Successful transracial adoptions require cross-cultural sensitivity

Adoptions in the United States are on the rise, which is encouraging news to celebrate during National Adoption Month. More than 88,000 Americans became adoptive parents in 2005, the last year for which figures are available. Many of today’s adoptions cross racial and cultural lines.

Is that a good thing or bad? It all depends.

Most important in the life of a child is a loving and nurturing home, whether or not the parents share the same skin color or cultural background, according to Richard Smith, director of adoption for Lutheran Social Services.

In the 1970s, thousands of African-American children were left to languish in foster care because of a misguided belief of the National Association of Black Social Workers that found its way into law in various states. The organization called the adoption of black children by white couples “cultural and racial genocide,” alleging that transracial adoption prevented black children from forming a strong racial identity and from developing survival skills necessary to deal with a racist society.

There’s a lot of truth to that, but instead of working to ensure that that didn’t happen, the group opted to push for laws that would pretty much put the brakes on domestic transracial adoptions.

Looking at where we were as a society in the ’70s explains the black social workers’ concerns, according to Smith. “Back in the day, [liberal white Americans were of the mindset] that race didn’t matter. They were color blind.”

Transracial adoptions require sensitivity
With that kind of naiveté, those folks weren’t the best candidates to parent black kids. Transracial adoptions with parents who hold those views can do a tremendous injustice to children who grow up with little sense of where they came from, who they are in the broader sense and how to cope in what, alas, is still all too often a racist society.

A biracial young woman (African-American and Caucasian) adopted by a white couple in Connecticut in the ’70s offers one example. Raised in an interracial neighborhood with friends of all races, she was sheltered by well-meaning and loving parents who didn’t prepare her for the hatefulness she would encounter when she left her insular world. She went off to college, and the first time she was called the dreaded “n-word,” she freaked.

In cases like that, African-American placement probably would have been preferable. Trouble was, there weren’t — and still aren’t — enough African-Americans seeking to adopt to make a dent in the number of African-American children in foster care who are waiting and hoping for a home of their own.

In 1994, President Clinton signed into law the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (amended in 1996), which prohibits the delay or denial of any adoption because of the race, color or national origin of the child or of the adoptive parents. OK, so what do you do to make it work?

“Our ability to get our hearts around these kids is what makes it work” — along with education of the parents, Smith says. Lutheran Social Services offers a four-hour cross-culture training session every other month, and the Children’s Home Society has a similar program. The idea is to educate parents about things vital to raising a child of another ethnicity, such as hair care and, more importantly, to hammer home the point that this child does not look like you. He or she is going to soon recognize that, and parents need to reconcile themselves to that and embrace that culture as well as their own.

Cross-cultural approach essential
This approach is vital, whether the adoptive child in question is African-American or from another country.

“I recognize that he’s of a different culture, but I know a lot about South America and Central America,” says Carol Callen of her son, Christopher. That’s one of the reasons the first-grade teacher from Brooklyn Park and her husband, Matthew, a computer analyst, traveled to Guatemala in 2006 to bring home their infant son. “I taught in Houston for 10 years, all Hispanic kids, so it was a very natural choice for me,” she says.

The Callens play Spanish lullabies for 15-month-old Christopher and bought “tons of presents” in Guatemalan markets, enough for his first 12 “Gotcha Days,” marking the anniversary of the day he went home with Mom and Dad. When those gifts run out, a trip to his native land will be in order, she says.

Single mom Darla Melander, a registered nurse who lives in South Minneapolis, says she is a better mom this time around in terms of getting her daughter in touch with her heritage. Melander is mom to grown daughter Mauri, grandmother to Mauri’s daughter, Yasmina, 12, and mom to Tatum, 7, whom she adopted as an infant. Mauri and Yasmina are biracial, and Tatum is African-American.

“When Mauri was young, I didn’t have enough African-American friends. I was a single, working mom, and I didn’t have the time to seek out those social relationships,” she says.

Tatum has benefited from relationships with friends of her big sister and niece. Also, she and Yasmina attend a small south Minneapolis Christian school that is 60 to 70 percent African-American.

“That’s been a real plus for the kids,” says Melander, who acknowledges that regardless of who their parents are, the world sees Tatum and Yasmina as African-American. As black children, they must have the coping skills and the self-esteem to defend themselves against those who view them as less equal.

As Smith puts it, not dealing with that issue “is like not teaching your kid to cross the street safely.”

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