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April 2nd, 2009
05:41 PM ET

Madonna and adoption: what's race got to do with it?

Carmen Van Kerckhove
President, New Demographic

Madonna’s present attempt to adopt a second child from the African nation of Malawi has reopened a discussion on the question of why so many Americans choose to adopt internationally instead of domestically.

Unfortunately, this conversation rarely gets beyond complaints about the red tape involved in domestic adoption on the one hand, and sweeping statements about how international adoptive parents are saving the lives of helpless children in impoverished countries on the other.

What’s missing from the discussion is a clear-eyed look at how race impacts the adoption and child welfare system in America.

Here’s one sobering fact: adopting a black child can cost half the amount of adopting a white child. And although every state has its own rules and regulations regarding adoption, many adoption agencies have separate programs that provide fee reductions for parents willing to adopt children with special needs or those of African descent.

Anyone who has taken a basic economics course can draw conclusions about what this price structure reveals regarding the relative supply and demand of black children versus white ones, as distasteful as it is to think about the lives of children in terms of market dynamics.

And it’s no secret that black children are over-represented in the child welfare system. For example, 21.4% of the children in foster care in the state of Minnesota in 2003 were African-American - even though African-American children made up only 5% of Minnesota’s overall population at that time.

Right-wing pundits enamored with the idea of “welfare queens” and “crack babies” may blame the over-representation on some flavor of inherent dysfunction among blacks, but the reality is that racial bias greatly influences the ways in which child welfare laws are interpreted and enforced.

Contrary to popular belief, most children who end up in the foster care system are put there due to neglect, not abuse by their parents, according to adoption expert Jae Ran Kim:

Neglect covers a wide berth of issues including a lack of or inadequate shelter, supervision, nutrition, and education. The standards for these differ from state to state. In Minnesota, for example, a child 12 or over is considered responsible enough to get themselves to school. A child who misses 25 days of school in a semester would be considered truant if the child is 12, but the parents would be charged with educational neglect if the child is 11.

Racial discrepancies in the ways cases are handled suggest that social workers are far more likely to place children of color in foster care than they are white children:

A 1997 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found that social workers were more likely to place African American and American Indian children in foster care [rather than] in-home services when compared to white children with the same family issues. Once in foster care, African American children typically stay there twice the length of white children. Often this is a result of bias all the way from the social worker to the judge, says Jae Ran Kim.

We’ll never be able to carry on a rational, honest conversation about adoption - its challenges and solutions - until we take a hard look at how it is impacted by race.

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Cee

    I find this a hard topic to enter with those who are not involved–first-hand–with adoption (indeed all the varying opinions within the adoption community and such make it also difficult!).

    Why did I adopt internationally? Because I could; I had a choice. After months of weighing this and that I, with much difficulty, picked what seemed the less painful route. And I did for purely selfish reasons. I wanted babies. I didn't wake up and say let's save Africa and forget the boring white babies in the USA. I don't want to save anybody. I wanted babies. Period. And I wanted to cause the least harm to me and to the sending country and child.

    Adoption is a hard complex route no matter which way you go. Domestic sucks, international sucks, it sucks to be adopted and it sucks to be among the adoptive families wading through creepy waters of: not saving who everybody thinks I should be saving; all the unethical issues involved (child traffiking, imperialism, etc); oh yeah, and race.

    Race is what this discussion was supposed to be about. And I thought, when thinking hard of whether or not to adopt across racial lines, that racism would be the toughest thing. It's only one biggy in the ever-dramatic world of adoption.

    Please, by all means, adopt from foster care. By God save these children. I am not up for it . . .

    BTW, my family rocks this world. 🙂

    April 7, 2009 at 6:10 pm |
  2. Meri

    Julia,
    you are right but how many could afford to adopt a child. I know that taking care of child is not only concerned with money – but money are very important indeed!

    April 7, 2009 at 4:12 pm |
  3. Julia

    I wonder how many of the people who have indicated that they believe celebrities (and other parents who adopt internationally) should adopt from the US foster care system have done so themselves? Even checked into the possibility? If you haven't you really have no right to judge. If you have, more than likely you would advise anyone you loved to go international instead.

    Why is a child born in the US somehow more deserving of a loving home than one born abroad, particularly in countries that don't have the safety nets that are available to children and parents here? Talk about racism.

    Parenting, in virtually all forms, is an inherently selfish proposition. People who adopt don't do so to be selfless, they do it because they want to be parents. Madonna is no exception.

    April 7, 2009 at 3:00 pm |
  4. Форум за флирт и съблазняване

    Celebrities could help so many more. They could create homes and cares for much more children. Adopting one, two or 3 kids is great but why not help many more?

    April 7, 2009 at 11:32 am |
  5. Carolyn

    The contemporary narrative surrounding adoption is all about ownership. The desire, the need to have a child that is all one's own and no one else's. The babies have to be unwanted, helpless, alone - any previously existing family ties interfere with the modern adoption story.

    Nationally-adopted babies in Canada and the US (not sure about other Western countries, sorry) used to fit into this narrative, throughout the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and so on, but the changing emphasis on the rights of birth mothers (who often did *not* want to surrender their children; see The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler) has soured many prospective adoptive parents who do not want to know that they are not the only parents their child has. Our nuclear family ideal (one man, one woman, one baby) is not flexible enough to account for extended and complicated kinship bonds. We sink so much emotion *and* cash into our kids, that we simply refuse to risk our investments.

