A headline on Newsweek’s web site grabbed my attention in early May: “Wokeness Has Come for Adoption. It’s the Children Who Will Suffer.” This is a subject I know well: My wife and I have fostered three child refugees—from Zimbabwe, Guatemala, and Honduras respectively. These foster children are functionally adopted, and have become full-fledged members of our family.
The article noted that a vice-president at Bethany Christian Services, the largest Christian adoption agency in the country, had told a reporter that allowing white families to adopt black children from the foster care system “can cause a lot of harm to children of color”; consequently, Bethany now favors “overhauling” the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, the US statute prohibiting child-welfare agencies that receive federal funding from denying foster or adoptive placements on the basis of race. Bethany proclaimed that it would be embarking on a “long journey toward becoming an anti-racist organization”—a journey that would require Bethany to consider race “as part of the best-interest determination for child placement.”
Bethany Christian Services is headquartered in western Michigan, where I happen to live. Indeed, our own family has worked with Bethany’s refugee program since 2011, and I know numerous other families that have teamed with Bethany in effectuating transracial adoptions. (I should also note that Bethany’s Senior Vice President of Government and Public Affairs is Nate Bult, a former student and research assistant of mine.)
The Newsweek author, American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Naomi Schaefer Riley, focused substantially on a 2021 Bethany report titled, What the Pandemic Taught Us: Innovative Practice Report. “As the Bethany report points out, Black children are removed from their homes at a higher rate than white children,” Riley writes. “What the report doesn’t point out, though, is that Black children are also abused and neglected at twice the rate of white children, and they are more than twice as likely to die as a result of maltreatment than white children. The way to fix these disparities is neither to leave children in abusive or neglectful homes nor to insist that they remain in the foster care until an adult with a matching hue comes along.” Riley suggested that Bethany was under the spell of anti-racism doctrines, and thus blinded to potential real-life harms that racialized policies might inflict on black kids in foster care.
Bethany was subsequently given equal space in Newsweek for a rebuttal (co-authored by the aforementioned Nate Bult), published under the title, “We Celebrate Transracial Adoption. But Child Welfare Can’t Ignore Race.” But by this time, others had joined the fray on bothsides. And like most culture-war battles of this type, it produced more heat than light.
Bethany’s Innovative Practice Report, written by the organization’s staff and underwritten by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, dealt in large part with technical subjects connected to the pandemic—such as the use of virtual tools to monitor child welfare. But the report also seemed intended as a response to the racial unrest that unfolded in 2020. A section headed “Addressing Disparate Outcomes” leads off with an admission that “Bethany has not routinely assessed macro-level outcomes stratified by race. As part of this research, we were committed to changing that.” Extrapolating from a mixed-methods case study that focused on four Bethany locations—Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Grand Rapids, Michigan—the authors decry what they describe as “larger trends of inequity within child welfare and foster care in the United States”:
In 2019 and 2020, Black children made up 43% and 40% (respectively) of clients entering Bethany foster care, 19-22% higher than national foster care trends … Multiracial children were also disproportionately overrepresented within Bethany foster care intake and volume of cases pre- and during COVID. From 2019 to 2020, the proportion of multiracial children admitted to Bethany’s foster care programs increased from 7% to 11%. [During this period], the sites included in this study saw a 9% decrease in Black children leaving foster care. Of Black children who did successfully leave care, there was a 10% increase in their exit due to adoption. Similarly, Black children also had the lowest [family] reunification rates in 2019 and 2020.
In other words, black foster children are overrepresented in Bethany’s network as compared to white children; they are spending longer in foster homes; and, when they do leave foster care, they are less likely than white children to be reunited with their birth families.
Noting that most black children placed through Bethany are adopted by white families, the report’s authors blame the aforementioned Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) for constraining what “child placing agencies [can do] to ensure these families will appropriately preserve Black children’s cultural heritage.” To address this, and other “systemic inequities … within the child welfare system,” the report argues,
a full review of all U.S. child welfare policies should be conducted, updating them to promote race equity. Similarly, all state and private provider policies and practices should be reviewed through an equity frame. It is also imperative for social services organizations to examine their role in upholding disparate outcomes for BIPOC children and families in order to disrupt these patterns.
In fact, Bethany not only advocates changing MEPA to permit explicitly race-based evaluations of adoptive families’ preparedness to address the “cultural, ethnic or racial background of the child,” but also to affirmatively require such an analysis:
While well-intentioned, MEPA has substantively failed to achieve its stated intent, since a disproportionate number of children of color continue to linger in foster care. This law also prevents social workers from ensuring the protection and support of Black children’s cultural heritage within their temporary or permanent homes. Further, it prevents professional social workers from assessing whether a family is unqualified or unprepared to appropriately parent a child of another race and prohibits child welfare professional from offering families additional transracial parenting training. MEPA should be overhauled to [allow] an agency or entity to “consider the cultural, ethnic, or racial background of the child and the capacity of the prospective foster or adoptive parent to meet the needs of a child of such background, as one of several factors in making foster and adoptive placements,” [and] proactively require social workers to assess a resource family’s ability to effectively parent transracially, [as well as] provide additional training to families who may be well-intentioned but not yet equipped to parent transracially.
