Carollynn smith, outside the northeast Portland offices of the Oregon Department of Human Services, holds pictures of the grandchildren she lost custody of to the state after a protracted struggle. Photo by Mark Washington.
Whenever Carollynn Smith has a birthday party for her grandchildren C’Lynn or Kofi, she makes sure there is a cake, and her table is spread with their favorite foods like greens, chicken and potatoes.
The only thing missing is her grandchildren.
For nearly half a decade, Smith has been in a struggle with the Oregon Department of Human Services to gain custody of her two grandchildren, after Kofi tested positive for cocaine while living with her daughter.
“My babies are coming home,” said Smith, who seems as sure of this as she is the sun will rise tomorrow.
Smith hates having Kofi and C’Lynn separated from her five other adopted grandchildren. But she’s also uncomfortable with her grandchildren being raised by a white couple in Wilsonville, whom she says refuse to grant her visitation. Smith worries that the children won’t have any connection to their heritage or history.
As the nation becomes more racially diverse and complex and more couples look overseas for children needing homes, the type of situation that Smith grapples with is bound to take on an increased salience. In a state like Oregon that is overwhelmingly white, but has a disproportionate number of minorities in foster care, the topic will almost certainly grip policy makers and families alike.
Transracial adoption in the U.S. has always been tangled, and contradictory. Since whites have long held a patrimonial role over blacks many, like Smith, bristle at the idea of her children being taken from her and given to a white couple.
“It’s slavery,” said Smith.
In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers said that trans-racial adoption amounted to “cultural genocide,” a charge it later softened.
Experts on the issue argue that children in transracial adoptions can experience serious psycho-social difficulties later in life if proper precautions aren’t taken. However, they say that federal law serves as a stumbling block for some important conversations on race and family from taking place.
There are few steady numbers for tracking transracial adoption. A New York Times data analysis from 2006 found that 26 percent, or 4,200, of black children adopted from foster care in 2004, were adopted transracially, nearly all by whites, up from 14 percent in 1998. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that in 2000, 15 percent of adoptions were transracial.
Over the last decade, the U.S. has seen a wave of adoptions from overseas, with several high-profile celebrity adoptions getting significant attention. The high water mark was in 2004, when Americans adopted 22,000 children from other countries, according to U.S. State Department numbers.
In Oregon, a disproportionate number of minority children get caught up in the state Department of Human Services. Thirty eight percent of children spending at least a day in foster care are non-white, and 32.6 percent of adopted children are ethnic minorities.
DHS doesn’t track the number of transracial adoptions or the ethnicities of adopting parents, but with the state population estimated to be around 90 percent white by the U.S. Census Bureau, it’s safe to say that some minority children are being taken under the wings of pallid-skinned adults.
But discussions about issues of race are largely absent from agencies like DHS, which have a large role in setting up transracial adoptions.
In 1994, Congress passed the Multi Ethnic Placement Act, which prohibits any federally-funded agency from using race as a factor in placing children in adoptive care. Before the law was passed, it was often up to social workers to make the call on where to place children. Because many of them had reservations on transracial adoption, minority children ended up languishing for long periods in foster care due to the lack of minority families looking to adopt.
Two years ago, a landmark report released by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute made call for reform of the law. It made the case that children in transracial adoptions can end up wrestling with issues of self-identity and self-worth, have trouble adjusting, and are blindsided by discrimination later in life.
There are other issues, like health-problems some ethnicities are prone to, or something as simple as hair care. But there are other problems as well. For instance, how should a white couple react if their minority child is called a slur? The report said that these issues need to be talked about by agencies like DHS.
“These are challenges that are not overwhelming and can be addressed,” said Keith Alford associate professor, School of Social Work in the College of Human Ecology at Syracuse University.
Alford, and other experts, argue that white parents can care for a colored child if they make efforts to connect them to their heritage, live in a racially-integrated neighborhood that provides mentors, and are generally aware of the challenges their child faces.
Kory Murphy, a policy analyst with DHS, said that it would be beneficial to have white parents adopting a child of color to have some sort of counseling on the issue, but because of MEPA workers in the agency avoid any discussion of race to avoid a lawsuit.
“We just cross our fingers and hope the kids are going to get it,” he said.
Astrid Dabbeni was adopted with her sister from Columbia and raised in a transracial family. She recalls growing up with a sense of white privilege that clashed with the real world once she left the nest.
Now the executive director of Adoption Moasiac, a Portland non-profit that provides educational services for adopting couples, Dabbeni recommends that agencies like DHS could work around MEPA by having all couples receive some sort of counseling on transracial adoption.
“They have a sense of ‘I don’t belong here,’” said Dabenni if children don’t have an anchor.
The topic hasn’t risen to prominence at the state or national level. However, Murphy points out that a study being conducted by Portland State University that focuses on disparities in foster care system might spark a broader discussion on the issue.
But before that happens, Smith has two empty seats at her table.