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The Colors of Adoption: Black vs. White

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A Texas Case Reflects a National Debate

The low point in Scott and Lou Ann Mullen's long battle to adopt their two youngest sons came one evening as they watched the local news. There, in a segment on children in search of loving homes, flashed the sweet, familiar faces of Joseph and Matthew. The boys were hoping, the announcer said, that a nice family would want to adopt them.

It was almost more than the Mullens could bear. They wanted to adopt the young brothers. They felt that Joseph and Matthew already were their children, ripped away from them by a state agency because of the color of their skin.

Scott Mullen is white; Lou Ann is Native American, and Joseph and Matthew, now 7 and 4, are black. After more than two heart-wrenching years, the Mullens finally have been allowed to adopt the brothers, but the adoption was approved only after they filed suit charging the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services with racial discrimination in its adoption practices.

Under a recent settlement, the agency agreed to turn over adoption statistics for the next two years to the Institute of Justice, the Washington, D.C. - based conservative advocacy group that assisted the Mullens - but department officials deny that race played a part in their decisions.

Lou Ann Mullen says she knows better. "Several caseworkers, the adoption supervisor, they all said, 'No, it would be in the kids' best interest to place them in an African American home,"' says Mullen, 31, a mother of eight, including seven adopted children, and a longtime foster parent. "Those words will stick with me for the rest of my life-what about love?"

The Mullens' case is the latest salvo in a highly charged debate in which all sides argue from both emotion and experience about what is best for children. It is, simply put, an argument about whether white families, who are often anxious to adopt any healthy child, should be allowed to raise black children, who represent a disproportionate share of those available for adoption.

At the opposite end of this debate is David Watts, a biracial social worker in New York who was raised by an adoptive white family. "It's a bad idea to put a black child in a white home.... I think it's impossible for someone of one culture to teach another culture," he says. "You have to live it in order to absorb it."

The Texas case, along with similar court challenges in Tennessee and Maryland, is forcing a closer look at the controversial issue of "race-matching" in adoptions. The issue is already on the federal agenda. In August, Congress enacted legislation that could deny states a percentage of federal funds for foster care if race is used to delay or deny adoptions. The measure was based on studies showing that African American children are spending twice as much time in foster homes as white children.

Those who believe that ethnic identity support race matching and pride can be best preserved if, for example, an African American child grows up in an African American family. Since 1972, the influential National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) has taken this stance, suggesting that interracial adoption is a form of "genocide" and that "black children in white homes are cut off from the healthy development of themselves as black people."

"Same race makes sense because it is what the child is accustomed to, what causes the least disruption in the child's life," says Toni Oliver, a chairman of the organization. "Oftentimes when people are looking at 'love is all it takes,' they seem to overlook the impact race has on our society. Somehow when it's a case of adoption, race suddenly doesn't seem to matter anymore."

The North American Council on Adoptable Children also has serious reservations. "It is probably optimal if children are placed in same-race, same-culture placements, but we do not condone delaying placement and preventing children from finding homes just to meet that optimal placement," says spokeswoman Diane Riggs.

Black families who want to adopt often are at a disadvantage because of the expenses involved in a public adoption, including a minimum of $1,500 court costs, Riggs says. Another barrier is that "in the African American culture, there is a belief that it should be a family-to-family thing, a community effort, that a child is not something you should pay for," she says.

But critics of race matching say there is a darker side involving whites with lingering racist beliefs against mixing races. They argue that children are hurt most by the practice.
"One of the problems with race-matching policies," says Donna Matias, a lawyer with the Institute of justice, "is that it leaves the children in the system to wait. They are thrown into a vicious cycle where the chances plummet that they will ever get adopted."

Until World War II, which left thousands of children looking for homes, it was extremely rare for white couples to adopt black children. Well into the 1960s, the guiding policy was that every effort should be made to match a child with the skin color and religion of the adoptive family.
During the civil rights movement, interracial adoptions in the United States increased dramatically, more than tripling from 733 cases in 1968 to 2,574 cases in 1971. (There are now about 6,500 cases a year.) But a backlash followed the NABSW's condemnation, and a debate has raged ever since about the benefits and hazards of placing children with parents of different races. The few available academic studies have shown that the adopted children grow up well adjusted and comfortable with their ethnic identity.

Opponents of race matching contend that the numbers now seem stacked against the possibility of same-race adoptions. Of the estimated 500,000 children in the U.S. foster home system, more than half are minorities. Of those available for adoption, 40 percent are black, although blacks represent only about 13 percent of the general population. What is more, according to the National Adoption Center, which keeps track of so-called hard-to-place children, about 67 percent of such children are black and 26 percent are white, while 67 percent of the waiting families are white and 31 percent are black.

But all the talk of race leaves Lou Ann Mullen cold. That was the only consideration, she believes, that prompted social workers to take little Matthew, who had been in her foster care since he came home from the hospital addicted to cocaine and suffering from syphilis-away from their home while the search continued for a more "suitable" adoptive family. She cannot bear to think how he must have suffered.

"It's going to take him a long time to trust anybody," she says.

State officials have always given the Mullens excellent ratings as foster parents. It was only when they wanted to adopt, the Mullens believe, that the doors slammed shut.

