- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 29, 2001

Social scientists agree that the needs of interracially or interculturally adopted children are served best by fostering ties to birth cultures. Families achieve this unity in different ways.

Vastly important, integrated families should strive to live in integrated areas, says Howard Altstein a professor of social work at the University of Maryland.

"We live in a very racially aware world, and we should be concerned that it's an environment that is racially mixed and shows people of color in all walks of life," he says.

Mr. Altstein has researched interracial and intercultural adoption for 29 years. He says many of the parents he has met in his work chose to attend churches that reflected multiple races. Many moved into racially mixed neighborhoods and registered their children in racially mixed schools.

"Some sought out pediatricians who were black, for example," he says. "On the other hand, the kids become 13, 14, 15 and report, 'My parents only want to talk about race. I know who I am.'"

Sandra Patton, an assistant professor of American studies at Des Moines' Drake University, heard some of the same complaints from adoptive children while researching her book "Birth Marks: Transracial Adoption in Contemporary America."

"Adoptees expressed discomfort over making their racial-ethnic identity stand out too much like making special outings to black churches," she says. "The problems with this occurred when such encounters with African-Americans were not part of their everyday lives, but rather were framed as special cultural encounters."

She continues: "One Korean adoptee I spoke with said she felt like Korean culture camp was the place her parents sent her to be different. That is not to say that such experiences were not valuable. What is important is that transracially adoptive families live racially and ethnically diverse lives."

Adoptive parents Brad and Valerie Center of Alexandria are white and have introduced diversity to their two black sons in a number of ways.

"The biggest thing was that our social worker gave us information on joining the Interracial Family Circle ," Mrs. Center says. "It's a group of families like ourselves. When I buy books, I make sure they aren't filled with white faces. The minister in our church was black that was very important to me. He left, and the new one is white, but his assistant is black."

Wendy Melvin, a social worker in the District and a member of the National Association of Black Social Workers, advises interracially adoptive parents to be open and receptive to the birth culture.

"Be willing to expose your child to as much diversity as possible," she says. "Make sure you have black friends; attend events where there are people of color who are speaking. I would say the same thing for people who adopt internationally."

Kathleen O'Leary adopted her daughter, Nora, from Guatemala four years ago. She says she is strongly considering a Spanish-immersion school for Nora when the child begins kindergarten next year.

"She should speak Spanish," says Ms. O'Leary, who speaks some Spanish but is not fluent. "I think that will be a link to her own birth culture, and she needs to speak Spanish to feel at home in both worlds."

She says she has told Nora the story of her birth and that, like most adopted children of her age, Nora loves to hear it.

"She tells people all the time where she was born," Ms. O'Leary says. "At her school, there are four intercultural families. I did a presentation to her class when they were studying the rain forest."

Additionally, Ms. O'Leary says, she talks to Nora about her country of origin and that culture. They read books together about it, listen to its music and attend cultural events in this area.

"My being matter-of-fact and open about it will help her to feel integrated," Ms. O'Leary says.

Rita Simon, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University and a sociologist by training, has interviewed scores of adult adoptees during the past several decades. Her most recent book on transracial adoption is "In Their Own Voices," co-authored with Rhonda Roorda.

Ms. Simon observes that "being in a family where people are mixed races, it no longer gave whiteness a higher priority. It's a very positive story the children grow up very happy."

However, she says, "love is not enough. You really have to make changes in your own life."

Indeed, says Cindy Freidmutter, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City, perhaps interracial or intercultural adoption is not for everyone.

"Some people are very interested in learning about other people and cultures," she says. "People bring a great commitment to hosting diversity in their family. Others have lived in a very narrow world, and they need to ask themselves if they are able to open up to a world that is very different."

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