New Law Inflames Struggle Over ‘Black Adoptions’ : Children: Congress has set back efforts to place African American youths exclusively with parents of the same race.


The green loose-leaf binder that sits atop Ruth Amerson’s desk is a sad commentary on the status of America’s children. The book is called PALS--short for Photo Adoption Listing Service--and in it are page after page of heart-wrenching photographs and vignettes, the stories of youngsters who have no homes.

In almost every photograph, the face is black.

Antonio “is an active, sociable child with expressive eyes,” the book reports. His brother, Ta’Quan, “is very affectionate, once he warms up to you.” The book lists the boys’ ages as 6 and 5. In fact, they are 8 and 7; they have spent more than two years hoping for new parents.

Dewanna, 11, “has a great deal of love to share.” Chris, no age listed, “enjoys reading, watching TV and playing outdoors.”


Amerson is on a mission to find families for these modern orphans. Here, in a faded little city of 18,000 about an hour south of Raleigh, she wages her campaign from an aging yellow wood-frame house with not much more than a phone, a fax, a copier and an 800 number. But not just any families will do.

Amerson wants black families. Black families for black children.

Her fledgling adoption agency, Another Choice for Black Children, is one of a small cadre of minority-run agencies scattered across the country dedicated to the premise that African American children belong with African American parents. Their work has taken on a new urgency of late. The political winds in Washington have been shifting.

Last year, in the wake of several highly publicized stories about white families who were denied requests to adopt their black foster children, Congress passed the Multiethnic Placement Act, intended to facilitate what are known in child welfare circles as “transracial adoptions.”

The law will reverse longstanding practices in many states, including California, whereby social workers relied on race in deciding who could adopt a child. Under rules drafted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, any county child welfare department that delays or denies an adoption based on race will lose its federal funding. A second bill before Congress would go even further, saying that race may not be considered at all.

The measures are designed to speed up the adoptions of tens of thousands of children like Antonio and Ta’Quan. But in a society where race relations are fragile, they also raise a host of thorny questions:

Is sending black children to live in white homes stripping the African American community of its most vital asset, amounting to “cultural genocide,” as the National Assn. of Black Social Workers proclaimed in 1972? Do white families need “sensitivity training” to raise black children? Or are agencies like Amerson’s guilty of reverse racism? In America in 1995, just how much does race matter?

Colorblind Adoptions

That Congress stepped into this sticky debate was, for advocates of trans-racial adoption, a victory in itself. They see the Multiethnic Placement Act as the first tender step toward making federal adoption policy as colorblind as the laws governing housing and equal employment. Citing sociological studies that show it does children no harm to be raised in families of another race, they make a compelling argument that race-matching in adoptions is unnecessary, is bad policy and is unconstitutional.

“The current race-matching policies are a form of racial separatism,” says Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard University law professor and leading advocate of transracial adoptions. “It is discouraging the formation of trans-racial families through parenting, which seems to me just as bad as discouraging trans-racial marriage.”

But to Amerson and others who have dedicated their lives to the 26-year-old movement known as “black adoptions,” the law and the new measure under consideration amount to a call to arms. Why, they wonder, is Congress trying to make it easier for white people to adopt black children? Why isn’t anybody trying to make it easier for adoptions by black people--who say they are discouraged by a child welfare bureaucracy that is cumbersome and often culturally insensitive?

“I maintain that black children belong to the black community,” declares Zena Oglesby, director of the Institute for Black Parenting in Los Angeles, which has arranged for more than 300 adoptions since it opened eight years ago. “I don’t want to have to go to war over black children, but if we have to fight for our children, then the gloves will come off.”

In Sanford, the battle begins at 1506 Woodland Ave., down the block from the Bojangles fast-food place. A recent Monday morning finds Amerson in the kitchen, which has been converted into a makeshift office, doing what she usually does: working the phones. She is talking at a rapid clip, and when she is finished, she declares bluntly that she is not in a good mood.

