Transracial Adoption

Into the late 1930’s, most children in foster care were considered unadoptable and long term placement was the main practice.  African American children in the child welfare system were not seen as adoptable and were often denied access to formal adoption services because of discrimination.  African American communities established their own informal systems for adoption.  This discrimination and lack of access to services lasted into the 1940’s.  By the 1950’s, special campaigns recruited non-white adoptive families for African American and biracial children.  Agencies such as the Citizens’ Committee on Negro Adoptions, Adopt-A-Child, Minority Adoption Recruitment of Children’s Homes, Welcome House Adoption Program, the Children’s Home Society of Minnesota and Boys and Girls Aid Society of Oregon advocated for adoptive homes for African American, Native American and immigrant children who were considered “special needs” or “hard-to-place.”  The National Urban League Foster Care and Adoptions Project was the first nationwide campaign to find adoptive families for African American children.  Many of these groups didn’t favor transracial adoptions, which traditionally involved an African American child adopted by a Caucasian couple.  Some agencies, however, did begin to match for transracial adoptions.

The supply of available children and demand of waiting families certainly played a role in adoption, but other factors such as laws, cultural norms, emotional and financial impacts and humanitarian concerns also impacted trends in adoption in the U.S.  One factor impacting adoption was the development of affordable commercial infant formula that was a close nutritional match for breast milk.  This allowed for infant adoptions without concerns for their dietary health.  Prior to this, people used powdered milk formulas or wet-nurses, however the powdered milk formulas did not contain all of the nutrients necessary to assure healthy infant development and the number of wet-nurses was decreasing.  By the late 1950’s the use of commercial formula was on the rise, as was the number of families seeking to adopt infants.

In the 1960’s, the number of healthy white infants available for adoption domestically began to decline; however, new populations of children available for adoption began to emerge.  Foreign born children orphaned during World War II and mixed race children born to unwed mothers in areas where U.S. forces occupied Asia and Europe, along with the passage of legislation for international adoptions, such as the Displaced Persons Act in 1948 and the Refugee Act in 1958, allowed for easier access to these new populations of adoptable children.  As such, people wishing to adopt who may not have met the qualifications for adopting in the U.S. pursued international adoption.  Additionally, the number of children in the foster care system significantly increased and the country began to view foster children as adoptable.  These factors led to greater numbers of interracial adoptions in the U.S., all of which made adoption more visible in our country.

At the same time, concern grew about children removed from their birth homes.  Was removal necessary?  Was reunification truly attempted?  Was every effort made to find permanency through adoption? The process for placing children into the child welfare system was reviewed and challenged as the 1970’s approached.  Children were no longer removed from their families of origin solely on the basis of poverty.  Definitions of abuse and neglect were established and requirements about reporting the occurrences were put in place.

The population of children who were then entering foster care had experienced more traumas, such as abuse and neglect, exposure to violence and substance abuse.  The number of minority children entering care continued to be disproportionately higher.  These children needed families.  Many programs were developed to find families for foster children considered “hard-to-place” based on their age, race, culture or special needs.  Some of these programs included the Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoptions program, aimed at finding single parents to adopt the waiting children, and the Indian Adoption Project, which sought out transracial (mostly white) families for Native American children who needed families.

The matching method traditionally used, dated from the 1950’s, placed healthy white infants into families of a similar culture, religion and perceived intellectual functioning.  Well into the 1970’s the matching process used by the majority of agencies in the U.S. still favored placing children into adoptive homes where they looked like the adoptive parents.  The thought was that secrecy would keep all of the members of the adoptions triad (birth parent, adoptive parents and child) “protected” from being stigmatized and shamed. Birthparents were told to live as if nothing had happened after the adoption.  Adoption agencies did not interfere after an adoption, so the adoptive parents would feel entitled to the child and protected from the intrusion of the adoption agency.  The practice denied any difference between adoptive and birth families and did not address any of the issues that face adoptive families.

