When Valerie and Brad Center prepared to adopt their first child in 1992, time was a factor. Race was not.
The Centers, who live in Alexandria, wanted a child quickly, and they wanted to start their family “from the ground up” with a baby, says Mrs. Center, a part-time physical therapist. The couple registered with the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency and completed a course for foster and adoptive parents. When they saw 11-month-old Jeremy, an abandoned baby temporarily placed in a group home, they jumped at the chance to be his parents.
Mr. and Mrs. Center are white; Jeremy, now 8, is black. The family later adopted another son Peter, 5, who also is black.
“Everywhere we go we see families like us,” Mrs. Center says. “We are not the only ones. And the more interracial families there are, the less race is an obstacle. You’re not going to have an ‘us and them’ situation, because ‘us and them’ are in the same family.”
But the Centers know and social scientists confirm that cross-culturally adoptive relationships are complex unions. Many adoptive parents and their children find themselves battling racism, and the parents work hard to preserve and promote their children’s birth culture.
Howard Altstein, a University of Maryland social-work professor, has studied interracial and intercultural adoption for 29 years. He says promoting and preserving identity is crucial to transracially and transculturally adopted children and just about everyone else.
“Identity is what makes us, in large part, who we are,” he says. “It’s extremely important to our functioning as human beings.”
An estimated 18 percent or 8,300 of the 46,000 adoptions through the public child-welfare system in fiscal year 1999 (the latest year available) crossed racial or cultural lines, says Pam Carter, deputy director of the office of public affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. However, just 16,226 children adopted that year were identified as white; of those, fewer than 1 percent were adopted by blacks, either singly or in couples, Ms. Carter reports.
And the international adoption rate seems to be nothing short of a American phenomenon: Overseas adoptions by U.S. citizens increased 161 percent from October 1989 to September 2000 for a fiscal 2000 total of 18,539. Adoptions of children from China rank highest, from Russia second, and from South Korea a distant third.
The adoption of black or biracial children by white parents has been occurring with regularity since about the middle to late 1960s, Mr. Altstein says. Various laws laid on the books over the years ruled that race would not be an issue in matching adoptive parents with children. Even so, he says, interracial adoption very quickly became a “political-cultural-racial issue.”
Mr. Altstein explains: “The argument by African Americans (the ones who oppose transracial adoption) is that racism is pervasive. If racism hadn’t been prevalent, we wouldn’t have African-American children in the system to begin with, because there would be enough African-American adoptive families to absorb the children.”
In 1972, he says, the National Association of Black Social Workers released a strong statement: Black children should remain within the black community, within black homes. To remove them by way of transracial adoption is to remove them from their culture.
Wendy Melvin, a social worker for a private adoption agency in the District and a member of the National Association of Black Social Workers, the organization’s pronouncement “is a stand of promoting healthy black families and encouraging more than a stand against interracial adoption.”
Cindy Freidmutter, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City, agrees with that concept mostly.
“Sure, it’s ideal to have children adopted by people who have as much in common with them as possible,” she says. “I don’t know anyone who would quarrel with that. The problem is that you don’t want to delay children in foster care for any length of time.”
Sandra Patton, an assistant professor of American studies at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, didn’t experience interracial adoption when she was adopted, but she has become a researcher in that topic.
“When white families adopt children of color, they cannot do it colorblindly,” she says. “We have this idea that colorblindness is the goal, but it does not serve children of color well.”
Ms. Patton interviewed many adoptees for her book “Birthmarks: Transracial Adoption in Contemporary America,” published last year. She says a number of adults adopted as children told her that an important factor in their lives was how their parents taught them to deal with racism.
Many parents, Ms. Patton says, told their children simply to ignore racist comments and treatment because “they come from ignorant people.” That response did nothing, however, to dismantle the idea that there was “something wrong” with being black or a member of whatever racial-ethnic group to which they belonged, she says.
“Adoptees whose parents taught them racism is systemic fared much better,” she says. “Understanding that we live in a racist society and that all people of color experience racism at various points in their lives allowed adoptees to distance themselves from racist ideas.”
Michelle Costello, who was adopted into a white family from Korea as a baby in 1974, says that acknowledging and celebrating differences is key. A social worker who provides education and counseling services for the Center for Adoption Support and Education in Falls Church, Ms. Costello also is president of a nonprofit group called Also Known As, which focuses on adult international adoptees.
