Can adoption be colorblind? | St. Louis Public Radio

Can adoption be colorblind?

Jun 12, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 12, 2008 - Maryanne Dersch's white fingers reach into a slippery tub of conditioner. She smoothes it into her daughter's soft black hair.

"Are you gonna be a good girl? Good beauty shop?" Dersch asks Taylor, 2, who's seated at the island in her new family's St. Louis kitchen.

Transracial adoption means learning about cultural differences and the "part of a we that's not me."
Credit Kristen Hare | St. Louis Beacon archive

Taylor looks up at the TV, watching "Nick and Drake" on Nickelodeon. Nearby rests a container of rubber bands the size of pennies. The kitchen smells of coconut and tea tree oil.

Dersch works slowly. She didn't grow up styling an African-American girl's hair, but now she's the mother of three African-American children: Patrick, 9, A.J., 4, and most recently, Taylor, whose adoption is still in process.

Over the years, Dersch and her husband, Jon Schmuke, have learned about things, such as hair, that are important in their children's culture. They've read books, consulted friends, walked into beauty shops and asked for help.

And they've done it all on their own.

In the future, however, families like theirs may receive required and formalized training when they adopt transracially. The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute recently released a report pushing for previously colorblind approach to be removed from the adoption process, instead acknowledging where children come from and what their adoptive families need to know.

"We learned a long time ago that ... love is not enough, and race matters," Dersch says. "We need to make sure our kids are prepared to live in that world. You have to be really open, 'cause they're a part of a we that's not me."


In the early 1990s, D.J. Wilson and his wife were foster parents to an African-American boy. When the boy was eligible for adoption, the Wilsons weren't able to because Texas, where they lived at the time, could use race as a reason to block adoptions.

Maryanne Dersch, Jon Schmuke, Patrick, 9, and A.J., 4.
Credit Photo by Kristen Hare

In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers announced that it opposed placing African-American children in white homes, fearing a loss of culture and heritage. Soon, many states blocked transracial adoptions.

But a year or so after the Wilsons' first adoption wasn't allowed, Texas changed its standards, and the Wilsons adopted another boy at birth.

The country soon followed.

In 1994 and 1996, the Multi-ethnic Placement Act and the Removal of Barriers to Interethnic Adoption Provisions were passed with a few goals in mind, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The law "made it illegal to consider race when determining whether families are suitable to raise adopted children," says Heather Henke, director of public relations with the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition. "The law was intended to increase adoptions of black children, who are disproportionately represented in the foster care system."

"But when they did that, they threw everything out," says Dersch, including ways for federally funded organizations to prepare white families for raising black children.

Then, this past May, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute released a report. "We tried to assess what was working and what wasn't, and came to the conclusion that preparing parents who adopt transracially benefits everyone, especially the children," said institute executive director Adam Pertman in a press release. "We hope this knowledge helps to shape more effective policy and practice, so that every child has better prospects of growing up in a family - and of being ready for the world they'll live in."


When Dersch and Schmuke decided to adopt out of the foster care system, they were told they'd get a boy and he would be African-American.

At the time, Dersch worked with four African-American women.

"You are raising a black man in America," they warned her. "Prepare yourself."

So they did. They moved into a more racially diverse neighborhood, chose African-American doctors and pediatricians, looked for a racially diverse schools. They bought books. They found support groups.

"The only people who say race doesn't matter are white people," Dersch says. "To every other race, it does."


What matters isn't finding the right child for a family, says Melanie Scheetz, executive director for the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition, but the right family for the child.

When placing a child, they'd first like to return them to their family, if appropriate. Then, they'd like to find someone to adopt from their own culture. And finally, they'd like parents of a different race to receive training.

She has two adopted African-American children who are still in touch with some members of the birth family, which is an important connection, she says. And in the future, those families may be the best solution for children, Scheetz thinks.

A new program called Family Finding seeks to place children with someone from their family, if possible. In fact, using that model, they've placed 20 out of 30 kids recently, Scheetz says.

"It is a year's worth of work for us done in 12 weeks."

And race is often a part of the conversation in their home.

It is, too, in the St. Charles home of Sandy and Ed Carr. They adopted an African-American girl when she was 2 1/2. Claire's 11 now.

"I love math," she says.

"She's won both her school spelling bees," Mrs. Carr says.

Claire also loves soccer, basketball and track, and she's one of three African-American kids in her class.

The Carrs read many books about raising African-American children, they learned about the culture and differences and started seeing the world a little differently, too.

"Suddenly, you start realizing how things really are," Mrs. Carr says. "And it bothers you because we feel so protective of Claire."

Kids at her school are sometimes surprised to find out her parents are white. But to Claire, the differences don't seem to matter.

"I think of me and my friend, Erin," she says. "'Cause my friend Erin, she's white, but we're bestest friends."


At a football game last fall, Patrick sat on his mother's lap and said, "If I was white and I looked more like you, then we'd be a family."

So they talked about what it meant to be a family. And, Dersch acknowledged, most kids do look like their parents.

Would his parents still love him and his siblings, he wondered later, if there had been no Martin Luther King Jr.?

For Dersch, raising children of a different race has taken bravery and willingness to seek help and step into new situations, like the African-American beauty parlor.

And while there are the usual issues that come with adoption of any kind, they're not private, since people can usually tell that the parents and children are different races.

"We do feel that there is some preparation you need for this," Schmuke says .

The Carrs agree. While they have a wide and diverse circle of friends, they say, if anyone else in their neighborhood were adopting transracially, they think they'd certainly benefit from some cultural training.

"You start where we start," Mr. Carr says, "from total ignorance."

And that's part of what the Donaldson Institute proposed, as well as that race be considered a factor in the adoption process.

"In the end, though, you can't legislate this," Dersch says. "It really is gonna be up to the family."

Wilson has since adopted five African-American children over the years. He fears that some people will try and twist the Donaldson Institute's findings to say whites shouldn't adopt black children at all.

In a perfect world, parents of the same race would be adopting more and there would be fewer kids up for adoption. But the world isn't perfect, he says, and those kids need homes now. What's more important, he says, is an awareness about the need for foster and adoptive parents.

"You don't have to climb your way ahead of anybody," he says.

He'd like to see more financial and institutional support for foster and adoptive parents.

The number of people who start the process and actually adopt is also very low, Dersch agrees. She'd like more people to consider adopting out of the foster care system and hopes the study won't discourage people from trying.

As for the Donaldson Institute's findings, they were endorsed by many child welfare groups, including the National Association of Black Social Workers.

No laws have been changed, yet.


At her home, Dersch twists the final two strands of Taylor's hair, around, around.

She slides a rubber band on, and it clicks against her red fingernails with each turn.

"All done. All done," Dersch says to Taylor, picking her up for a moment. "Want to go play? Good girl. Good girl. Good beauty shop girl."

Dersch covers her with kisses.

Taylor hovers around the kitchen for a little longer. And in a few moments, Dersch decides she isn't happy with one of the twists.

So she tries the section again and again, until she gets it right.

To reach Kristen Hare, a free-lance writer.