Adoption across racial lines: a study's findings

By , Rita J. Simon is dean of the School of Justice at the American University.

The issue of whether white parents should be allowed to adopt black children is in the news because the Baltimore County Department of Social Services has denied, at least until November, the request of James and Jackie Haas, a white couple, to adopt a three-year-old retarded and handicapped black child.

The basis for its position stems from a resolution adopted by the National Association of Black Social Workers in 1971 that said: ''Black children should be placed only with black families whether in foster care or adoption. Black children belong physically, psychologically, and culturally in black families in order that they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future. Black children in white homes are cut off from the healthy development of themselves as black people.''

Since 1972, Howard Altstein and I have studied some 200 white families in five cities in the United States, most of whom adopted American black children. Some adopted native American and Korean children. We have written two books about the experiences of those families. A few weeks ago we completed the fieldwork in our third survey of how the parents and children in these same families identify themselves, and relate to each other and their environment.

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The first time we met these families in 1972, the children (adoptees as well as those born to the parents) were between the ages of 3 and 8. After interviews with the parents and 350 children, we concluded that transracial adoption appeared to be a mechanism whereby children could develop racial ''color blindness.'' Transracial adoption enabled the children to develop awareness of race, respect for physical differences imposed by race, and ease with their own racial characteristics. We said transracial adoption could have a significant, perhaps even a revolutionary, impact on the racial identity and attitudes of young black and white children.

In 1979, we went back to the families and interviewed only the parents. Almost all still felt their decisions to adopt transracially were among the wisest and most satisfying they had ever made.

A few weeks ago we completed our third survey of these families. This time we conducted lengthy private interviews with each parent and with the children. All of the children are now at least 15 years old, some in their late teens. We have not yet analyzed all the data. But reading the questionnaires and listening to the audio tapes that we have on each family should allay the fears of the Baltimore County Department of Social Services.

These adolescent and young adults, all of whom have been reared by white parents since infancy or early childhood, are not victims of racism. They have not been scarred by their environment. They are growing up with an awareness of their own ethnic identity, with strong attachments to siblings and parents, and with confidence that they will find their way in the world. They believe they have acquired the skills to live in both their families' community and in the ethnic community of their birth. Their friends come from black, white, and other ethnic groups. As adults, they expect to remain close to their parents and siblings and to reach out to people who share similar physical and cultural characteristics.

Our studies support Dr. Alvin Poussaint's criticism of the myth that children of interracial families inevitably have psychological problems. Indeed, all reported studies demonstrate that black children reared by white parents grow up with a healthy sense of their personal and racial identity. Perhaps transracial adoption should not be an automatic or first-choice placement, but if it is in the best interests of the children, it is a much better choice of placement than foster homes or institutions.

Baltimore County is doing Mr. and Mrs. Haas a disservice and hurting the young child in need of a home. In the long run they are likely to discourage couples from trying to adopt children whose choices are usually limited to foster homes or institutions.

The philosophy that makes race all important in adoption criteria should be reexamined. Social science data and clinical judgments show that black children reared by white parents grow up physically and emotionally healthy, with a positive sense of their personal and racial identity. If adoption and social work agencies really mean it when they claim they have the best interests of the children in mind, they should not give race the priority it now assumes.

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