Hearing on Interethnic Adoptions

Statement of Joe Kroll, Executive Director
North American Council on Adoptable Children

Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Human Resources
of the House Committee on Ways and Means

Hearing on Interethnic Adoptions

September 15, 1998

 


 

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, I thank you for this opportunity to appear before you today to discuss implementation of the 1996 Interethnic Adoption Amendments to the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994.

 

I am Joe Kroll, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC). I also serve as the adoption chair of the National Foster Parents Association and Vice-President of Voice for Adoption, a coalition of over 50 state a local and national adoption organizations. More importantly I am a parent of two children, one a transracially adopted infant from Korea who is now a young women of 22.

 

NACAC represents adoptive parents and parent groups, adoption agencies, adopted children, and most importantly the 100,000 "special needs children" waiting for families in the U.S. For nearly twenty-five years we have been involved at the local, state, and national level as advocates for these children.

 

I want to first congratulate committee members and staff for the critical role they played in crafting the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. NACAC fully supports this Act and urges it members, particularly adoptive and foster parents, to work for full implementation in their local communities. When fully implemented it will remove serious barriers to permanence. Waiting children who have faced these barriers will benefit–they need adults to make decisions in a timely fashion so that these waiting children can achieve permanent families.

 

I am here today, however, to talk about MEPA and how it has been implemented. I think that there have been some problems and there is work yet to be done. I think MEPA has been interpreted by too many as limiting the system's options to place children in families from the communities from which they come. I believe that needs to be changed.

Let me begin by telling you about NACAC's experiences in the transracial adoption debate and what we see and hear about MEPA and IEPA. Then I would like to talk about my own experiences and describe what NACAC believes needs to be done.

 

NACAC's Role in the Transracial Adoption Debate

 

The North American Council on Adoptable Children was founded by transracial adopters in 1974 and our membership has faced and struggled with this issue. As late as 1984, our conference plenary sessions were heated battlegrounds over the issue of transracial adoption. As many of our own leaders' children grew into adolescents, we realized that race played an important role in identity and development, and that there was much truth in the arguments made by proponents of same race placement.

We also recognized that minority adoptive parents were in large part invisible and did not have the same opportunities to adopt as white parents. Up until 10 years ago, only professionals spoke out on behalf of the concerns of their community. However, as a result of a 1989 Adoption Opportunities grant for minority recruitment, my organization began to organize minority parent groups primarily in the African American community. Today, NACAC has over 40 active minority parent group members whom have become vocal advocates for their children.

 

In addition, NACAC's Board of Directors has increased the number of African American, Latino, and Native American adoptive parents to seven of seventeen. All of the white adoptive parents on our board have at least one child adopted transracially, and all of our adult adoptee board members have been placed transracially. In many ways, our organization reflects most of the parties, and the varied perspectives and interests, in the transracial adoption debate.

 

The key principles we bring to any discussion concerning adoption and race are our beliefs:

1. Every child has a right to a permanent family

2. Race plays a role in identity and child development

MEPA and IEPA

 

The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act was passed in 1994 after a passionate debate over racial preferences. I met with Senator Metzenbaum three times prior to passage of MEPA. It was clear that he opposed two concepts:

1. Delaying placements while waiting for racial matches, and

2. Moving children who have bonded with families especially because of race matching

With or without race in this equation, I support the Senator's opposition of these concepts. Senator Metzenbaum also understood the argument that families of color were at a disadvantage in adoption, particularly in the private sector, which controls most adoptions of healthy infants.

 

As reported by 60 Minutes in 1992, children are at risk in these situations. The tragic example of an African American child who was moved from a white foster family in Ohio to a black adoptive family in New York and was then killed, drew public attention to this issue and helped fuel the passion. It was clear that states and counties moved children from stable foster homes in order to match children according to race. This was clearly not in the best interest of those children.

 

While the debate was partially about the rights of children to timely permanence, it was also about the rights of adults to parent children. Over 20 cases had been filed with the Office of Civil Rights regarding discrimination in placement decisions. Each of these involve white adults, including both foster and prospective adoptive parents.

