Fight over mixed-race adoptions

A Rhode Island case shows how changes in attitude don't always follow

Sandra Lapierre says her foster son has grown three inches since a judge ruled in December that she and her husband could adopt the boy. As she sees it, the decision freed the kindergartner from a stultifying uncertainty about his future, and he is suddenly outgrowing his Levis.

But there is one more hurdle before the adoption is final. The Rhode Island Supreme Court must yet sign off on letting the Lapierres, who are white, adopt Justin, who is black and Hispanic - over the objections of a relative who has argued all along that she can provide the boy with biological and racial ties.

Justin's case is the latest to plumb the deep emotions that often accompany a mixed-race adoption. Like other recent trans-racial custody dramas from Illinois to Maryland, it also serves as a test of a five-year-old federal law intended to make the adoption process "colorblind."

The long fight in Rhode Island's courts may portend that, US directives notwithstanding, changes in individuals' hearts and minds often lag behind changes in the law.

The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (MEPA), enacted by Congress in 1994, prohibits denying or delaying the adoption of a ward of the state because of race. Supporters say it is intended to redress the problem of too many minority children languishing in foster care. Critics, however, say that placing a minority child with white parents can be threatening to the racial identity of the youth, and that the law doesn't do enough to recruit adoptive parents of color.

A new survey shows the 1994 law has apparently had little effect on the number of transracial adoptions. On the other hand, lawyers who handle such cases reported that none of these adoptions was denied in the past 1-1/2 years, says Rita Simon, a professor at American University in Washington whose study on MEPA will be published this fall.

Many see Justin's case as one more test of public and legal acceptance of transracial adoption. From advocates' point of view, the law is being largely ignored. "The resistance to transracial adoption ... is extraordinarily powerful," says Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School.

Howard Metzenbaum, formerly a Democratic senator from Ohio and author of MEPA, agrees. "Black social workers are so determined that white families not adopt black children that they're willing to keep them in foster homes ... rather than [help] white families adopt the children."

But Christine Thompson, Justin's African-American cousin who also wants to adopt him, would see it differently. While neither she nor her lawyer will comment, Ms. Thompson has expressed frustration with the state child-welfare agency, saying it delayed her pursuit of adoption until it could argue that Justin had bonded with a white family.

Justin, who ended up in foster care after the court terminated the parental rights of his teenage mother, is fortunate in having two families who want to raise him. Minority children, on average, spend longer in the uncertainty of foster care than do whites. Of the 110,000 kids who need permanent homes, 56 percent are black and 9 percent are Hispanic, estimates the US Department of Health and Human Services.

In the early 1970s, when many white families began adopting black children, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) expressed concern about the impact such adoptions would have on the children. Many states followed NABSW's preference for race-matching.

Since then, changes have been made in states' laws, but unwritten policies persist. MEPA will be ineffective, says Mr. Metzenbaum, until HHS sends a clearer signal that federal funding will be withheld from states that delay adoptions because they are waiting for racial matches.

It's too soon to blame HHS, responds Michael Kharfen, spokesman for the HHS division that focuses on children. While the agency has worked with states to revise policies, the challenge remains of changing the attitudes of caseworkers and supervisors who make placement decisions.

Others believe there's more of a middle ground. The North American Council on Adoptable Children in St. Paul, Minn., founded by transracial adopters who acknowledge that race does play a role in a child's identity and development, tries to educate parents about adopting transracially. It also works to break down barriers that have long discouraged minorities from adopting.

Advocates of color-blind adoption say it will help change a culture that for too long has been divided by race. Mrs. Lapierre says the schools and Justin's biological family can help him deal with issues related to his heritage. She and Thompson have been working to improve their relationship recently, she says, and Justin visits Thompson regularly.

But Lapierre has also taken up the cause of getting MEPA enforced. "I don't want to see somebody else have to go through this," she says about the $40,000 litigation process.

"The courts taught my children that race matters," she says. "To me, the one issue is, racism comes from people being scared of someone different, so I try to eliminate it in my home."

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