Research: Institute Research


Authors: Susan Smith, Ruth McRoy, Madelyn Freundlich, Joe Kroll
Published: 2008 May. New York NY: Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute
Document Type: Policy Brief (58 pages)
Availability: PDF Full Report | Executive Summary | Web Page | Press Release

This Institute report is the most thorough examination to date of the often-sensitive, controversial issues relating to transracial adoption and calls for major changes to better serve the needs of children of color and to improve their prospects of moving to permanent, loving homes. Among the study's findings are:

This paper is being endorsed by a broad range of national child-welfare organizations: the North American Council on Adoptable Children (whose executive director, Joe Kroll, is a co-author), the Child Welfare League of America, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, the Adoption Exchange Association, the National Association of Black Social Workers, Voice for Adoption, and the Foster Care Alumni of America. In addition, the National Association of Social Workers - which has no policy for supporting research papers per se - endorses its recommendations, which include:


Executive Summary

Many children adopted in this country come from social, economic, racial and cultural backgrounds that differ from those of their new parents. Transracial adoption - defined as occurring when a child's race/ethnicity is different from that of both parents when a couple adopts, or from that of a single parent when only one adopts - adds an additional layer of complexity to the issues faced by many adoptive families. While transracial adoptions can provide much-needed homes for boys and girls who may not otherwise have them, it is important to address the potential challenges in this growing practice in order to best serve everyone involved, especially the children.

Practices and policies impacting the transracial placement of children in the United States vary according to the type of adoption. At the federal level, three laws apply:

International adoptions into the U.S. are governed by an international treaty, the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, and the U.S. legislation to implement the Hague Convention, the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000. The State Department issued implementing regulations that address children's racial and ethnic needs, requiring that prospective parents receive training related to transracial adoption, as well as counseling related to the child's cultural, racial, religious, ethnic, and linguistic background. The Convention took effect in the U.S. in April 2008.

Adoption of Native American children is governed by the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), which was enacted after decades of child-welfare practices that included removing large numbers of children from reservations and sending them to institutions or non-Indian homes. ICWA sought to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by keeping children with families of their own ethnic heritage and through continued involvement with their tribes.

Adoption of children from foster care (other than Native Americans) is subject to the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA), which: 1) prohibits the delay or denial of a child's foster or adoptive placement solely on the basis of race, color, or national origin; and 2) requires that state agencies make diligent efforts to recruit foster and adoptive parents who represent the racial and ethnic backgrounds of children in foster care. In 1996, MEPA was amended by the Removal of Barriers to Interethnic Adoption Provisions (IEP), which deleted the word "solely" from MEPA's prohibition against delaying or denying an adoptive placement on the basis of race. IEP prohibits agencies receiving federal funding from considering race in decisions on foster or adoptive placements, except in exceptional circumstances. Noncompliance is a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, subject to a large fine; individuals claiming discrimination under the Act may file suits in U.S. district courts.

This paper by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute focuses on domestic transracial adoption and assesses its use as a policy and practice approach in meeting the needs of African American children in foster care who cannot be safely reunited with their parents or placed with kin. The content of this paper - including its findings and recommendations - is being endorsed by the North American Council on Adoptable Children, the Child Welfare League of America, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, the Adoption Exchange Association, the National Association of Black Social Workers, Voice for Adoption [1], and the Foster Care Alumni of America. In addition, the National Association of Social Workers, which has no policy for supporting research papers per se, endorses its recommendations.

The current federal law and policy governing consideration of race in foster and adoptive placements (MEPA/IEP) is being evaluated, as indicated by a September 2007 hearing convened by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. The Commission posed five questions regarding whether federal laws and policies governing the transracial adoption of children from foster care have accomplished the purposes for which they were created; those questions are examined in this paper.

Issues of race and adoption are highly sensitive, and statements relating to them are often subject to misinterpretation. The Adoption Institute wants to be clear about its underlying philosophy and purpose in writing this paper: to bring law and policy in line with sound adoption practice that addresses the relevant issues in selecting families for children and in preparing parents to successfully care for them. The purpose of this paper is not to impede or prevent transracial adoptions or to promote racial matching; rather, it seeks to apply relevant knowledge to the practice of child welfare adoptions in order to best serve children and families.


African American children who come into contact with the child welfare system are disproportionately represented in foster care, and are less likely than children of other racial and ethnic groups to move to permanency in a timely way. These children account for 15 percent of the U.S. child population but, in FY2006, they represented 32 percent of the 510,000 children in foster care. Black children, as well as Native American children, also have lower rates of adoption than those of other races and ethnicities (U.S. DHHS, 2008a; U.S. GAO, 2007). The explicit purpose for the policy embodied in MEPA-IEP regarding the role of race was to address these inequities for Black children. This analysis highlights the context surrounding race and adoption in the U.S. and reviews the research related to transracial adoption, which provides a basis for assessing current policy and needed directions. It also examines the outcomes of MEPA and IEP for African American children in foster care.

