When my partner and I talked about starting a family, we had a lot of choices to make. We chose adoption for a number of reasons. Artificial insemination is rather expensive, and neither of us felt a strong need to have a biological connection to our child. We chose domestic adoption, also, in part because of the high cost of international adoption, and also because we both had the sentiment that there were kids here in the U.S. in need of homes. Finally, we decided that—being an interacial couple—we would adopt an African American or biracial child. What we discovered along the way is that the adoption costs were less and the waiting period shorter because while there’s no shortage of African American children waiting to be adopted, there’s a great shortage of American families willing to adopt them.
Americans pay as much as $35,000 to adopt white or Chinese infants. But many African American children like Gabriel have difficulty finding permanent U.S. families at any price. Since the early 1990s, several hundred have found homes — with white parents — in Canada.
The irony of one of the world’s wealthiest nations exporting its own children has not gone unnoticed. For many, it raises questions about identity, race and the tangled legacy of American slavery.
Margaret Fleming, director of a Chicago agency called Adoption-Link that specializes in African American adoptions, has placed 70 black children with white Canadians since 1993.
“There is no shortage of American families willing to adopt,” she said. “There is a shortage of American families willing to adopt these kids.”
There is an “adoption hierarchy,” Fleming said, that is impossible to overlook. “Blond, blue-eyed girls are at the top and African American boys are at the bottom,” said Fleming, who is the white mother to five adopted African American children.
I have to admit I was uncomfortably aware of the “adoption hierarchy” throughout our proccess of learning the various ways that many gay men went about adopting their children. There were lot’s of stories of people going to Asian, South American, and Eastern European countries to adopt eir children. Yet, as an African American male, I couldn’t help but consider how much it seemed African American kids—boys particularly—were just not wanted. Still, I only ever heard one couple say out loud that they would not adopt an African American child, giving the reason that they didn’t feel equipped to help that child deal with racism. (Mind you, these are gay men who have dealt with prejudice and discrimination their entire lives. Ironically, one of the reasons our son’s birthmother chose us is because, in her words, we had “overcome prejudice and discrmination,” by the simple act of being out gay couple seeking to adopt a child.) It’s one of those subjects that’s difficult to talk about, because it’s so personal; as personal as the basis on which one chooses a life partner. And the reasons for making that choice can be myriad. Still, I can’t help but wonder to what degree racial prejudices play in the trend towards American families not adopting African American children.
Adoption officials suggest additional reasons for adopting overseas. Evelyn Lamb, director of development for the Boys and Girls Aid Society of Oregon, said that international adoption can seem “tidier” than domestic adoption.
Adoptive parents can “fantasize,” she said, about the circumstances that led a birth mother to place her baby for adoption elsewhere. Here, she said, blame is often levied on birth mothers for “lifestyle choices.”
Part of that blame, at least in the case of some black birth mothers, stems from the negative stereotype fostered by media reports in the late 1980s and early 1990s of the so-called “crack babies,” infants who were exposed to crack cocaine during pregnancy. Many predicted that babies born to mothers who had smoked crack during pregnancy would suffer irreversible brain damage.
But research has disproved that. Claire Coles, a developmental psychologist who directs the Fetal Alcohol Center at Emory University in Atlanta, has studied the effects of drugs in pregnancy for 20 years. Generally, she said, cocaine does not affect growth or cognition, but may result in a “vulnerability” in some children in dealing with stress.
The false assumptions about crack deepened white America’s reluctance to adopt black children, adoption officials say. “The myth persisted,” Coles said.
I’ll never forget one moment right after bringing our son home; one that opened my eyes to the precptions my son might encounter as an adopted African American child. He was just a month old, and as new parents were were anxious to connect with other parents with young children. My partner had learned of a couple of babysitting coops that were starting up, and we decided it would be a good idea to get involved in one. We went to a social event, a brunch for a now-defunct babysitting coop in one of D.C’s somewhat “yuppie” neighborhoods. We met some other new parents, including the hosts, and introduced ourselves and our son. Of couse, our family stood out. We were the only gay couple there. Our son and I were the only people of color there. I took notice of it, but didn’t make much of it.