 

At the same time, advocates for families of color knew that these families did not have the same access to adoption as white families. NACAC documented these barriers in our 1991 publication Barriers to Same Race Placement. In addition, our study found that 50 percent of the children under two years of age, placed by traditional private adoption agencies, were placed transracially.

 

As a compromise among competing interests, MEPA attempted to achieve three objectives:

1. To reduce the length of time children wait for adoptive placements;

2. To ensure that no individual is denied the opportunity to become an adoptive or foster parent solely on the basis of race, color, or national origin; and

3. To facilitate the identification and recruitment of foster and adoptive families that reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of waiting children.

Before the ink was even dry, there were calls to Congress that the Act did not go far enough. As early as February 1995–not four months after implementation–Representatives were arguing that the Act had failed and was not being implemented. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services was not required to release rules until April 1995. When these rules were issued, they provided strong statements about placement issues, but a rather weak statement about recruitment of families representative of the racial and ethnic diversity of the waiting children.

 

In 1996, the Interethnic Placement Act removed the word "solely," thus removing race, color, or national origin as a potential reason to delay or deny placements.

 

The Act has goals related to children and parents. The goals related to children are clear and unequivocal:

"that children should not be denied or delayed in placement due to race, color, or national origin…"

Though previously debated, the child welfare community appears unanimous in its support of this outcome for children. However, the goals related to parents may be perceived as in conflict and reflect the competing positions in political debates that led up to passage of MEPA and IEPA. Advocates for parental access to children of all colors argued for absolute language about discrimination against parents. They represented foster families who had their children moved because of racial matching policies, or potential adoptive families who perceived that they were denied access to children of other races.

 

On the other side, advocates for parents of color argued that they had been denied access to children of their racial and ethnic communities (based on economic status, residence, and race) by the system that had jurisdiction over children from their communities who were in care. States are now required to recruit families from "the communities kids come from" and to not deny or delay placement. But it is not always clear what this means. Let me elaborate.

 

FEDERAL GUIDANCE

 

Having carefully read the federal Information Memorandums (I.M.) for MEPA, I would not want to be a social worker. Clear guidelines are simply not provided when workers have multiple families to choose from in making placement decisions.

I.M. 97-04, released June 5, 1997, states that agencies cannot even consider race or ethnicity, except when a "compelling government interest" (a child's best interest) is at stake. Such exceptions, according to the Memorandum, "must be narrowly tailored to advance the child's interests and…made as an individualized determination for each child" (emphasis added). The one example given relates to the rights of older children who must consent to their adoptions. A teenager who objects to being placed with a family of a certain race cannot be forced to join that family against his or her wishes.

 

The memo also says "other circumstances in which race or ethnicity can be taken into account in a placement decision may be encountered. However, it is not possible to delineate them all." In fairness to workers, HHS needs to describe other "circumstances" where race may play a role in placement.

 

I.M. 98-03, released May 11, 1998, provides answers from the General Accounting Office (GAO) study on state's implementation of IEPA. After an extensive discussion of good social work practice and "individualized assessment of a prospective parent's ability" the GAO says:

"As noted in the Department's original guidance on MEPA, agencies are not prohibited from discussing with prospective adoptive and foster parents their feelings, capacities and preferences regarding caring for a child of a particular race or ethnicity, just as we discuss other individualized issues related to the child. However, as the Department has emphasized, any consideration of race or ethnicity must be done in the context of individualized placement decisions. An agency may not rely on generalization about the needs of children of a particular race or ethnicity, or on generalizations about the ability of prospective parents of one race or ethnicity to care for a child of another race or ethnicity."

While this answer seems to permit individual assessments, the answer to another question appears to contradict this approach.

Question #10 of I.M. 98-03 asks: "If an action by a public agency will not delay or deny the placement of a child, may that agency use race to differentiate between otherwise acceptable foster placements?" The unequivocal answer is no. What is a social worker to think given these apparently contradictory answers in the same government directive?

 

NACAC, as a voice for adoptive parents, has articulated and demonstrated a very clear belief that race matters in the placement of children. Because of this belief, we must ask the administration to clarify the role race may play in the placement decision about an individual child. While there appears to be little debate over the appropriateness of placing white children with white families, social workers express concern that the placement of a African-American or Latino child with a family of the same race may be questioned if a white family is also available.

