Why Can’t Adoption Be Multicultural?: The New York Newsday Interview with Elizabeth Bartholet

By Lise Funderburg
New York Newsday
5/25/93

Elizabeth Bartholet is a Harvard Law School professor and the author of “Family Bonds: Adoption and the Politics of Parenting” (Houghton Mifflin).

Q. You became a zealous advocate of adoption just in the last decade or so. What was the catalyst for that?
A. My life. I went through a lot of infertility treatment, then got into adoption and emerged from the whole experience with a very strong sense that adoption should not be [only a] last resort for so many people dealing with infertility.
Q. You’ve criticized the child welfare system for not acting in the best interests of children. In the adoption arena, how is that happening?
A. The regulators claim that what they’re doing is designed to further the best interests of children. In fact, what I’ve come to believe is that almost all adoption regulation consists essentially of barriers that stand between potential adoptive parents and the children who need homes.
A lot of barriers have to do with screening parents for fitness, which sounds as if it would be a good idea. But screening often makes it simply impossible for people to adopt.
For me, adopting two children meant screening by my home state of Massachusetts, the federal government, and then five months of screening in Lima, Peru. Now, I don’t resent it because it all came out well. But that kind of requirement means that 99 percent of the people who might adopt simply won’t be able to.
Q. Do you propose abolishing all screening?
A. I wouldn’t object to minimal screening, designed to eliminate child abusers and people who were below any minimum threshold in terms of the economic wherewithal to support a child. But apart from that, I would get rid of it.
My argument is that adoptive parents are a far better bet for fitness than biologic parents because adoptive parents are at least consciously intending to be parents. All the studies have shown that adoption works much, much better than foster care, and of course infinitely better than institutional care. We now have half-a-million children in this country sitting in foster care: That figure has gone up by 50 percent in the last five years. The barriers mean that these children wait, at a minimum, for months to be adopted. But worse, it means most kids don’t get adopted at all.
Q. But many foster children aren’t up for adoption.
A. You’re right. However, a major reason for that is because we’re so reluctant to free children from their biologic parents, even when these children have no reasonable possibility of returning to them.
Q. One of the most vocal opponents of transracial adoption is the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), which has suggested that placing black children outside of black homes is a form of cultural genocide, and that white families are not equipped to provide a cultural reference for the children’s identities. Are you opposed to that position?
A. I’m diametrically opposed. It seems to me our racial matching policies are of a piece with the anti-miscegenation laws of our segregationist past — and that they’re simply wrong as a moral as well as Constitutional matter.
It’s also important to point out that the black community is not of one mind on this issue. Polls of different African-American groups have shown no support for it. And at the most recent NAACP national conference, the delegates voted to open up transracial adoption as an option for black children [waiting in foster care]. The board of directors of the NAACP overruled the delegates. That’s an example of the conflict within the black community.
The reason racial matching policies cause problems for African-American children is that there’s an incredible mismatch in the numbers. Over a third of all children in foster care are African-American, and half of the children in foster care are children of color. At the same time, a huge percentage — 90 percent is typical — of the waiting parents are white.
African-American children are waiting for significantly longer periods of time than white children. For the system to insist that two, three or five years be spent in foster care — while we supposedly search for same-race placement — is a very unfair thing to do, even if eventually the child may be placed. Those years do serious harm to children.
Q. What percentage of those white prospective parents do you think would actually adopt an African- American child?
A. The only state system that I know actually asked the question is Massachusetts, and it found that roughly a fourth of the waiting white parents would adopt across racial lines.
There are waiting lines now for children with incredibly significant disabilities like Down’s Syndrome. It seems ridiculous to think that white parents wouldn’t adopt across racial lines. Not all of them, but significant percentages.
Q. Haven’t there been many negative articles about children of color raised in white homes?
A. I challenge you to find a study that shows there’s any evidence that children growing up in other-race homes are at any disadvantage.
I read all the studies, and I was blown away: There’s not a shred of evidence that these children measure less well in self-esteem or social adjustment than children raised in same-race families. If you look at adoptive families, you will see families that pay a lot of attention to the racial and ethnic heritage of their children.
Part of my pitch about adoption is that we should see adoptive families as very interesting examples of multiculturalism being lived out.
Q. As you write in your book, the lack of an international adoption system also pushes people away, frustrating many to the point of giving up.
A. I had no idea there would be as many barriers to adoption in the world as there are within this country.
Sending countries often talk about the issue in the same political terms the NABSW does — with an emphasis on children as precious resources that the community should hold onto. And in fact, this debate is being played out right now in the Hague in the Netherlands, where there are delegates hammering out the final version of the proposed international treaty governing adoption.
The political rhetoric used by the anti-adoption forces at the Hague Convention is very similar to the NABSW’s in that it’s completely false. It doesn’t make any logical sense for the sending countries to talk about starving children on their streets as precious resources.
Q. Do you support more openness between biologic and adoptive parents, or the traditional closed record system?
A. I’m for openness, because I believe adoptive families are strong and valid families and have nothing to fear from it.
Q. But what about the case just the other day in the Bronx? A woman who conceived a baby for her infertile sister allegedly kidnapped the little girl. Apparently, the birth mother, who had five children of her own, grew remorseful about having given the child up for adoption three years ago.
A. Frankly, the media are likely to leap on a case like this because there is this fascination about the significance of the biologic link. And here’s a case that seems to show that biology rearing its head with extraordinary force. [But] my sense is that if there were more openness, no, this isn’t what would happen except in an incredibly rare, freakish case. On the other hand, although I’m for more openness in theory, as a practical matter, I’m not sure how much more openness I’m for. I’m definitely for it when the adoptee reaches the age of 18 or 21. But for adoptive parents in today’s society, openness is threatening even if you believe, as I do, that the adoptive family is a fully, strong, healthy form of family. It is tricky because of this society, which values those birth bonds so powerfully.
In my own case, the longer I’ve lived life as an adoptive parent, the more secure I’ve felt with the idea of openness. And it’s because the reality of an adoptive family for me is a quite wonderful, true form of family.
There’s nothing fragile about it; I don’t live in fear that it would be shattered if some birth parent crossed the threshold.