NEW YORK (AP) -- Several leading child welfare groups Tuesday urged an overhaul of federal laws dealing with transracial adoption, arguing that black children in foster care are ill-served by a "colorblind" approach meant to encourage their adoption by white families.
Recommendations for major changes in the much-debated policy were outlined in a report by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
"Color consciousness -- not 'color blindness' -- should help to shape policy development,"
the report said.
Groups endorsing its proposals included the North American Council on Adoptable Children, the Child Welfare League of America, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and the National Association of Black Social Workers.
At issue is the 1994 Multi-Ethnic Placement Act
-- and revisions made to it in 1996 -- governing the adoption of children from foster care.
One part of the law directs state agencies to recruit more adoptive parents of the same race as the children. The new report says this provision hasn't been adequately enforced and calls for better funded efforts to recruit minority parents.
The more contentious part of the legislation prohibits race from being taken into consideration in most decisions about adoption from foster care. For example, white parents seeking to adopt a black child cannot be required to undergo race-oriented training that differs in any way from training that all prospective adoptive parents receive.
A key recommendation in the new report calls for amending the law so race could be considered as a factor in selecting parents for children from foster care.
The change also would allow race-oriented pre-adoption training.
"We tried to assess what was working and what wasn't, and came to the conclusion that preparing parents who adopt transracially benefits everyone, especially the children," said Adam Pertman, the Donaldson Institute's executive director.
"The view that we can be colorblind is a wonderful, idealistic perspective, but we don't live there,"
Pertman said. "If we want to do the best for the kids, we have to look at their realities."
At the heart of the debate is the fact that the foster care system has a disproportionately high number of black children, and on average they languish there nine months longer than white children before moving to permanent homes. The latest federal figures showed 32 percent of the 510,000 children in foster care were black in 2006, compared to 15 percent of all U.S. children.
Of the black children adopted out of foster care, about 20 percent are adopted by white families. The Donaldson report said current federal law, by stressing color blindness, deters child welfare agencies from assessing families' readiness to adopt transracially or preparing them for the distinctive challenges they might face.
"There is a higher rate of problems in minority foster children adopted transracially than in-race,"
said the report. "All children deserve to be raised in families that respect their cultural heritage."
Pertman stressed that his institute and its allies were not opposed to transracial adoption.
"We want to see more kids in foster care get permanent homes, and we want to see the parents who raise those children be prepared to do so," he said.
Professor Elizabeth Bartholet, who directs the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, believes the concept of striving for color blindness is sound. She foresees problems if race once again becomes a key determinant.
"Giving social workers the chance to do that produced very rigid race matching," she said, referring to pre-1994 policies. "That's one of the reasons to say race can't be used at all -- there's no other way to be sure it doesn't become the overwhelming factor."
Current policy allows standardized pre-adoption training, but wisely prohibits specific screening for parents seeking to adopt transracially, Bartholet said.
"What cannot be done is have a pass/fail test that turns on whether you give the politically correct answers," she said. "If social workers are allowed to use training to determine who can adopt, there's lots of experience showing they abuse that power."
She also questioned whether attempts to boost minority recruitment would succeed.
"Black people are significantly poorer than white people and less likely to be in a position to come forward," Bartholet said. "Recruitment efforts bump up against that fact."
The Donaldson recommendations were embraced as "long overdue" by Michelle Johnson, a black woman raised by white adoptive parents near Minneapolis. Johnson now works on child-welfare matters for the court system there.
Her parents "were not the norm," she said. "They were exceptional in what they did for me... They were very humble in what they didn't know. There was lots of communication."
Too many white adoptive parents, she said, underestimate the enduring presence of racism in America and don't get training that would help them raise a black child.
"As a social worker who used to place children, I know very few families are ready to do this," Johnson said. "When families fail to realize they need assistance, it's dangerous."
Regarding recruitment, Johnson said child welfare agencies should strive to find permanent homes for black children among their extended families before placing them in foster care.
John Mould and Margaret Geiger, an Ambler, Pennsylvania, couple, have two white biological children and five black adopted children, now aged 15 to 23. Mould said transracial adoption is unquestionably challenging, but he worries about any changes that might make training and screening requirements too rigid.
"There are so many kids who need homes," Mould said. "The idea of trying to find the perfect matches -- you're not going to find them."
His adopted children have encountered some difficulties over the years, Mould said, but he believes they've developed resiliency and maturity as a result.
His youngest son, Eric Jones, 15, said the family's makeup sometimes complicates his life, but he's convinced that transracial adoption can succeed.
"White or black doesn't matter," he said. "What counts is whether the parents are ready to take responsibility."
(emphasis added by Finn)
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It seems a fair assumption that foster care is not the ideal situation for any child, and so the question should be is a black child better off in foster care than in an adoptive home with white parents? Presumably the legislation which is under attack answered that question, but if it is to be rescinded, the question needs to be asked again.
All things being equal, it is probably less problematic for a black child to be adopted by black parents, but if all things were equal, there would not be an issue. For whatever reasons, unfortunately there are more black children in need of adoption than there are black families wanting to adopt.
I'm not saying it doesn't make sense to try and place black children with black families or their relatives, but, again, if this was just a matter of trying a little harder there wouldn't be an issue. Presumably advocates of rescinding the law believe that having a black family adopt a black child justifies the black child remaining in foster care longer that would be necessary if the law remained in effect. How much longer is acceptable? Obviously not every foster home is a nightmare scenario, but it doesn't take too long to screw up a little kid.
As for the notion of pre-adoption training, the devil is in the details, but I see nothing wrong with requiring white adoptive parents to attend a day of sessions dedicated to helping them understand and deal with the challenges they face. I tend to think though that since the law put a stop to such training, there probably were situations where the training became brow-beating and an effort to disuade.
I am an adoptive parent and when my wife and I went to apply to our county's social services dept, we found ourselves in a room of at least 20 other couples who were all asked to leaf through what seemed like scores of photo albums containing the pictures of "hard to place" kids.a large percentage of these kids were black.
I don't know about the other couples, who happened to be all white, but my wife and I didn't know if we were up to parenting an "easy to place child," let alone one that presented known challenges.
2 years later we were blessed with a four month old white infant. He's presented his own set of challenges, as any kid would, and our success in meeting them has been mixed, as it is for most parents. I have no idea how we would have responded to a "difficult to place" child, but having spent time with other people seeking to adopt, and being familiar with the screening process, I am very confident that the couples who do take on the extra challenge are not doing so from some attraction to novelty.
Of course there must be examples of bad situations, but I would be shocked if they were anything but minimal, and confident that they are far, far fewer than bad foster care situations.
Young Eric Jones is wise beyond his years, but I have to wonder if those who oppose the law care more about politically correct ideology than what is best for Eric and his peers.