The number of American families adopting children of a different race has steadily grown in recent years, primarily because of a sharp increase in overseas adoption. Adoptions from abroad have nearly doubled over the past decade, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Last year, 8,327 children joined families in the United States; in 1974, the total was 4,770. The largest number of children came from South Korea, but Colombia, El Salvador, India, and dozens of other countries were also involved.
At the same time, adoption of black American children by white families continued a 13-year decline. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers took a vehement stand against interracial adoption, on grounds that the ethnic identity of children needed to be preserved and that black families had been shut out of the adoption system.
That position has been taken to heart by many of the nation's largest adoption agencies. David Liederman, director of the Child Welfare League, says, ``Our feeling is, wherever humanly possible, children should be placed in homes of their own racial background.'' The major exception, he adds, would be children, often older children, with special needs. ``If some wonderful couple comes along who's willing to provide a home, it would be contrary to conscience to say no,'' he says.
Some in the adoption field hold that black families willing to adopt are scarce. ``It's next to impossible for agencies to find enough black families for all of the black children that are out there,'' says Jane Edwards, of Spence-Chapin Services for Families and Children in New York. Further, she notes that research indicates that ``kids are doing all right'' in multiracial adoptive settings.
Others, however, point to progress in finding black families for black children. ``We've been very successful in recruiting such families,'' says Roger Toogood, head of Children's Home Society in St. Paul, Minn.
Mr. Toogood's agency is also very active in placing children from abroad. Here, too, the philosophy of keeping a child's cultural and racial heritage intact holds. ``It's only when there are not adequate human resources in a child's own country that we believe in bringing a child here,'' Mr. Toogood explains. He is working closely with Koreans to try to develop adoption services in South Korea. But the numbers of children needing homes still far outstrips in-country adoption services. In India, for exam ple, the situation is ``just unreal,'' he says. And American couples, he continues, are ``lined up'' to take Indian children, as well as those from Korea, Latin America, and other places.
As more and more such couples -- for the most part white and middleclass -- provide homes for children of a different race and culture, questions inevitably arise about how things work out in the long run.
``The majority of placements go very well, despite the typical experience -- the whole issue of being different,'' says Ina Jorge of the Children's Home Society of California. Over the past nine years, she has helped place nearly 1,000 children, mostly from Asia, with families in her makeup-fea state. She notes, however, that challenges can spring up when a child ``hits adolescence.'' At that point, she says, many Korean children, for example, ``feel between a rock and a hard place'' -- not sure of thei r place in white American society, but often rejected as ``bad blood'' by people of their own ethnic background.
Parents often try to help counter this by plunging into their children's native cultures, Mrs. Jorge says. Ethnic cultural centers become valuable resources for families wanting to develop ``skills to deal with the stigma.''
New York's Spence-Chapin agency has ties to an organization called Gathering International Families Together, made up mostly of white parents of Asian children placed by the agency. The group sponsors dinners, discussions, and cultural events that emphasize the children's heritage, according to Mrs. Edwards.
She is concerned, however, that too much emphasis can be given a child's ethnic background. ``It's really not that important,'' she says, compared with the basics of good parenting and helping children with their learning processes. Most children, she says, want to assimilate. ``It's not common that they want to be separate.''
Adolescent crises also confront American families that have adopted black children born in the US, notes Sidney Duncan, president of Homes for Black Children, an agency in Detroit that has been a pioneer in placing black children with black families. ``From time to time kids call us to talk over their problems,'' she says. There's no question that kids can thrive and grow in a white family, she explains, ``but there's no question that there are greater problems there, too.''
In Mrs. Duncan's view, increased efforts to place children with families of their own race spring from a recognition that the child's interest has to come first. We have to focus on adoption as a ``service to the children,'' she says, with the desires of prospective parents, however sincere, coming second.
On the other hand, research, including a 1974 Child Welfare League study of 227 families, has tended to indicate that most children do well in mixed homes.
One thing is clear: Thousands of Americans are open to adopting children of other races, something that's only been true since the early '60s. Before that, adoption was almost always within a child's own racial group, according to a study of adoption by Marc Leepson of Editorial Research Reports. Now, says Mr. Toogood, ``there's no resistance, none at all.''
And best of all, he says, are the results he has seen. He describes the family situations that have grown from the overseas adoptions his agency has arranged as ``just fabulous -- emotionally moving.''