Researchers in the fields of sociology, psychology, and social work began to focus on transracial adoption in the 1970s and 1980s, examining children's overall adjustment, including self-esteem, achievement, and level of adjustment problems. Most used very small sample sizes and evaluated children at one point in time and at young ages; and some did not have comparison groups of children placed in same-race families. Also, almost all of these studies have been conducted on children adopted as infants or from other countries, rather than on children adopted from foster care. Generally, these studies found that children adopted transracially in the U.S. or from other countries had overall adjustment outcomes similar to children placed in same-race families (Grow & Shapiro, 1974; Kim, 1977; McRoy, Zurcher, Lauderdale, & Anderson, 1982, 1984; McRoy & Zurcher, 1983; Simon & Alstein, 1987; Feigelman & Silverman, 1983; Shireman & Johnson, 1986).

Research on transracial adoption has progressed over the past 35 years in methodological rigor and complexity. Overall, the current body of research on this issue supports three key conclusions:

Little research has examined transracial adoption of children from foster care, but the studies that do exist have found that while parents are equally satisfied, there is a higher rate of problems in minority foster children adopted transracially than in-race. Also, when children have issues, there is evidence that they have a stronger association with problematic parent-child relationships among transracial adoptions than in same-race adoptions (Rosenthal & Groze, 1992; Howard & Smith, 2003).

An underlying assumption of past research was that transracial adoption was not a challenge for adoptees if there were no significant differences on overall adjustment measures between groups of transracial and in-race adoptees. However, recent studies - using more rigorous methods to directly measure the racial and ethnic experiences of adoptees and how these experiences may contribute to psychological adjustment - have found parents' attitudes and behaviors related to racial socialization affect their transracially adopted children's outcomes on a range of variables (Lee, 2003).

Recent research has focused on parents' approaches to cultural and racial socialization and examined how different approaches affect aspects of their children's ethno-racial identity and psychological adjustment, finding that when parents facilitate their children's understanding of and comfort with their own ethnicities, the children show more positive adjustment in terms of higher levels of self-esteem, lower feelings of marginality, greater ethnic pride, less distress, and better psychological adjustment (DeBerry, et al.,1996; Yoon, 2001; Lee & Quintana, 2005; Mohanty, Keokse, & Sales, 2006; Johnston, Swim, Saltsman, Deater-Deckard, & Petrill, 2007). Some of the challenges confronting transracially adopted children are summarized below:

The body of research supports the conclusion that transracial adoption brings additional challenges to adopted children and their families - challenges that need to be addressed in matching children with families and in preparing families to meet their children's needs.

This paper examines the impact of MEPA-IEP on the adoption outcomes of African American children from the child welfare system by addressing the five questions posed by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission at its hearing in September 2007. While some of these questions can be answered succinctly, others are much more complex and nuanced. The questions were:

Major findings based on consideration of these questions include the following:


While the passage of MEPA served a positive purpose in addressing discriminatory practices, more than a decade of experience illustrates that many of the assumptions underlying the development of this law and its subsequent amendment were not accurate and, consequently, the hoped-for outcomes have not been realized. The goals of decreasing the racial disparity in the length of time African American children remain in foster care, their waiting time for adoptive families, and their opportunities for adoption must be met through different policies and practices. Two principles provide a solid framework for meeting the needs of Black children and youth in foster care: that adoption is a service for children, and that acknowledgement of race-related realities - not "color blindness" - must help to shape the development of sound adoption practices. Although color does not influence acceptance and opportunity in an ideal world, the reality of our society is still far from this ideal. Failure to address these social realities in practice is a disservice to children and their adoptive parents, and does not provide the best prospects for successful adoptions.

When children in foster care cannot be safely reunited with their parents or members of their extended families, they need the security, stability and love of adoptive parents. To ensure that children of color are placed with families who can meet their long-term needs, this report makes the following recommendations:


In order for children of color to be placed with families who can meet their long-term needs, consideration must be given to needs arising from racial/ethnic differences. Consequently, when workers choose permanent families for children, and when they seek to prepare and support them in addressing the children's needs, race must be one consideration - such as promoting connection of the child to adults and children from their own racial/ethnic group, developing a positive racial/ethnic identity, and learning to deal with discrimination they may experience. Sound social work practice to accomplish these goals is severely impeded under current federal law and policy.

Attention to the well-being of African American children in the child welfare system needs to become a top priority for the future development of laws, policies, practice, and research. For decades, we have documented and discussed the reasons for inequities, and it is essential for these children that promising solutions, such as those recommended above, be implemented thoughtfully and expeditiously.

[1] The Voice for Adoption is a coalition whose Board is composed of Adoption Advocacy, Adopt America Network, Adoption Exchange Association, the Adoption Exchange Inc., Casey Family Services, Child Welfare League of America, Children Awaiting Parents, Family Builders Network, Kinship Center, Lilliput Children's Services, National Adoption Center, New York Council on Adoptable Children, North American Council on Adoptable Children, Spaulding for Children, and Michigan Three Rivers Adoption Council.