AUSTIN, TEXAS — Steve Minors remembers the first time he met Alex, the little African-American boy who would become his son. His wife, Zelda, a social worker dealing in adoption, had cajoled him to attend a party for prospective parents.
From the moment Mr. Minors walked into the room, he says, something happened.
"We just locked eyes," says Minors, sitting in his chiropractic office in Austin, Texas, while Alex splashes his hands under a stream from the water cooler. "He opened his arms and fell on my chest, and went to sleep there for about 45 minutes. On the way home, Zelda and I looked at each other and said, 'What just happened here?' "
But Minors knew. "We just felt it was our moral obligation to adopt this child."
It's an opinion that more and more black and biracial couples are reaching, and it's coming at a time when the US foster-care system is filling up with children, 55 percent of them African-American. Some 540,000 children are in foster care, according to the Child Welfare League of America, up 25 percent from five years ago.
Of these, it's been African-American children that have traditionally been harder to place. The challenge of finding homes for them has dogged agencies for years, as they struggled to overcome the black community's distrust of officialdom and to resolve a dispute over whether black children should always be adopted by black families.
Now, as social agencies and churches begin to actively recruit African-American parents, many are finding ways to break down the traditional barriers that have kept many black families from considering formal adoption. It's a solution that makes the legal adoption process more responsive to the cultural needs of black parents, and promotes a goal that most Americans can agree on: providing more stable, loving homes for foster kids.
"There are a lot of efforts to recruit African-American families to adopt - and the movement is going to be increasing," says Gloria Hochman of the National Adoption Center, a family information group in Philadelphia. "We need to recruit parents in the African-American community, and where adoption is relatively new. But at the same time, we need to increase adoption of more children in general."
For much of the nation's history, adoption was an informal process, with neighbors, grandmothers, or sisters taking on the care of children of people in need, raising them as their own. This was especially true for black families, who had a tradition of turning to their own community for support. But in the past 30 years, as child-welfare workers and courts became more aggressive in taking children out of troubled homes, many prospective black parents have found themselves removed from this process, and suspicious of it as well.
"There's a lot to overcome," says Ms. Hochman. "Any recruitment effort can't just go out and say, 'Oh there are children who need families.' They need to replace those feelings of distrust, too," feelings that social workers are the "bad guys, who are going to take away our children."
Exacerbating this situation was a heated debate about the role of race in adoption. Some sociologists and social workers argue that a black child should only be placed with a black family, since that would provide the child with role models and cultural pride and a community of support. Others contend that there is no evidence that a loving white family is as good as a loving black one, and that, in any case, waiting for the perfect black home means that many foster children will reach adulthood without ever knowing a permanent home.
Recent laws from Congress have, for the time being, put that debate on the back burner, as lawmakers sped up the required time for foster agencies to place foster children for adoption. The Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994, in addition, prohibited adoption agencies or social workers from denying the placement of a child "solely" because of the race or national origin of the adoptive parent.
For Charlotte Campbell, a recruiter for the Marywood adoption agency in Austin, the answer to this debate has been simple: attract more African-American parents. She visits black men's leadership groups, churches, Bible study groups, parades, trade fairs, and even the occasional Kwanzaa festival.
The effort has paid off. Last year, her agency placed 36 black or biracial children for adoption, more than twice the number of the year before.
"It's an ongoing thing," she says. "I would love to see the day where we have adoptive parents waiting for children, instead of children waiting for parents."
Sometimes, the adoption of a child can set off a chain reaction in a community. Such was the case in the tiny east Texas town of New Harmony. It started as a trickle, in 1996, when a woman from the Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church adopted a foster child. Within four years, as other parents in the congregation became interested, it has become a flood.
The Rev. W.C. Martin, pastor of the church, and his wife, Donna, decided to adopt to fill the void left by the death of Donna's mother in 1996. The answer came through prayer, says Mr. Martin. "God said in a word: 'Adopt!' " he recalls. "It all began out of obedience to what God had spoken." And obey he did. Martin and his wife have two biological children, two adopted children, and two foster children who will be adopted in January.
In the first year, 23 families from the congregation of 200 signed up for parenting classes in order to adopt children, prompting the local foster care agency to provide parenting classes in the church itself. The next year, 18 families signed up. This year, 67 families signed up, but the church only had space for 13. In all, the church has adopted 60 children from across Texas. One member of the congregation adopted five sisters in a single day.
"There are a lot of churches that are into building buildings," says Martin. "We're into building lives. Our motto is to save a generation."
No less inspiring is the experience of Carolyn Young, an educator from Austin who adopted a two-week-old baby named Michael three years ago. On a recent morning in her spacious home, Ms. Young is preparing her ever-fashionable son, wearing Pokmon sneakers, for a day at preschool.
She asks Michael if he will tell a visitor "nice meeting you." Michael responds, "Nice meeting me," before scampering off with his grandmother for a ride to school.
Ms. Young had always wanted a child, and after her divorce, she started exploring adoption, including a child whose parents had abused drugs or alcohol. Her experience as a special-education teacher taught her that those children could perform just as well as children of "healthy" parents, given the right home environment.
Within four months of her application, she was a mom, holding a tiny infant in her arms. Now her experience is prompting people at her office to ask her about adoption.
"People stop me in the hall, they say, 'I've got a question about adoption,' " she says. "I've changed some people's minds."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society