A long, long while ago (as I brush off the blog-brain cobwebs) I wrote that I was going to tackle the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) and I never got around to it. With the report that came out yesterday from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, I figured this was a good time to tackle the subject. This post examines my thoughts about the legislation.
I have been interested in the MEPA and it’s follow-up legislation the Interethnic Adoption Provisions Amendment (IEPA) for some time now. It was the basis of my MSW paper, “Considering Culture in Placement Decisions: Conflicting Best
Practices for the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Multiethnic
Placement Act” (and the subject of a presentation at the St. John’s Adoption Conference in New York in 2006).
It’s not just the language used in MEPA and IEPA that confounds me, it’s the whole philosophy behind it. Why are social workers prevented from helping adoptive parents examine and consider their abilities to parent a child from a different race and/or culture? And why do prospective adoptive parents get so ruffled when asked to examine and consider their abilities to parent a child from different race and/or culture?
If you were the social worker and you had a child on your case load that was hearing impaired, would you feel you could only place that child in a home with hearing impaired parents? Or, would you consider a family who was hearing, but either knew ASL or was willing to learn ASL for the child?
See, it’s not just about race-matching, which is what people always think MEPA is about. MEPA/IEPA wasn’t just created to prevent race-matching in placement, it also effectively declared that asking adoptive parents to even consider the racial, cultural or ethnic needs of a child or their ability to parent a child cross-racially or culturally was illegal. This isn’t just about giving a child a bed and a roof and 3 square meals a day. This is about parenting and raising a child in a loving and nurturing home; a home that loves and nurtures a child’s racial and cultural identity.
Although MEPA/IEPA language does not specify the following, here are some of the reasons states or agencies were fined for violating the law:
- In 2003, social workers in Ohio were accused of discriminating against
a white couple by requiring them to prepare a plan to address the
child’s cultural needs and to evaluate the racial demographics of their
neighborhood. The state paid $1.8 million in fines.
- In 2005, a social service agency in South Carolina was fined $107,000
after workers used a database to match children to prospective adoptive
parents, which the federal government said overemphasized race.
MEPA and IEPA don’t specify the trainings or questionnaires, etc. but
these were tools that were being used by agencies that were found to be
in violation of MEPA. Therefore, the Office of Civil Rights and the
Administration of Children, Families and Youth came up with a guideline
(here at http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/mepa/interneval.html) that includes the following below (RCNO stands for Race, Culture, National Origin):
How does the agency ensure that the following practices do not occur?
[In other words, that persons interested in adopting or fostering across RCNO lines are required to]:
- answer additional questions because of the interest in adopting or fostering across RCNO lines?
- take additional training courses because of the interest in adopting or fostering across RCNO lines?
- move to a more diverse community?
- write additional narratives, such as a transracial adoption
plan, because of the interest in adopting or fostering across RCNO
- have additional caseworker visits because of the RCNO context?
- justify their interest in children of a different RCNO?
- meet different or higher licensing or approval standards in
order to become a foster or adoptive parent of a child of a different
If the philosophy behind MEPA was truly about the best interests of the child, all the needs of the child would be considered for a placement. INCLUDING the needs for the child to be raised in a culturally sensitive home. This is not to say that white parents can’t be culturally sensitive – but the the philosophy behind MEPA is that it doesn’t matter either way (As my husband called it, it’s the "Don’t ask, don’t tell" of child welfare, only we’re talking about parental racism instead of sexual orientation).
MEPA isn’t about helping African American kids to permanency; it’s about privileging white adoptive parents who are angry that they couldn’t get the child they wanted because a social worker wanted to find a racially-matched home. Why is it that all of the court cases involved in MEPA are because white adoptive parents are protesting being asked to show that they can meet the racial and cultural needs of the child? I think that is so telling. I can’t even begin to tell you how often prospective adoptive parents get angry at adoption social workers for discussing transracial adoption. It’s like they think we believe they’re stupid or they feel entitled to get what they want without having to have any education. Immediately people think that they’re going to get called a racist for being white. I really wish prospective adoptive parents could stop thinking it’s all about them, and start thinking about their future child!
The other issue with MEPA/IEPA is that no one seems to care about the other part of the legislation – that is the recruitment and retention of a pool of adoptive families that reflects the diversity of the youth in care.
The recruitment and retention part means that if a county agency has 60% of children in their care who are African American, than approximately 60% of the prospective parents in the agency’s pool of families at any given time would be African American. But because the fines and penalties are only enforced with the placement part and there are no fines or penalties if agencies don’t follow the recruitment and retention part, guess which part of the law gets the focus?
MEPA is known for its champion, Senator Howard Metzenbaum. Metzenbaum himself believed that race and culture should be considered, although not as the sole factor, in placement, stating "Let me
make my position clear: If there is a white family and a black family
that want to adopt the black child and they are equal in all respects,
then the black family ought to have preference." (Congressional Record Senate S14169, October 5, 1994)
It’s not so much about "early intervention" vs. "searching for the
"ideal" as one person commented about the NYT piece yesterday; the two
don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Finding homes for children in
foster care is very important but doing it at the cost of the child’s
future well-being in other areas of his or her life should not be the
goal. Finding a home that does both can happen. We just need to make it
Ostensibly, MEPA was conceived as a way to increase and improve the
well-being of African American children in foster care. I say
ostensibly because on its outward appearance and from the discourse
used to create and defend the legislation, it looks like the law is all
about helping African American children. However, as many others have
stated, I would argue that not only has MEPA/IEPA not improved
the welfare of African American children in foster care, but may in
fact create a whole different set of problems that negatively affect
One of the things I attempt to keep at the forefront of my mind is that for African American children, adoption is the very last step in a long time line of unequal and disproportionate policies and practices. In "Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare," Dorothy Robers, a prominent child welfare legal scholar and author writes, "Relying on adoption to fix the foster care system not only ignores the racial disparity in child removals . . . some advocates forget that our ultimate goal should be to reduce the need for adoptions."
Law professor Richard Banks, in "The Color of Desire: Fulfilling Adoptive Parents’ Racial Preferences Through Discriminatory State Action" offers a different take. Banks suggests that it is not that throngs of white adoptive parents are lining up to adopt black kids or race-matching policies that are responsible for the thousands of African American kids "lingering" in foster care – but the overwhelming facilitation of white parents preferences for white children that is the reason black children don’t get adopted.
Roberts writes, "The transracial adoption issue is a red herring. The white couples the public envisions as adoptive parents are typically not interested in the poor Black children who make up the bulk of the foster care population. The vast majority of white adoptive parents are only willing to take a while child. Even when they adopt outside their race, whites generally prefer non-Black children of Asian or Latin American heritage. The notion that state agencies are turning away thousands of white parents anxious to adopt Black foster children is ludicrous."
Finally, I want to end on this question. Why is it okay for prospective adoptive parents to get to choose what race child they want to adopt? If we were truly operating on a "color-blind" placement philosophy, no adoptive parent would get to specify what race they were "open" to. However, we let parents pick out the race of their child. Why? Because we are so desperate to find families that we’ll let prospective parents who won’t let their biological children have black friends adopt black kids (http://www.nwae.org/info-article-9.html)? Because we don’t want to get prospective parents mad? Because we don’t want to be sued?
Because once again, it’s about finding children for families, not finding families for children. If it were really about finding families for children, we would not "settle" for families who got mad when asked to take a training about the needs of kids of color. If it were about finding families for kids, then prospective adoptive parents would want to examine and learn how to better meet the needs of their kids. If it was about finding families for children, their needs – including their cultural and racial needs – would come before the adoptive parents discomfort dealing with race.