Similarly, the adopted children were assumed to have no adoption related issues, the importance of adoption in child’s identity formation was minimized, and families were told that if a child showed interest in searching for their birth family, it was considered a sign of maladjustment.  These adoption practices continued to discriminate against African American birth mothers and their children.  While unwed Caucasian birth mothers were supported and nurtured, African American birth mothers were not and were viewed as promiscuous by some.  Approximately 70% of Caucasian infants placed for adoption found families while only about 5% of non-Caucasian infants found families in 1960.

Adoption and birth records were sealed based again upon this philosophy that the best interest of all involved was honored by maintaining secrecy. Some child welfare and social workers began to advocate for an open adoption record system, and slowly non-identifying information began to be shared by both birth and adoptive families.  “Open” adoptions, where birth and adoptive parents have knowledge of each other, became more widely received in the 1970s.

International adoptions were on the rise into the early 1970’s.  Overall, adoptions reached a peak in 1970.  Earlier, children were adopted by U.S. citizens from Germany, and a large number of children from South Korea were also adopted after the Korean War.  As the Soviet Union dissolved and China imposed a one-child policy, many infants from foreign countries became available for adoption in the U.S. Before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Operation Babylift was the mass evacuation of about 3,000 infants and young children from South Vietnam.  This controversial evacuation had proponents arguing that the operation saved the children’s lives, while opponents argued all of the children were not confirmed to be orphaned.  This operation drew great attention to international adoption in the U.S. Many of these children became the only person of Asian ethnicity for hundreds of miles in their new adoptive homes, cultures and country, which led to great identity and grief and loss issues.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the numbers of healthy Caucasian infants available for adoption were declining, and the number of African American and biracial children adopted by Caucasian parents known as transracial adoptions, increased, although it continued to remain rare.  The Children’s Bureau recognized the great need of African American and biracial children in the child welfare system to find adoptive homes, and promoting transracial adoptions was discussed as a way to find families for them.  The mindset at the time was that lots of African American children in foster care were available for adoption and a supposed lack of African American families to adopt the children.

Advocates of transracial adoption took the position that children need families and race should not matter, love being stronger than color.  Many waiting families are not of the same race as the majority of the waiting children in the foster care system, but the population of available resource families was willing to adopt no matter the race of the child, so transracial adoptions both help reduce the number of children in foster care and help waiting families realize their dream of adopting. Those opposing transracial adoption cite a fear that transracially adopted children will not be prepared to face racism and may have identity issues as they develop into adulthood.  They also argue more resource families of color would be available if the screening processes were changed and their cultures better understood. This debate began in the 1940’s but continues into today.

At the North American Council on Adoptable Children’s, NACAC, national conference in 1972 the National Association of Black Social Workers, NABSW, released a position statement on transracial adoption, condemning the practice.  They noted concerns about the identity formation, particularly racial and cultural identity, of children adopted transracially and likened the practice to a type of cultural genocide.  They also proposed that black families were not even recruited for adoption, and that assessment measures selected out black couples from becoming eligible and discriminated against black families in favor of white families. Their stance was that transracial adoptions occurred to meet the needs of Caucasian couples who could not locate Caucasian infants to adopt and that the practice of transracial adoptions did not take into consideration the best interest of the African American children.  This led to drastic changes within the adoption field and the numbers of children placed for adoption transracially immediately declined.  New laws were put into place that required children to be placed into families of the same race for adoption.

In the 1970’s, some social workers and professionals believed that Native American children were being raised by their birth families and tribes in a way that was damaging.  They felt that the children’s interests would be better served if they were removed from their birth families, tribes and culture and placed into predominantly white families.  The children were sometimes taken through deception and misrepresentation. An estimated 25-35% of Native American children were removed from their homes and often adopted by new white families.

National concern grew around this practice of stripping Native American children from their homes and culture.  In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, ICWA, with the intent of putting an end to the unscrupulous removal of Native American children from their families for adoption outside of their culture.  The act states the law “is the policy of this nation to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture, and by providing for assistance to Indian tribes in the operation of child and family service programs.”  ICWA continues to apply today whenever a Native American child is involved in any child custody proceeding.