor in my decision so.
MARTIN: Adam, what about Jay's point that this kind of training, if mandated, could become a proxy for somebody else's political agenda or ideological agenda about the kind of parent who should have a particular child? And what about the argument that, you know, frankly, if the issue is identity issues, you can have identity issues if you have two African-American parents who gave birth to you.
Mr. PERTMAN: Oh, absolutely and I think every parent...
MARTIN: Or two white parents who gave birth to you, for that matter, right?
Mr. PERTMAN: No question about it. The issue - there are a lot of answers to your question. First, let me give you quick, quick backdrop. There are two - there are a lot of federal laws that deal with adoption. One of them deals with - a new federal law that deals with the adoption of children from abroad. Now, Americans adopt a lot of kids from other countries. Well, that federal law says you must provide 10 hours of training for parents in issues relating to race, ethnicity. The difference is between the parents and the kids so they can do a better job of raising those children because we understand that there are issues of race and racism in this country. So, federal law mandates that, if you adopt from abroad. But if the same parent is adopting a child from foster care transracially, federal law says you cannot get that information. So, there's a real conflict there.
MARTIN: But Jay's telling us that some parents - you are getting it if you want it. You can get it.
Mr. PERTMAN: Well, his agency gave it as a matter of course. I'm curious whether his agency was private because if it was receiving federal funds it was in violation of federal law. And that's part of the problem here, is even the voluntary ones, if they're doing it - if they get federal funds, and they're providing it just to the parents adopting transracially, then they are in violation of law and can be subject to big, big fines.
MARTIN: We only have a minute left. I do want to hear a final word from Jay, because this is obviously a very rich topic and deserves, you know, more time than we can give you here today. But, Jay, when you think about it, you know, being a dad, being a dad adopting kids of another race. Is there a word of wisdom that you would offer to other parents who are just, perhaps, starting on this course? Or thinking about it?
Mr. RAPP: The one thing I would say is, it's definitely important to do your homework, to learn, to understand the culture of the child...
MARTIN: I'm sorry, Adam, if I could get you to stop rustling those papers, that would help.
Mr. PERTMAN: Yup, sorry.
Mr. RAPP: I mean, I think that that's very important. In both my daughter's lives we have a number of friends that are African-American who are a very integral part of their lives so that they're raised with role models who do look like them, and they do understand that there is a difference. So, it's sort of honoring that difference and not ignoring it, and pretending as if everybody is the same because we're just not.
MARTIN: Well, how would you feel about being told you had to do that?
Mr. RAPP: I did go through an independent - a private agency, and it wouldn't really bother me, I suppose, if I had to do it.
MARTIN: You would do it?
Mr. RAPP: I would do it.
MARTIN: OK. Jay Rapp is director of programs for the National Association of Independent Schools. He's also Kendall(ph) and Kelsey's(ph) dad. He joined us here in our Washington studio. We were also joined by Adam Pertman. He's executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. He joined us in our New York bureau. I thank you both so much for joining us.
Mr. PERTMAN: Thank you.
Mr. RAPP: Thank you so much for doing this show.
MARTIN: Thank you.
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