“My family didn’t talk about much, but I ended up OK anyway,” she says. “The best practice back then was assimilation, and now they’re talking about exposing children to their birth cultures. I do wish I had that growing up. The resources nowadays are just amazing, and people should take advantage of them.”
Sometimes the daily grind can wear down adoptive parents, says Ms. Freidmutter of the Donaldson institute.
“The day-to-day problem is your children definitely don’t look like you, so they face lots of questions: Who are they? Who are you?” she says. “It is a public set of questions.”
Ms. Freidmutter knows some of the issues firsthand because her young son was adopted from Russia. Because both she and her child are white, however, “no one questions that I’m his mom. The difference between our situation and a transracial adoption is that are questioned all the time. Instead of people coming over and saying, ‘That’s a cute kid,’ they are saying, ‘Where did you get that kid from?’ These may be issues you wanted to address in private.”
She continues: “The prevailing wisdom about adoption these days is that you want your children to know their story from a pretty young age. I’ve told my son his story from the time I’ve been able to tell him stories. We are exploring his culture, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a public event.”
Sometimes Nora O’Leary’s young life can seem like a public forum. Her mother, Kathleen O’Leary, frequently is entreated to explain how she came to be called “Mommy” by a small girl whose forebears walked through the rain forest.
Sixteen years ago, Ms. O’Leary, now a social worker at the National Institute of Mental Health, lost her young husband to tragedy. With him went the couple’s dreams of starting a family.
In time, Ms. O’Leary says, she recovered from her loss and managed to recapture her happy and productive spirit. She began to think about the dream again.
Finally, after exhaustive research, endless paperwork and equal doses of worry and exhilaration, she found herself on an airplane to Central America preparing to meet the 3-month-old infant who would be her daughter.
“Nora just looked up at me and smiled,” Ms. O’Leary says. “I was a goner.”
Ms. O’Leary chose to adopt from Guatemala because she has traveled throughout the region and is familiar with the culture. Like the Centers, she also preferred to adopt a baby.
“I wanted a young child because I didn’t want to miss anything,” she says. “I also knew it was a part of the world I could go back to with my child fairly easily.”
Nora O’Leary is 4 years old now. She lives with her mom in Arlington and attends a Montessori preschool. She is very social, happy and outgoing, Ms. O’Leary says, “and underneath that is a will of steel.”
Like her mom, Nora is happiest singing songs from the ‘40s and ‘50s, devouring good books and visiting with friends.
Unlike her mom a woman with the fair skin, curly hair and green eyes of her Irish ancestry Nora has dark-brown eyes, caramel-colored skin and straight, thick black hair.
Ms. O’Leary concedes the inherent “differentness” is a challenge. Nora first put words to it at the age of 3.
“We were in a swimming pool,” Ms. O’Leary remembers, “and Nora said, ‘Mommy, your skin is white, and mine is brown.’ “
“‘Yeah, that’s right, honey,’” Ms. O’Leary recalls answering. “You have beautiful brown skin.”
“‘Well, one day when I grow up, I will turn white, and you will turn brown,’” Nora replied.
“Like any kid, she wants us to be alike she puzzles over it,” Ms. O’Leary says, “but I think people underestimate the power of the child to make the bond.”
Mrs. Center says her sons, Jeremy and Peter, don’t closely question their differentness.
“They really don’t seem to have any reactions,” she says. “It’s just the way it is. But Peter, for a while, wanted to know whose tummy he had come out of ‘Why didn’t I come out of yours?’ Jeremy has never had it be an issue.”
From her sons’ peers, she says, “the only thing I ever see is natural curiosity. I will show up at school functions, and kids will come up to me and ask. It’s so cute. I tell them that the boys are adopted. Kids are always very accepting. Anyway, this area is so open to that.”
Ninety-nine percent of reactions from other people are positive, she says. “Lots of people will see us and give us big smiles. The only negative comments I have heard have been from white people.”
When the boys were smaller, Mrs. Center says she sometimes endured comments usually in grocery-store checkout lines such as, “Can’t you have kids of your own?”
“Yes,” she would reply. “These are my own.”