She had been counseling an interracial couple who were seeking to adopt. Amerson had a biracial baby boy lined up. It seemed, to her, a perfect match. But the caller--one of 10 part-time social workers who spend nights and weekends moonlighting for Another Choice--tells Amerson the adoption will not go through. Child welfare authorities in Cleveland County, on the other side of the state, have decided the baby should remain with his foster parents, who are white.

Amerson is crushed. She is just about to call the county to demand an explanation when the phone rings. This time it is welcome news: A black man is about to adopt two little boys. A single man! She can hardly believe her own success. Single men, she says, almost never get to adopt.

One-Woman Agency

“He’s a daddy!” Amerson shrieks. “I’m in a good mood now!” She picks up the phone to call Stanley Adams, the father-to-be. “Tell Stanley this is Ruth Amerson,” she says excitedly, “and he must call me right away.”

She hangs up, beaming. One hit, one miss. Not a bad start for a Monday. And it is only 9:15; there is a whole day of phone work ahead.

Founded in January with a $100,000 grant from the federal government, Another Choice is the newest of 13 agencies of its kind, including the Institute for Black Parenting. Calling it an agency, however, might be overstating things; a one-woman band is closer to the truth.

Amerson, 39, is a social worker by training, married, with two children of her own and plans to adopt more. She set up shop in her hometown because she knew a lawyer there who would let her have a couple of rooms rent-free. Aside from herself, there is just one full-time employee, who carries the title of director of social work.

Unlike most adoption agencies, Another Choice charges no fees. Nor does it represent any children. Rather, it functions like a referral service, evaluating families to determine if they are eligible to adopt, and then linking these families with county child welfare agencies that have jurisdiction over available foster children.

As the green loose-leaf binder on Amerson’s desk suggests, there is no shortage of children, in North Carolina or anywhere in the country.

America is in the thick of a child welfare crisis. Nationwide, 445,000 children are in foster care because their biological parents either abused or neglected them. As of December, 1990, the most recent year for which figures are available, 69,000 were on an adoption track; 20,000 had been legally “freed for adoption.” In child welfare parlance, this means that social workers tried and failed to reunite them with their biological families, and now there is no chance they will go back home.

Blacks are disproportionately represented. Although African Americans account for 12% of the nation’s population, 43% of the children waiting for permanent homes are black. Babies account for just a fraction--4%--of the children waiting. More than 40% are ages 6 to 12.

There are certain axioms of the adoption business. Most people who want to adopt--especially white people--want infants. The older the child, the harder it is to find a home. Boys are harder to place than girls, and black boys are the hardest to place of all. All of this is reflected in Amerson’s work.

“I have not had a call from one white family that said, ‘I’ll be willing to take a 6-year-old child,’ ” she says. “They say, ‘We would take a black child,’ and you ask them the age range and it’s usually a baby. When we talk about a 6- or a 4-year-old, that is not their interest.”

Race as Disability

The wait for a new family is long--two years, eight months on average. The wait for black children is even longer--roughly 3 1/2 years. Indeed, so many black foster children have been waiting so long for families that the government categorizes them as “special needs” children, lumping them in with the disabled and ill, solely because of their race.

It is so difficult to find families for these children that the government provides prospective parents with a financial incentive in the form of “adoption subsidies” that can amount to up to several hundred dollars a month. At the bottom of every photo page in the PALS book are these three words: “Subsidy is available.” (The subsidies, however, are now in jeopardy. A recent House appropriation bill eliminates the program.)

It was against the backdrop of these depressing numbers that Congress passed the Multiethnic Placement Act. Advocates of trans-racial adoption argued that there are simply too many black children waiting; white families, they said, are surely better than no families at all. Congress agreed.

“The numbers don’t add up,” says Rita James Simon, a sociologist at American University who has studied children adopted trans-racially. “There are too many black children available for adoption. With all the best intentions in the world, I don’t think 12% of our population can accommodate all those children.”

Call her pie-in-the-sky, call her loony tunes, call her racist, but Amerson doesn’t buy this argument. It is her belief that families--good, solid black families--could be found for all the waiting children if only there were more social workers devoted to finding them.