Naturally, people were curious to hear the story of our son’s adoption, and we didn’t mind telling it. But there was one moment that seemed a bit odd.
As we were telling the story of how we came to adopt our son, the man we were speaking with—a civil rights attorney, and new father, as it turns out—interjected with the statement, “Y’know, you guys are really doing soceity a favor.”
A minute later he asked us if we knew what the birthmother did for a living.
I got a quizzical look on my face, and glanced at the hubby to see if he knew what in hell this guy was talking about, because I was starting to feel vaguely offended, but thinking that I must have been misunderstanding something.
I didn’t misunderstand for long, because the guy kept talking. As we were trying to figure out what he was getting at, he launched into a bit of a diatribe about “crack babies” and all the problems with them. I think I was in shock, standing there holding my son, with my mouth hanging open. In seconds I realized what was going on. This guy took one look at us, a gay couple, and one look at our son, an African American boy, and immediately assumed that he must be a crack baby. ([sarcasm] because no one in their right mind would give us a healthy white baby, like his, and because black children are routinely born addicted to something.[/sarcasm])
Words failed me. I stood there silently, wishing I’d had a pot of hot coffee (or better yet, hot grease) within arms reach. Fortunately, the hubby piped up and informed the man that our son wasn’t born addicted to anything, and that in the process of deciding what we did and didn’t want, we decided that we wanted an infant whose birthmother had not engaged in drug or alcohol use during the pregnancy, and that’s what we got. (This was, in part, due to the fact that the hubby works every day with kids who do have these issues, and didn’t want to face them at home too.)
We left soon thereafter, and upon debriefing realized we’d both had the same thought while talking to this jerk.
It troubles me to look at our son and know that many other people might not have wanted him as much as we did. And it troubles me to know that many the first thing many people are going to see when they look at him are the assumptions they project upon him because of his race. Still, I know from from experience a few thing about how to handle that second problem, both as an African American male and as a gay man. I know I’ll do whatever I can to equip my son to deal with the prejudices of the society in which he’ll grow up.
Indeed, many say it helped lead to the notion that foreign-born children are seen as somehow “better risks” than American-born ones.
“By going overseas a lot of people have convinced themselves that they’re getting ‘different’ children,” said Deborah Aronson, executive director of Heritage Adoption Services in Portland. Heritage has facilitated several hundred international adoptions, including placing some U.S.-born children in Canada and Great Britain.
“Somehow they think that getting a ‘special-needs’ child from Eastern Europe is less ‘special-needs’ than the ‘special-needs’ child born in the state they live in,” said Aronson, who is the adoptive mother of two African American adolescents. “It’s just not true.”
The notion of “supply and demand” among human beings is a discomfiting one, adoption officials say, but it is a reality. Since the development of the birth control pill and the legalization of abortion, fewer American infants have been placed for adoption.
National statistics on the number of adoptable infants, or their races, are impossible to come by because the United States has no central adoption authority, said Tom Atwood, president of the National Council for Adoption, a nonprofit organization in Alexandria, Va. But black infants and children, he said, “are generally more difficult to place.”
The United States has not yet ratified the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which would, among other things, more strictly regulate the process of intercountry adoptions.
I know some gay couples and single gay men have adopted abroad because it can be easier to adopt from some countries as a single man (and do a second parent adoption back in the states, for a partner), and others who have adopted from abroad because it was easier to do so as at their age (on the assumption that domestic adoption tends to favor younger parents). Still, I have to admit that it causes me to smile a bit more when we run into another couple—gay, straight, black, white, or interacial&mash;who’ve adopted an African American child. I guess it’s because I know that at least a few more people have stopped buying into some of the assumptions about adopting African American children. Not enough, perhaps, to give homes to all those who need them, but at least it’s a start.
Even as transracial adoptions from Asia and Latin America increase, African American children make up 40 percent of the children in the U.S. foster care system, Atwood said. In the United States, blacks account for 13 percent of the population.
It’s a shame that people can’t see past their prejudices even when it comes to children.