Baby Byron Case Illustrates Black-and-White Issue of Adoption : Families: The black toddler’s white foster parents want to adopt him. But foes contend that would amount to cultural genocide.


He was born addicted to cocaine and heroin, so scrawny and odd-looking he reminded his foster parents of a bird without feathers.

They grew to love him as they nursed him through the shakes and sweats of withdrawal.

Today, Byron Griffin is a chubby-cheeked toddler of 3 and an unwitting symbol of the furor that can erupt when white parents try to adopt black children.

The Baby Byron case has inspired newspaper articles, a book and a Pennsylvania bill about abandoned babies. Some say the Hollywood movie “Losing Isaiah” resembles it. Drawn into the fray at times have been the state Supreme Court, the federal court system, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the governor and state representatives.


The case has made headlines of the multiple prostitution arrests of LaShawn Jeffrey, Byron’s biological mother, and publicized such personal bits of information as foster mother Karen Derzack’s hospitalization years ago for anorexia and treatment for depression.

And it has focused national attention on the issue of transracial adoption.

“People feel strongly that you’re taking children away from their community,” said Rita Simon, an American University sociologist who has researched transracial adoptions. “It’s seen as cultural genocide.”

White foster families such as the Derzacks see efforts to keep black children with black families as reverse racism. Lost in the shuffle, they say, are the children, who can be bounced from home to home for years.

“It’s like we’re OK as foster parents, when the kid has all the problems,” said Sylvia Mauk, a Hagerstown, Md., foster parent. But when the child is OK and you want to adopt, “race enters into it.”

She and her husband, Michael, are protesting the removal of Tiffany, a black child placed with a black couple in March, 1992. The Mauks, who are white, contend race was the overwhelming factor and in May petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case.

Similar custody battles are being fought in courtrooms across the country, and one recently played out in movie theaters.


“Losing Isaiah,” starring Jessica Lange and Halle Berry, tells the story of a white social worker who adopts a black baby believed to have been abandoned by his drug-abusing mother.

Four years later, when the biological mother tries to claim her child, the courts get involved.

Likewise, in Milwaukee, a pair of white foster parents, David and Beverly Cox, are battling to regain custody of two black sisters who had lived with them for five years. A judge in June ordered the girls, ages 5 and 6, to be moved to the home of an aunt.

Few cases, however, have caused such a stir as the case of Baby Byron.

His mother, a chunky, pleasant-faced woman with a history of drug use and prostitution, left him in the hospital shortly after he was born in July, 1992, according to Allegheny County’s Children and Youth Services.

The agency soon found willing foster parents in Karen and Michael Derzack, a suburban Pittsburgh couple. The “short-term” match seemed advantageous for both: Although the agency normally tried to place black children with black parents, it knew that the Derzacks would provide good temporary care for Byron.

The Derzacks, who already had three children--two adopted, one biological, all white--believed caring for the sickly baby “for just a few days” would help endear them to the agency. At the time, they were trying to adopt another black child in the agency’s custody, Rico.


By October, Byron, much recovered, was still with the Derzacks, who had decided they wanted to adopt him instead.

Two months later, caseworkers came to take Byron. But the Derzacks, with a defiance rarely seen in foster parents, refused to give him up.

A judge allowed them to keep Byron for the next year. But the nasty confrontations weren’t over. On Dec. 27, 1993, agency director Mary Freeland and police entered the Derzacks’ home through a garage door and seized a sobbing Byron.

“Oh, my God, I said to myself over and over. They’ve stolen my child,” Michael Derzack wrote in “Bird Without Feathers,” a book published last year about the saga. (A gag order prevents all the parties from giving interviews.)

A judge had ordered that Byron be returned to Jeffrey, who was living in Sojourner House, which specializes in helping addicted mothers. Byron’s father had died in a car accident.

At a news conference, Jeffrey thanked the Derzacks for their “care and concern regarding Byron. But I do not need their help any longer.”


She also said she had visited her son up until the last hours of his six-day hospital stay, but that Children and Youth Services had taken Byron without her consent “in a matter of a few hours” when she left the hospital to eat lunch.

Meanwhile, the Derzacks hired a private investigator to watch Jeffrey and her relatives, filed a federal lawsuit against the agency and coaxed state representatives into introducing legislation regarding abandoned babies.

After less than a year, Byron was back with the Derzacks--and so was his then-3-year-old sister, Byrae. Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph Jaffe ordered the change in custody after authorities said Jeffrey resumed using drugs and she was arrested again for prostitution.

The move angered black activists, who said many black families were willing to care for the children, including Jeffrey’s great-aunt, Marion Ellis. Ellis, who has a nonfatal disease that prevents her from working, had been caring for Byron and Byrae, as well as Jeffrey’s three older children.

It’s as if “we’re not concerned about our own,” said Mark Brentley, a member of Pittsburgh’s Coalition for African American Justice, which has held several protests in front of the Derzacks’ house.

Objections to white couples rearing black children are linked to issues of cultural identity. The National Assn. of Black Social Workers, which has a strong presence in placement agencies, opposes transracial placements unless all other options have been exhausted.


White families can’t teach black children how to cope with racism or give them a sense of their heritage, organization members say.

“A lot of these kids live in all-white areas, and they’re constantly being called names or teased about their hair,” said Leora Neal, co-chairwoman of the group’s Task Force on Foster Care and Adoption.

A black child adopted by a white family is constantly reminded that he is adopted.

“People are constantly asking the kid, ‘Why do you have a white mother?’ They feel like they don’t fit in,” said Neal. “And when they get older, the white community does not accept them.”

Sociologist Simon counters that a 20-year study she did of 200 white families who had adopted minority children showed a majority of the children were aware of their heritage and comfortable with it.

Moreover, restricting black children to black families makes finding homes for everyone difficult, some researchers say. Of the 50,000 or so foster children who are waiting to be adopted, 38% are black--a far greater proportion than the 12% of blacks in the U.S. population, according to the National Council For Adoption. Blacks wait twice as long as whites to be adopted.

“There’s a continuing problem of finding enough black families to adopt black children,” said the council’s Mary Beth Style.


Neal says, however, that blacks often are available to adopt but are rejected in favor of whites. A program run by the black social workers’ group in New York City has a waiting list of 26 black families who want to adopt black children, she said.

Racial matching efforts show signs of losing ground. The House GOP’s “contract with America” and parts of the welfare-reform bill passed by the House in late March would deny federal funds to agencies that discriminate in placing children based on race. (A bill passed in May by the Senate Finance Committee did not contain language about transracial adoptions, according to a Senate GOP staffer.)

In the Baby Byron case, developments show an even greater turn in the Derzacks’ favor. In late November, Jaffe directed that visits between the children, Jeffrey and Ellis no longer be held at Ellis’ home after a stabbing occurred outside the apartment. In December, Jeffrey was arrested again for prostitution.

And in April, Jaffe terminated Jeffrey’s parental rights to Byron and Byrae, theoretically clearing the way for the Derzacks to adopt them. Their mother, however, has appealed, leaving the children’s fate still hanging.