She opened Another Choice based on this assumption, after 12 frustrating years working with a volunteer group that tried to recruit black families. Across the state, she says, she met countless families interested in adopting.

Somehow, they never did.

Amerson began to believe what most in black adoptions believe: The cumbersome child welfare bureaucracy, insensitive to the needs of African Americans, discourages blacks. “I can’t even think about how many kids missed an opportunity because we couldn’t get the families through the process.”

Indeed, research conducted by the nonprofit North American Council on Adoptable Children discovered that 40% of minority families seeking to adopt drop out after their first contact with a social worker--a rate twice that of whites. One study by the Urban League found that, of 800 black families who expressed interest in adopting, two were approved.

Moreover, a 1993 study by the San Francisco-based Center for the Future of Children found that public child welfare agencies across the country “are doing very little” to recruit black families and retain those they do recruit. At the same time, the study noted, “the adoption work force continues to be primarily white and female.”

Carol Williams, head of the Children’s Bureau at Health and Human Services, says those criticisms are valid. “What we see is huge numbers of families of color applying but very few getting through the whole process.”

In an attempt to address this problem, the Multiethnic Placement Act requires public agencies to expand recruitment efforts. Williams says the provision could be a powerful tool. But with congressional budget proposals calling for a 15% reduction in child welfare money over five years, she adds, there is likely to be little money to enforce it.

This, says Amerson, “is the tragedy of this bill. Large numbers of black families are not even getting through the system, but then you want to create a law to allow white families access to these children? We’re out here, and no one is really listening to the real problems, the real issues.”

Business Is Booming

Still, she forges ahead, eternally optimistic.

In the seven months that Another Choice has been in business, Amerson has fielded 1,000 phone calls a month. They come by word of mouth; Another Choice does not advertise. So far, more than 60 families have completed an eight-week parenting course and have been approved to adopt. Another 50 families are waiting to take the class. Amerson and her crew have found homes for 32 children.

It is, by anyone’s measure, a breakneck pace.

“It is kind of phenomenal, the rate that they are going,” says Esther High, North Carolina’s top adoptions official. “One social worker told me several weeks ago that Ruth’s agency had already shown them that there was an alternative for long-term foster care for black children. They had thought for so long that the families weren’t there. But she has shown them that the families are out there.”

It is delicate, emotional work. Recently, a couple rejected a child. They were college-educated professionals. At the last minute, however, they decided their 9-year-old son did not want a brother after all. With the adoption about to become final, they sent the boy back.

To Amerson, it reinforced an old lesson: Material things do not always make for the best home. “I try to remind myself that those folks who seem to have very little--in terms of money, in terms of education, in terms of resources--may have a wealth of commitment. They may have the fortitude to hang in there with a child. So don’t overlook them as possibilities.”

A New Father

One who did not get overlooked was Stanley Adams. Adams, a 32-year-old social worker at a home for abused children, called Another Choice in May. He wanted to become a father but worried that “the world was just not ready” for a single man to adopt. After a thorough background check, Amerson assured him that the world was indeed ready. Then she set about proving it.

The first few county agencies she called rejected Adams outright, citing longstanding suspicions in the social work field that single men who want to adopt may have ulterior motives, such as molestation. “They said unless he walks on water, we would be real nervous about working with a single man.”

Finally she found a county on the coast that had been trying to find a home for two brothers. If you feel comfortable with the man, they told Amerson, we’ll take a look at him.

In June, Amerson sent Adams to the group home where Antonio, the “active, sociable” 8-year-old, and 7-year-old Ta’Quan live. There was something about these children--their warmth, their openness, their vulnerability--that struck him. “The little fellas just grow on a person,” he says.

Last weekend, Adams took the children he now calls “my boys” home for their first extended visit. It went well. At the end, Antonio and Ta’Quan said they wanted to pray for the arrangement to become permanent. That should happen soon; Adams hopes the green loose-leaf binder will be two pages thinner by summer’s end.