 

I believe that it is still legal for social workers to place a white child in a white family. In fact, few white children are placed out of race. We don't have and still need data about this, but in the absence of any statistics, my best source of information is the 1200 attendees at our national conference–which includes foster and adoptive parents, workers, and policy makers. I have also consulted with 25 states in the past year, and worked with 30 or more parent groups throughout the U.S. I can identify only three cases where someone told me about a white child being placed in a nonwhite family. But I can tell you about hundreds upon hundreds of children of color being placed in white families–a practice that began in the sixties and which continues in large numbers today.

 

I have also heard from many social workers in widely varying parts of this country who seem to wring their hands when placing a black or Latino child with a family of the same race. Will they be sued by eligible white families? Does the Department provide adequate guidance to social workers? Some feel that HHS's hands are tied. They seem required to say race cannot matter in placement while good social work practice and the reality of race in this country dictates that it may be in the best interests of that child to place him or her in a family of the same race.

 

How can we ask states to recruit families from the communities of color and then make workers afraid to place children with them? Interpretations of this policy which imply that race cannot be considered misstates or overstates the law. Further, it seems to have no impact on practice when it comes to placing white children.

 

OUTCOMES

 

Many people say that a goal or outcome of MEPA is to be fair to all children–that being "colorblind" about placement is somehow more fair. Would those same people think it a measure of success that children of color are being adopted transracially at higher rates? If so, then hypothetically I would argue that the Act has failed because white children do not have equal opportunity to be adopted by black and Latino families.

 

Examination of the data when it is available will indicate that more African American and Latino children are placed out of race than white children. Would anyone suggest that the white children are being discriminated against because they do not have the same opportunity to be adopted out of race as children of color? I think not.

 

As states are held accountable for implementation, are we measuring the outcomes in terms of children for whom "permanence is not delayed" or by counting potential transracial adopters (primarily white) whose placements signify "an increase in transracial adoptions," or by documenting the families of color who represent an "increase in placements in those communities from which the children come." What we choose to count reflects what we think is important and how we measure success.

 

Obviously, one measure of success is in placing children, including children of color. Since no data is currently available regarding MEPA / IEPA outcomes, I would like to share interesting data about the outcomes of NACAC's Adoption Month Project. Each of you has received Adoption Month Posters from the last two years. These are "special needs" children and no one wishes to delay their placement in permanent homes for any reason whatsoever. However, I would argue that the issues involved in promoting their placement in permanent families are not race-based at all. I am pleased to report that for the group of children featured on each year's poster, the placement rate for children of color and sibling groups is greater than for white children. In 1997, seventy children were featured and to date:

 

  • 60 % of African American children have been placed for adoption
  • 13 % of white children have been placed for adoption
  • 63 % of children in sibling groups have been placed for adoption

 

What do theses number suggest? I believe they suggest that the challenges are not due to delaying placement based on race, but in understanding the issues for "special needs" children and aggressively recruiting and preparing parents for their placement. We have learned the following:

1. Child-specific recruitment works. Making our kids more visible to prospective families leads to positive outcomes, such as foster parents deciding to adopt and children being adopted across county, state, and even country boundaries. Though we do not have full statistics on the race of parents from our Adoption Month Poster, we do know that two African American girls from Colorado were adopted by a (white) family in Alberta, Canada.

2. Sibling groups can be placed together if adequate support is provided (most are eligible for adoption subsidies).

3. The characteristics of the white children suggest that they have more serious emotional problems as a result of abuse and multiple placements–and therefore recruitment efforts may need to be even more intense to find families for them.

We have learned a great deal about how to recruit families for placement of special needs children. We have also learned about the issue of racism, and how it affects the children of color who are placed in white families. Let me tell you something about my own background and experience.

