Born in America, adopted abroad

African-American babies are going to parents overseas even as US couples adopt children from other countries

Adrian Stokkeland, a 2-year-old in Canada, dances with his mom to the music of Elvis and sleeps with his most treasured possession, a box of toy cars. Emma Sonnenschein, an energetic 19-month-old in Germany, loves to "help" her mom around the house. Elisa van Meurs, a 5-year-old in the Netherlands, is a real girly-girl. Her favorite outfit is a Minnie Mouse dress, paired with a Snow White tiara and pink Barbie shoes.

Adrian, Emma, and Elisa have more in common than their charm and being the apple of their parents' eyes. All are black children born in the United States and adopted as infants by parents in other countries.

They also are representatives of a little-known trend: At the same time the US is "importing" increasing numbers of adoptive children from Russia, China, and Guatemala, it is "exporting" black babies to be adopted in other countries.

Since 1995, US State Department records indicate that international adoptions by Americans have increased more than 140 percent. Couples often cite the lack of American babies as the reason for adopting from abroad.

But the US is now the fourth largest "supplier" of babies for adoption to Canada. Adoption by Shepherd Care, an agency in Hollywood, Fla., places 90 percent of its African-American babies in Canada. One-third of the children placed through Adoption-Link in Chicago, which specializes in adoptions for black babies, go to people from other countries.

The exact numbers are not available, but interviews with adoption agencies and families in Canada, Germany, France, and the Netherlands indicate that the US also sends babies to those four countries as well as Belgium and England. Most of the children are black newborns. Most of the adoptingparents are Caucasian.

Why is it happening?

There is no simple explanation for why many white Americans prefer to adopt from abroad rather than adopt the available black babies at home. Racism is one reason, says Cheryl Kinnaird of Adoption-Link in Chicago. But there are others, she adds.

Families might choose an international adoption because of an affinity for a particular country or a desire to help. Many couples want a child who resembles them so that their family will not stand out as an "adoptive family." Since most adoptive families are Caucasian, this might explain the rise in adoptions from Russia and other eastern European countries.

In 2003, 37 percent of all international adoptions to the US were from countries where the majority of children adopted were Caucasian.

White couples may also be concerned about how their extended family will react to a black child. And they sometimes worry they are not up to the task of raising a black child in America and are not sure it is in the best interest of the child to be raised in a white environment.

Then, too, whites often are uncertain whether they can provide the child with cultural exposure to the African-American community.

Most adoption professionals agree that, all other things being equal, it is best to place an African- American child with an African-American family. The National Association of Black Social Workers' position is that every effort should be made to place children with families of the same race and culture.

Most, but not all, birth mothers agree, if they have the choice. However, they do not often have the choice, since fewer African-American couples apply to adoption agencies. One reason is that babies are frequently available within their extended family or community, and they have no need to go through the expense of an agency to adopt. Also, the number of infertile black couples who can afford to adopt is simply not as large as the number of black babies available.

The word hasn't gotten out

Some speculate that African-American babies have lagged behind in adoption rates because many Americans don't realize they're available. Media coverage and popular culture have focused on Americans adopting internationally rather than domestically.

"When we started to think about adoption, we thought only of international adoption because that's all we were hearing about," says Lisa Malaquin-Prey of North Carolina, mother of an adopted Russian baby. "We thought it would cost too much and that we would have to wait for a long time if we adopted domestically."

"I think that more Americans would adopt these babies if they knew they were available," says Stacy Hyer, a white American living in Germany with two adopted black children.

There is evidence of increasing adoption of black babies by white American families. But ingrained preferences still play a part in who is chosen for adoption.

The majority of couples seeking to adopt are white, but there aren't nearly enough Caucasian babies available in the US to meet the demand. Although exceptions certainly exist, American parents generally prefer babies to toddlers, girls to boys, and Caucasians to African-Americans, adoption professionals report. Other ethnicities fall in between, depending on their skin color. African-American boys are at the bottom of this "ranking" system, they say, which is why they're harder to place.

"We have to work much harder to find homes for our African-American babies," says Robert Springer of Christian Homes, an adoption agency in Texas.

No one is equating babies with commodities, but the principles of supply and demand apply. Adoption costs and waiting times in the US vary depending on a baby's ranking in the "desirability list."

The children who are in the greatest demand are also in the shortest supply. Those who want to adopt healthy white babies in the US may wait as long as five years, agencies say. In contrast, they add, the waiting for African-Americans is often measured in weeks and months, especially for baby boys.

The demand for biracial (black/white) babies falls in between, and the wait reflects this. The waiting period for a biracial girl can be more than a year.

It's also the case that adopting a white baby costs more than adopting a black or biracial one.

Adoption fees for healthy Caucasian babies can be as high as $40,000, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. For biracial babies, the cost is about $18,000. For African-American newborns, it ranges from $10,000 to $12,000, agencies say.

The costs to the adoption agency for each child also vary greatly, not because of race but due to circumstances. The agency may have paid all the prenatal expenses and living costs for one birth mother, for instance, and not another, who decided on adoption in her ninth month of pregnancy.

