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 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 RCNO?

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 a priority.

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 their well-being.

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 ( 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.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

10 thoughts

  1. Wow. You do such good analysis.
    As a KAD TRA who would one day like to adopt (domestically because I feel it’s not right to remove children from whole continents and cultures and languages) I know I will be faced with the likelihood that the child I adopt will not be my race, and if s/he comes from a non-white group, there is a huge history of racism behind the welfare system. I feel heartened that your opinion is that transracial adoption should not be outright banned, just discussed and involve education for white parents.
    What, in your opinion, is the most ethical of domestic adoptions?

  2. This is fascinating to learn, especially since it flies in the face of what’s recommended (and now required by the Hague?) for pre-adoption education of parents adopting internationally. Our process included discussion of racial/cultural/ethnic issues during our homestudy (and I suspect it was less a focus in our interviews since only one of us is a TRAP), and was specifically addressed during the preparation class required by our international agency. How crazy is it that an agency knows that accounting for a child’s RCNO identity needs is one of its best practices for international adoptions, but can be prohibited from providing this best practice for domestic adoptions?

  3. My problem with the situation is that from my experience with foster care adoption, MEPA/IEPA does almost nothing to address the prejudices of social workers. If the social worker really wants to do race-matching, they’re going to do race-matching anyway.
    I think if there were CONSISTENT standards for training, the situation would be a lot better. Right now, it’s just all over the map. I’ve heard horror stories about social workers who have jumped in, in the middle of a case, and moved a child solely because of race. Or else the opposite… that a child is placed because of favoritism, when there was a much more culturally appropriate home waiting.
    I have noticed (often bitterly) how the current situation works against me. I’m not complaining as an adoptive parent as much I’m complaining as an Asian. Who thinks about the needs of Asian kids to be placed in Asian homes? Neither white nor black social workers have much of an understanding of that.
    If new standards are going to be truly child-centered, they need to be consistent but also flexible when it comes to the needs of the children. Teenagers looking for a home should be allowed to make their own decisions, of course. Kids are coming from all kinds of backgrounds and some are going to be very secure in their cultural identity, others are terribly fragile.
    And in my opinion, demographic standards are even more important than training. Something like “at least one area within a 5-mile radius has a concentration of greater than 10% of child’s race/ethnicity”. I think a diverse area or school compensates for family background much more than vice versa. It hardly matters what positive message the child is getting at home if they’re assaulted and abused every day at school.

  4. This is a very important aspect of the US system. Thanks for the education and your take on it.
    But I find myself feeling some resentment at adoptive parents being seen as privileged consumers. Not that my perspective is relevant beyond myself.
    If I think about what my wife and I went through when we considered adoption, what it was about seemed fairly clear:
    1. we wanted to have a child or children. Ie, to be parents.
    2. we preferred this child be an infant.
    I grew up in various diverse environments where mixed race and multi race were the norm, and I really didn’t consider the difficulty my adopting a not-white child would put that child in.
    Now, the above may sound cold or privileged or who knows, but at the end the day what we did was volunteer to spend the rest of our lives raising someone else’s children. I don’t see it as an altruistic act per se, but I sure as hell don’t see it as selfish.
    I try very hard to be very humble about my role and frankly I take the very large amount of bad news I’ve gotten on what I did six years ago very well. But still I think we lose sight of individuals too quickly. And the inflexibility of these awful laws and our condemnation of them might be missing the point entirely.

  5. Some good points raised in the comments. I’ll try and address some of them.
    Psychobabbler, you are correct that MEPA is in complete opposition to the Hague. Also, it’s the complete opposite of ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) which enforces the placement of American Indian children in foster and adoptive homes. This leads me to think that we’re saying that every child is entitled to be raised with consideration of their race and culture *unless* you’re black.
    Atlastien, you are right. MEPA/IEPA does NOT change the biases of social workers. And consistent standards for training are a HUGE problem for me too.
    Ed, I don’t believe ALL adoptive parents act like consumers. However, we live in a consumeristic society and there are many elements of our adoption system that IS consumer-based. So while I don’t believe anyone really goes into saying, “I want to BUY a child” (well, there are a very few maybe who have, but not most) – the system has been set up to essentially give adoptive parents the idea that they can pick out their child like the way they’d buy a new car. I’m not saying this is what you or most adoptive parents did, I’m saying this is what the industry has done to adoption.
    I’m not criticizing your choice to adopt an infant, but even that is a criteria you chose. And, you may say it’s “volunteering” but just the terminology you used makes people think of it in a certain way. I had children and was I selfish to have kids? You bet. Because I wanted to experience parenting. That’s a selfish reason. I consider it a privilege to be able to help my kids grow to adulthood.
    I’m not judging you, I’m just trying to point out that many white adoptive parents see things through their lenses. I don’t think the people who sued the county agencies did so because they wanted to be malicious – they sued because they loved a child and they wanted to be that child’s parent. The thing is, and you brought up individuality, that by only looking at the individual means you ignore whether that individual is part of a larger pattern.
    My biggest gripe with MEPA – and maybe I didn’t clearly state it enough – is that I believe it hurts ADOPTIVE PARENTS as much as it hurts the child. I think training is essential and so is self-assessment. Obviously, I can only speak for myself here, but I am always questioning my own biases. I also want to know as much as possible about what I do. I like to be informed. When I found out I was pregnant I read baby books up the wazoo so I could know what to expect. Why would parenting by adoption be any different?
    I also think we ALL need to look in the mirror and question whether we are the only ones in the world who can provide for the “best interests” of a child. Maybe I’m stepping out on a limb here, but I don’t think I’m all that. I think there are many people who could love and raise my children the same as or better than me. And some of them might not even be Asian. Which goes back to the idea of individuality. All things being equal, who would be given preference? And if, hypothetically, all things weren’t equal – let’s say family A was working class but Family B had a more money and a house in the suburbs – who do you think would get preference? Even if both families had the same amount of love?

  6. Amen, sister.
    There are also some propositions floating in the theoretical realm that adoptive parents never be allowed to pick the race of a child and just get what they get. The idea is that parents unwilling to raise a child outside their race would not adopt at all. There’s tons of criticism of that idea, but I think it’s an interesting thought-experiment, because I’m not so sure a white person who thinks she could only love a white baby (for example) would be such a great mother to white child either, ya know?

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