CHICAGO — When foster parents Becky and Shannon Huggins took in eight-month-old Deedee, a neglected, 10-pound waif who had never sat up or smiled, they didn't anticipate how attached they would become.
But two years later, when the Lancaster, S.C., couple tried to adopt Deedee, they were repeatedly rebuffed by state child-welfare officials. The problem, they contend: They are white and Deedee is black.
"They called us 'Euro-Americans' and said it would be grave to place her in our home," says Mrs. Huggins. "If it was so grave, why did they leave her here for two years?"
This week House Republicans will bring to the floor a controversial pro-adoption bill that would give important legal recourse to couples like the Hugginses. Part of a GOP election-year push to be family-friendly, the measure would give a $5,000 tax credit to most adoptive families. It would also penalize states whose adoption agencies deny or delay placement of a child in order to find a family of the same race.
Rooted in America's history of racial segregation as well as modern black nationalism, the widespread practice of "race matching" in adoption is hurting prospects for tens of thousands of minority children like Deedee to find permanent homes.
The majority of US states place importance on "race, ethnicity, and/or culture" in adoption decisions, and 12 give those factors priority over prompt placement, a 1995 survey shows. Partly as a result, minority children, who make up 49 percent of the 500,000 in foster care, remain in the system more than twice as long, on average, as white children.
"The best interests of the child ... always mean placing that child into a loving family regardless of race," says Rep. Susan Molinari (R) of New York, a sponsor of the bill. Specifically, the bill would:
*Prohibit states from delaying or denying adoptions on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Violators would face a cutback in federal funds.
*Grant a $5,000 tax credit to adoptive parents earning up to $75,000 a year. Incrementally smaller credits would go to families earning up to $115,000 a year. The credit would offset the $20,000 average cost to adopt in the United States. It would cost the government about $2 billion over seven years.
GOP sponsors say the bill is needed to give teeth to the 1994 Multiethnic Placement Act (MPA). Some Democrats have offered their support, most prominently the retired Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio, whose name is on the act. Yesterday, a White House official said President Clinton also endorses the bill.
Mr. Metzenbaum says opponents thwarted the original intent of his act by allowing adoption agencies to consider the child's "racial background" as a factor in placement. While sounding reasonable, that language opened up a window for states to perpetuate racial matching, say supporters of the new bill.
Most public and private adoption agencies remain "governed by powerful race-matching policies," explains Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard Law School professor and adoption expert. The policies typically include categorizing children and prospective parents by race, ethnicity, and skin tone, and giving preference to minority parents in recruitment, subsidies, and screening, she says.
Children denied heritage
Critics of the new bill, led by the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), oppose transracial adoption as cultural "genocide." They contend that the practice denies minority children not only their heritage but also skills needed for survival in a racist society.
"It hurts everyone involved," says Leora Neal, director of the NABSW's New York adoption referral service. "Children need to know about their cultural roots. If they don't, they are treated as misfits. They will have a rude awakening down the line."
Children adapt well
Supporters of the Republican bill counter with studies showing that most children adapt well, and many flourish, in transracial adoptions. "All of the empirical studies show that transracial adoptees grow up emotionally and socially adjusted and aware of and comfortable with their racial identity," writes Rita Simon, a professor at American University's School of Public Affairs in Washington.
"They perceive themselves as integral parts of their adopted families and they expect to retain strong ties to their parents and siblings," according to Professor Simon, who has co-authored a 20-year study of transracial adoptions of children under age two. Most children awaiting adoption today are older and face a more difficult adjustment, but not mainly as a result of race, she says.
Many adoption experts acknowledge that same-race placement is preferable, all other things being equal. But they say demographic realities make it unrealistic to demand same-race placements in every case. "Transracial adoption is not better than same-race adoption, but we have to open up that option," Simon says.
For example, African-Americans, who represent 12 percent of the US population, are unlikely to come forward in sufficient numbers to provide homes for the 30 percent of foster children who are black. This is despite the fact that blacks traditionally adopt at higher rates than whites.
Practically, race-matching policies often mean holding minority children in the foster-care system for months or years - even as families wait to adopt.
"Race-matching traps kids in the system. It is extremely detrimental to their long-term needs," says Patrick Purtill, director of government relations at the National Council for Adoption in Washington and a supporter of the Republican bill.
The GOP bill would benefit children by reducing such delays and offering them permanent homes at a younger age, Mr. Purtill says. By reducing bureaucratic barriers, the bill would also encourage more prospective parents to apply to public agencies to adopt minority children.
In the case of the Hugginses, they won the right to adopt Deedee in January, but only after a time-consuming, 18-month court battle that cost them $35,000 in legal fees.
But white couples would not be the only ones to gain, says Carol Coccia of the National Coalition to End Racism in America's Child Care System. In Maynard, Mass., black foster parents the Rev. and Mrs. Walter Myers say an agency's race-matching policies have for a year obstructed their adoption of two white girls placed in their care three years ago. The girls' mother supports the adoption.