Why fees are less for black babies

But instead of passing along the actual costs to the new parents, many adoption agencies - most of which are nonprofit - charge a set fee that is determined by how difficult the baby may be to place. The agencies say this enables them to find homes for the children who are hardest to place.

Fees and waiting times for American families adopting internationally vary by country, but total costs, including travel, are usually about $30,000, with a waiting time of nine to 18 months.

Because of regulations and laws in the country of origin, most of the foreign children adopted from abroad by Americans are more than 1 year old when they arrive in the US.

In contrast, American babies can be adopted as soon as their parents relinquish them.

Families in foreign countries cite the availability of newborns as the primary reason they choose to adopt in the US. Canada and Europe don't have as many babies available for adoption. Therefore, "if you want a newborn, you go to America, " says Bart van Meurs, Elisa's dad. Families also cite the health of the babies, the short waiting time, and the availability of medical records as additional advantages. Race is seldom a consideration.

"Most of our families just want a baby as young as possible, and the US is the best place to go for a newborn," explainsLorneWelwood of Hope Adoption Services in Abbotsford, British Columbia. "They are not ignoring the race issues, but they don't think, like the Americans, that the less black the better."

"The families from abroad do not think of black babies as being second best, babies that they'll 'settle' for because white babies are hard to find," says Ms. Kinnaird.

Most adoption agencies encourage the birth mother to select the adoptive family for her child. Sometimes a black birth mother prefers having her child adopted overseas because she believes there is less prejudice there than in the US.

"Some birth mothers view placing their child abroad as a way for them to have a better life with less struggle," says Joe Sica of Shepherd Care in Hollywood, Fla.

Long-term studies of black children adopted by white parents paint a picture of well-adjusted children and teens strongly bonded to their families.

Tianna Broad, who's 12, readily fits into this picture. She's into makeup, clothes, soccer, and horses, as are most of her friends in British Columbia. "She's pretty much a typical Canadian teen," says her mother, Karen Madeiros.

Most parents abroad report little prejudice against their adopted black children. "Canada doesn't have the same race history as the US," notes Dawn Stokkeland, Adrian's Elvis-rocking mom. "There isn't the 'us' versus 'them' mentality here."

There are also not the numbers of blacks in Canada. "In my son's elementary school [in British Columbia], there are only eight blacks out of 450 kids and even fewer in my daughter's middle school," says Ms. Madeiros. "Most of the blacks here are middle-class professionals, and our neighborhoods are completely integrated."

"For the most part Germans have very positive views of blacks - they see them as singers, actors, and athletes - all positive images," explains Ms. Hyer. "My children are almost always accepted for who they are without any expectation of who they should be because of the color of their skin."

"I think the main reason there is little prejudice against blacks in Germany is because there are so few blacks here," says Peter Sonnenschein, father of two black children.

That's not to say there are never problems. Some parents say their children have encountered racism.

"Because Holland had many colonies, many [black] people live here and there is prejudice against them," says van Meurs.

"Although my [12-year-old] daughter has never experienced any racism that I know of, I can't say the same for my [10-year-old] son," says Madeiros.

Parents in Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands have formed support groups to help their children develop a positive self-image.

Signs of change

While the news may be encouraging for African-American children adopted abroad, there's evidence of change on the home front, too, as more white Americans look into adopting black babies.

Since the US doesn't keep statistics on private domestic adoptions, the exact numbers of trans-racial adoptions are not known, but anecdotal evidence abounds of a shift toward black infants being placed with white American families.

"We can find homes for all our babies in the US, but there are regional differences," notesRobert Springer of Christian Homes in Texas, who adds that "many families in the Northeast, Northwest, and Minnesota are eager to adopt African-American babies."

Dick Van Deelen, with Adoption Associates in Michigan, reports that for the first time in 35 years they have a list of white families waiting to adopt black babies.

In a twist to the import/export world of international adoption, "We are thinking of looking to Africa to bring over more children to meet this need," he says.

Adoption-Link, in Chicago, also has a waiting list of families for black babies.

"The younger generation that is now adopting is less prejudiced and more open to becoming a mixed-race family," says Mr. Van Deelen.

Some say that the growing willingness of Americans to adopt US babies regardless of skin color comes at a good time, since placement of American babies abroad may be threatened by new regulations.

The US is in the process of ratifying an international treaty on international adoption. Although the regulations are not final, it is expected that they will make it harder for agencies to place American babies abroad.

But all the talk of adoption trends and prejudice fades in the day-to-day existence of parenting after the child arrives.

Ms. Stokkeland sums up what most parents feel. After a particularly trying day with a strong-willed 2-year-old, she sighs and says, "I wouldn't trade [Adrian] for the world. He is truly the child God wanted me to have."

The adoption was such a success that Stokkeland did it again. Earlier this month, Adrian got a new little sister, as Claire Lisa, also African-American, came north from Georgia to join him and his mother in Canada. Stokkeland says she couldn't feel more blessed.

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