A small, youthful woman with long dark hair, Mullen speaks with quiet anger about the ordeal. Deeply religious, she believes her life's work is to care for children who need a home, feelings shared by Scott, 35, who also has a state job working with youth convicted of violent crimes. The high school sweethearts came to their marriage with an instant family - Lou Ann's younger brother, Juan, now 20, and sister, Gloria, 18, whom the couple adopted after their mother was unable to care for them. The family also includes Mary, 12, the Mullens' only biological child; Rachel, 9, who is biracial and was adopted privately; and a brother and sister, 12 and 10, who are black and have lived with them in foster care for nearly six years. The Mullens are trying to adopt them as well.

Their home, in this small central-Texas town of 1,000, is a cozy maze constructed from the connection of three mobile homes. Each child has a room crammed full of toys and collections. One wall is devoted to the smiling photographs of the children who have passed through the Mullen's lives.

Matthew came to the family in November 1992 when he was only a few days old. They quickly grew to love him, and immediately told his social workers that they wanted to adopt him. But they were told "no way," Lou Ann Mullen says, that Matthew needed a black home.

When the child was 2, the state agency removed him from the Mullens to place him with his older brother, Joseph, who was being adopted by a black family. That plan soon fell apart, however, and the boys were placed in a black foster home while the social workers, who were white, searched for another black family to adopt them.

According to the Mullens, one of the supervisors said she was prepared to spend six months searching for a same-race family and that she would place the boys in a group home before she would let the Mullens adopt them. Only after Lou Ann contacted the Institute of justice and the couple filed suit in April 1995 did social workers give them an official adoption application.

Ironically, Texas has had since 1993 what is considered one of the strongest laws on the subject, saying that a state or county agency "may not deny or delay placement of a child for adoption or otherwise discriminate on the basis of the race or ethnicity of the child or prospective parents."

Linda Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Regulatory and Protective Services, denies that the agency did anything wrong. Refusing to comment specifically on the Mullens' case, she says the department "supports interracial adoptions. That is evidenced by the fact that 45 percent of our adoptions are interracial.... We're trying very hard to recruit all kinds of people to adopt because we need all kinds of people... What is important to remember is these children need a home. We can't have any policies or practices that interfere with children having a loving home as soon as possible."

But Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard University law professor who has studied public adoptions for a dozen years, says that difficulties such as those experienced by the Mullens often reflect the mind-set of the agency staff. Bartholet refers to race matching as "the unwritten and generally invisible rules" that guide adoption policies. At least two other families with similar experiences agree:

In Hagerstown, Md., Michael and Sylvia Mauk, who are white, waged a long and unsuccessful battle to adopt a black infant girl, who was crack-addicted and sexually abused, placed in their foster care by the state Department of Social Services. In 1992, when the child was 2, she was removed from the Mauks' home to be placed with a black adoptive family, despite the Mauks' continuing pleas to adopt her. A protracted legal battle between the Mauks and the adoptive family ensued. Although a court-appointed social worker credited the Mauks with transforming the child's life, the court decided against removing her from the adoptive family.

"It was very unjust," says Sylvia Mauk, 44. "It was because we are white. There was absolutely no other reason. We were white and she was black, and that was the bottom line. A social worker told us that when she was 16 years old, she would resent us for adopting her. That was baloney."

In Memphis, Ben and Laurel Reisman have an on-going class-action suit against the Tennessee Department of Human Services, challenging the use of racial classifications in adoptions under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. In an earlier suit, the Reismans, who are white, successfully challenged the department's practice of considering only non-white applicants for mixed-race children, allowing them to adopt their daughter, Cady, now 6, who is biracial.

"The essence of it is that children of color are treated differently than children who are white, in terms of adoption procedure," says Ben Reisman, 54. "We demand that they're going to have to define for the world what a black person is. We essentially want them to quit using race as a factor unless they're willing to set a standard."

But some researchers say that interracial adoptions are more complicated than many prospective parents believe. Robert T. Carter, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, has found that many adoptees as young adults begin struggling with issues of identity and culture. David Watts, who is part of Carter's research team, says he only realized after he left his white adoptive family in Cleveland how isolated and different he had sometimes felt as a child.

"Because there were no black people around, and my parents did make a concerted effort to give me a lot of history and heritage, I thought I had a handle on what it was to be black," says Watts, 30. "I didn't realize the difference between white and black culture until I was 21 and came to New York. That's when I learned what I had missed, not only the obvious things, like food and dress and music, but the subtleties of black culture-the jokes told, how loud you speak, how much you touch when you talk, the relationships between mothers and sons. That's when I realized that while my parents had done a good job, it was incomplete, because I didn't have the full story."

The result, Watts says, is that he went through several years of distancing himself from his adoptive family, although the relationship has gradually warmed.

Rita Simon, an American University professor who has conducted the only long-term study on the subject, says she found that the children had healthy attitudes toward their racial identities. After tracking black children adopted by white families over a 20-year period, Simon concluded that "the best interests of the child" would be met if state agencies would move "without regard to race."

That is Lou Ann Mullen's hope, that skin color will no longer be a factor in adoption. "I don't want any other family to suffer what we suffered," she says.

Credits: Sue Anne Pressley

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