 

RACISM

 

For the last 22 years, I have been personally and professionally involved with this issue. I helped raise a beautiful Korean daughter who is now a young woman of 22. I have learned much from her and her struggle with issues of race, identity, and adoption. She is probably stronger today for these struggles and her multi-culturalism. I know my wife and I are better people for sharing that struggle with her. In many ways, we are among the successful adoptive families that Professors Simon and Barth report in their research.

 

Though my daughter was adopted internationally from Korea, she continues to feel racial stereotyping and differences. She speaks to prospective adoptive parents about the importance of race and key issues such as language, cultural differences, and the naming of children. Each time she speaks, an uncertain or nervous parent in the audience asks, "Do you have contact with or still speak to your adoptive parents." The answer is yes. She not only speaks to us, but at age 22 lives with us and calls us "Mom" and "Dad." Some might argue that she has a "positive attachment disorder" because in the Korean culture in which she has immersed herself, young adult children live with their parents until they are married (and sometimes after they are married).

 

Unfortunately, however, the questions from the audience come from people who believe that seeking one's racial and ethnic identity is not accepted or welcome in some adoptive families. My daughter knows young Korean-American adoptees who are estranged or completely cut off from their white adoptive families because they sought out connections with the Korean American community and began to identify with their Korean heritage. In my opinion, it should not be an "either–or" choice for young adults. However, too many white adoptive families enter transracial placements without the knowledge and willingness to make those connections and often fail to understand that a child's search for racial and ethnic identity is both positive and necessary.

As a transracial adoptive father, I must honor my daughter's struggle and the pain we have all been through as we learned the extent to which race has affected her life and her development. And I must also respect and learn from the life experiences and struggles of many other NACAC families who have learned from their children about the role of race in our society.

 

As transracial adopters in the 70's, my wife and I (and many others) went blissfully into the process thinking we would save children and integrate society by integrating our family. No one asked our infant daughter what she thought. As white adults we had certain privileges that allowed us to pick and choose from where our children would come. White adults have the same privileges today and MEPA reinforces that notion to such a degree that white people threaten lawsuits to assert and protect that privilege.

 

When we maintain those privileges for white parents, we are asking our transracially-placed children to live in the front lines of societies' efforts to truly integrate. These children are often the only people of color in their neighborhoods, schools, and churches. These locations are racially homogeneous and primarily white. While these young people are growing up and facing the typical adolescent challenges of understanding who they are and learning to be comfortable with how others relate to them, who finds them attractive, and how they feel about themselves, they often live in places where they see no one who looks like them. Why is it that where adults have failed, we have asked children to lead the charge toward integration? This is unfair.

 

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE

 

Although there are many areas of disagreement surrounding this powerful policy issue, I believe there are also areas where we can agree. In my opinion, there are five common sense guiding principles:

1. No child should ever have to wait for a family;

2. Children should not be moved from a stable and loving placement for any reason, including racial matching;

3. All families, including single parents, (but that's another issue) should have equal access to foster care and adoption;

4. Parents adopting transracially should receive training that prepares them for the impacts that race, adoption, and identity play on children,1 and have access to services that support them after the adoption is finalized; and

5. We must be committed to recruiting families in the communities from which the children come.

We cannot pretend to be colorblind in placement decisions for African-American and Latino children, while maintaining a rigid color-consciousness for white children.

 

I repeat, NACAC, as a voice for adoptive parents, has articulated and demonstrated a very clear belief that race matters in the placement of children. Because of this belief, we must ask the administration to clarify the role race may play in the placement decision about an individual child. While there appears to be little debate over the appropriateness of placing white children with white families, there is concern that the placement of a black or Latino child with a family of the same race may be questioned if a white family is also available. Let's end the privileging of white families and recognize the importance of recruiting families for waiting children who are representative of the communities from which they come.

 

Thank you.

 


1 Through a 1996 Adoption Opportunities grant, NACAC has developed three resources for prospective and current transracial adoptive parents.   One of these tools, the Transracial Training Curriculum, is designed for agencies and parent support groups who want to educate groups of prospective parents considering transracial adoptions.  In light of IEPA restrictions, we encourage parent support groups to organize these sessions so that a free and open discussion of issues can occur outside an agency setting.  In this setting, parents can ask honest questions and know they will not be judged by their comments.

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