The well-being of children and families is the sort of issue that, more than most, demands a clear-eyed, honest, and thoroughly public appraisal of the available evidence and competing policy approaches. But Bethany comes across as more intent on publicly displaying its anti-racism bona fides than making a compelling evidence-based case for race-conscious child-welfare reforms. Even to the extent that Bethany is arguing specific propositions, moreover, these arguments are couched in the gauzy language of “equity” and “systemic racism.” After wading through the anti-racism rhetoric, one is left with the sense that Bethany felt it need only proclaim its anti-racist impulses to justify racializing child placement decisions, without genuinely probing the benefits or potential drawbacks in regard to children of color in the child-welfare system.
A persistent problem that’s emerged in this kind of discussion is that claims of implicit bias and institutional racism are treated as unfalsifiable when offered as explanations for racial disparities. In this context, such an approach means ignoring the statistical prevalence of certain social problems within black communities. Approximately 70 percent of black births in the United States occur out of wedlock. Data from 2019 indicates that 64 percent of black children live in single-parent households (as compared to 24 percent for non-Hispanic whites, and 15 percent for Asians). The available data also points to significantly higher incidence of child abuse within black households.
Even if these statistical discrepancies are themselves assumed to be a consequence of historical racism, it doesn’t follow that the overrepresentation of black children within the foster system must be a product of a racist culture within child-welfare agencies or family-placement services. Given the well-established linkage between single parenthood and poverty, and between poverty and child maltreatment, the more obvious explanation is that socioeconomic factors are a driving cause of the disproportionately high number of black children who are living in at-risk circumstances.
That said, it is important not to reduce this discussion to competing stereotypes—with bigoted white child-welfare administrators on one side, and impoverished black single mothers on the other. Bethany’s stated aim of recruiting a critical mass of black families to adopt black children may seem far-fetched to some readers. But I personally know an interracial couple that has a gaggle of kids, including adopted children, both white and black, living in a predominantly black suburban neighborhood comprised mostly of middle- and working-class families. These parents have described to me the countless black families that care for black children whose birth mom or dad is unable to do so—typically through informal arrangements, often involving aunts, uncles, and grandparents, that exist beyond the purview of the public child-welfare bureaucracy. Once you include these extended kin, who routinely step up to provide a child with a stable home, the analysis becomes more complicated. Racial disparities plaguing the child-welfare system have a multiplicity of causes that interact in highly complex ways, be they cultural, political, economic, historical, or environmental, as well as racial. As with many areas of public policy, the facts on the ground are far too complicated to be reduced to slogans and hashtags.
Bethany’s move to embrace an explicitly race-conscious approach to child-placement policy betrays a larger philosophical trend related to the rise of such doctrines as Critical Race Theory and intersectionality. While the dominant liberal vision of race in America once emphasized the ideal of color-blindness, the opposite view is now ascendant among progressives: Race—and the assumed existence of racism, in particular—must be centred in all areas of public policy. MEPA (enacted in 1994, and amended in 1996) reflects the former approach, while Bethany’s attack on MEPA reflects the latter.
My own position is that both simplistic positions are untenable. While it is wrong to presumptively trace every problem to the spectre of racism, it is also naïve to imagine that our society is colorblind. As I can personally attest, transracial adoptions really can raise very real challenges, especially for those families that live in predominantly white communities. Bethany should be free, and even encouraged, to offer counseling in regard to those real challenges for adoptive parents who desire it, along with continuing its laudable efforts to enlist more black families into the world of adoption. Likewise, it should be supported in its commitment to recruiting and training a more diverse staff that’s better equipped to help clients navigate our racialized society.
But Bethany’s argument for requiring a race-based assessment and training regime for every family seeking a transracial adoption is a step too far—in part because this desired mandate would necessarily entail the right to reject prospective adoptive parents whom Bethany staff deem insufficiently attuned to an adoptive child’s cultural heritage (as that heritage is understood through the prism of the organization’s newly adopted anti-racism precepts, of course). It is hard to imagine how these new procedures wouldn’t prolong an already lengthy process and discourage many prospective white adoptive families from coming forward in the first place. And while it might be the case that Bethany has made some kind of thorough cost-benefit analysis to assess how black children would be impacted by such a change in approach, there is no evidence of that analysis in the report.
Cheri Williams, Bethany’s Senior VP of Domestic Programs, says that a colorblind approach “can cause a lot of harm to children of color.” But where is the empirical support for this statement? Since MEPA’s passage a generation ago, foster-care adoptions in the United States have more than doubled, and the average time to place children in an adoptive home out of foster care has been reduced by about a year. As a Mathematica report from 2020 indicated, the years between 2005 and 2019 yielded a 40 percent reduction in the number of black children in foster care—a trend that went hand in hand with a substantial increase in transracial adoption. The authors of the study also concluded that, despite persistent racial disparities, the “racial and ethnic disparities in permanency and adoption [have become] less pronounced over time, and transracial adoptions for Black children grew.”
If Bethany were to offer a convincing argument in favor of an explicitly racialized placement regime, it would not only have to show that this new method provided black children with a net benefit, but also that this net benefit would exceed the benefit that’s already been achieved through color-blind placement policies. As a social scientist, I would expect data corroborating the need to consult race in placements. But, to repeat, nowhere in its report does Bethany even begin to offer such an analysis.
Ms. Williams says she “looks back with regret” (in the words of a reporter) at the way she once removed children of color from their home during her early career as a child-welfare caseworker. But if we are going to include anecdotal experience in this discussion, I would similarly like to refer to the white couple that I happen to know, both members of whom lived what can only be described as insular, parochial lives before taking in a black baby whose mother’s serious substance-abuse problem had left the child with cognitive impairments. On paper, the adoptive parents might well have been judged by Bethany’s newly enlightened staff to be unqualified to raise a black child. But while this little girl’s path remains full of obstacles, she is, by my observation, delightful and well adjusted. And I am hard-pressed to imagine how she’d have been better served by a process that might have rejected this man and woman as adoptive parents because of their skin color, or because they were insufficiently sensitized to the child’s racial, ethnic, and cultural heritage.
Circling back to the world of data, a 2020 analysis of the available literature concluded that “Black children adopted into white families suffer no more developmental or adjustment problems than black adoptees in Black families.” A representative study examined by the authors found no negative impact on “adjustment, self-esteem, academic achievement, peer relationships, parental and adult relationships” for Black children adopted into white families. Contrary to what the Bethany report might have one believe, empirical studies suggest that adoptive parents’ race likewise tends to have little deleterious impact on an adopted child’s school performance, behavior, and familial relationships.
And while it is true that life within a white household may affect the strength and nature of a non-white child’s racial identity in ways that are difficult to quantity or study, the issue of adoptive parents emphasizing or elevating a child’s racial identity is more complex than Bethany lets on. My own experience suggests that the discussion requires greater nuance than is provided by the either-or debate between race-consciousness and color-blindness.
I have witnessed firsthand our foster children’s struggles with questions surrounding their ethnic identity, especially as they enter their late teens and young adulthood. Our entire family has benefitted from being exposed to the ethnic and cultural identities of one another. But, at the same time, the experience has given me a (sometimes shocking) view of the tribalism, and even openly expressed racism, that is embedded in other cultures. We often are encouraged to imagine that the mission of adoptive parents must be to safeguard the authentic cultural and racial identity of children arriving from other countries or communities. But as all Americans (of whatever skin color) have had occasion to learn in recent years, there is good and bad in all societies. And it is wrong to imagine that an adoptive parent’s role is to act as amoral cultural preservationist.
I once asked the interracial couple that I mentioned above if there is some identifiable set of cultural norms or traditions I should be encouraging in my home. Their response was dismissive. They told me that the (mostly black) working- and middle-class families in their neighborhood don’t go about their day-to-day lives thinking about race. More and more, that’s the job of diversity consultants—and the sort of well-meaning white-collar professionals who funded and authored such documents as Bethany’s Innovative Practice Report.
When US Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings in 2020 brought into the public eye her large family, which included two adopted Haitian children, anti-racist guru Ibram X. Kendi contemptuously tweeted about “white colonizers” adopting black children in order to “civilize” them in the “superior” ways of white people. I have no doubt that Bethany’s leadership would be quick to condemn this insulting expression of disdain for transracial adoption. Yet Bethany shouldn’t ignore this undercurrent of crude anti-white bigotry that can lie beneath the polite, academic formulations contained in its report.
Bethany describes itself as being “on a long journey toward becoming an anti-racist organization.” But too often the anti-racism argot only obscures and muddies, instead of clarifying and enlightening, the complex role of race in American society. As others have noted, this kind of language—which channels the idea of anti-racism as a process of personal spiritual awakening rather than a defined set of ideological propositions—often serves to suppress candor, nuance, and even the project of objective truth-seeking, because any deviation from the stated goal of anti-racism is presented as a manifestation of bigotry. This orthodoxy leads to Manichean thinking, according to which we all must enlist in the fight against whiteness and white privilege, and aid the oppressed in their struggle against the oppressors. Such social-justice sloganeering may inflate the moral grandeur of those who preach it, but it does little to help purported beneficiaries—in this case, black children living in group homes or with foster parents.
As noted above, it is absolutely true that differences in race and skin color can be important considerations for adoptive parents. And I have to honestly acknowledge that our family was at first ill-equipped to manage the array of issues that came with three refugee teens. Yet I wonder how additional training by Bethany would have helped us do better. More than anything, it was a deep sensitivity to our kids’ unique life histories as individuals—rather than to generalized considerations of group identity—that enabled us to grow together as a newly blended family. The blessings of our foster kids leave us predisposed to take in additional refugee teens. But when we do so, we are likely to seek assistance from an organization that treats everyone, parents and children alike, as something beyond ambassadors of their race.
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