    International adoption fits the story. The birth parents and extended kin are too far away to be heard. All children are orphans, even when they are not. The countries are pitied, not respected, and so children must be rescued from them. Babies who are not white are more easily trafficked - it is easier to argue that we provide them a service by rescuing them from their families, their cultures.

    Read the words; it's a story about owning, about possession.

    April 7, 2009 at 8:52 am |
  6. Gloria

    If it costs $20,000-$40,000 to adopt a child internationally, and the average monthly wage in Malawi is around $30, than isn't the true selfless act to donate that same $20-40K to a few hundred families to help them raise their children in their OWN countries, cultures, languages, etc?

    The American belief that adopting these "poor" African/Asian/Latian American children is something admerable and selfless is a huge case of denial.

    These adoptions are nothing more than Americans buying their own very selfish desires–to be a parent, to feel the love of a child, to fell "complete."

    If the best interest of these children was really the motivation, people like Julie in CA would stop feeling sorry for themselves and give the money their spending on adoption to the people of the countries their enslaving–

    Yes, enslaving. These kinds of adoptions are little more than modern slavery. You are taking human beings from their homes to fulfill your own desires and it is disgusting.

    Read up on what adoptees have to say about this–look up Marsha Riben, author of "The Dark Side of Adoption" and other works.

    Children should never be sold, even if the PC word is "adopted."

    April 3, 2009 at 12:28 pm |
  7. Elaine

    It never ceases to amaze me at how insensitive people are. I agree that there are children in the US that need help, but our system is so difficult to work through and flawed that it is often not an option.

    I want each of you to imagine for a moment that you have tried for your years to have a child, then lost that child through a miscarriage. You continue to try, being told there is no reason "why". You engage in the science fair and baby mill process of fertility clinics, only to come up empty handed.

    So you want to adopt a baby, any baby really. You just want to be a Mommy or Daddy. You decide on domestic adoption, you go through months of interviews, and invasive background checking, psychological interviews, etc. A birthmother "chooses" you, then after giving birth changes her mind, as she has that right. You are devastated yet again. You are selected again...and the same thing happens. So, you turn to international adoption...

    Luckily this hasn't happened to me, but I know many who this has happened to. I applaud anyone who reaches out to adopt a child and build their family. It is not a matter of rescue or a matter of publicity, it is a matter of doing what is right.

    Perhaps someone should do a news story on how difficult it is to adopt a child in the United States, then perhaps some of the closed minded, insensitive people who to choose to comment will have the full story.

    April 3, 2009 at 10:53 am |
  8. Julie San Diego, CA

    P.S. to Joe –

    Congratulations on your international adoption.

    The going rate for international adoptions is about $40,000. That's equal to about two attempts at invitro fertilization.

    To those of you were lucky enough to just have sex and be blessed with a child, count your blessings.

    Then shut up and quit being so darned insensitive.

    April 2, 2009 at 7:29 pm |
  9. Sarah

    Joanna, one reason that prospective adoptive parents choose to adopt from other countries is because they think there is less likelihood that the birth parents will be able to reconnect (of course, this is assuming that the adoption is not an open one, but a closed adoption as most intl adoptions are). In any case, the geographical distance from birth families factors in to adoptive parent's deliberate choice to adopt from other countries. And for parents adopting from Asia, studies have shown that those parents believe that their adopted child will be "cute, quiet, studious, docile," etc. – stereotypes describing so-called "model minority" Asian Americans – so they'd rather adopt from Asia (South Korea, China, etc,) than adopt a black or Latino child domestically.

    I think this article goes further than Roland Martin's article the other day, which questioned why celebrities don't adopt from within the U.S., because this article actually looks deeper at the race-based problems inherent in our child welfare system that circulates those half million youth in the first place.

    April 2, 2009 at 7:26 pm |
  10. SandyB

    I don't care if the child is purple! There are thousands of children here in the United States that need homes. Why does everyone help other countries? What about us, here; our people, our hungry, our needy, our poor, our homeless, our jobless, our orphans! Step up and face the crisis in America!

    April 2, 2009 at 7:12 pm |
  11. RJJR

    I am with Gwyneth; not only is she doing this for selfless reasons but the proof is in the pudding. David, Rocco and Lourdes are all happy, healthy and intelligent children who revere and honor their parents. Moreover, Madonna has single handedly brought awareness of this often over looked and forgotten country in Africa, Malawi. She has founded a charitable organization that currently supports around 25,000 orphans and is in the works to build a school to help facilitate a better future for these children. Why demonize this woman and her actions based on half truths and speculation from the tabloids. Thank you Anderson for separating yourself from that crowd and for giving us this insight into adoption.

    April 2, 2009 at 7:06 pm |
  12. Valerie

    I am happy for her. I think it is wonderful. I agree, who cares what race the child is. People look way to much at colors of the skin STILL. It's pretty sad. I'd adopt if a child wasn't so expensive.
    I think it is just CRAZY that it costs so much money to adopt when so many kids do need a home.
    Hmm something to think about.

    Good luck Madonna!
    God Bless

    April 2, 2009 at 7:03 pm |
  13. Joe

    As the parent of an internationally adopted child I am surprised @ how little people know about the difficulties of the US foster system. In most cases you can have the child for YEARS and if a direct relative shows up or as in the case of my friend, birth father got out of jail, you can lose that child you have loved and raised. Internationally, once you finally complete an adoption this beautiful child is part of your life forever. There are too many stories on how flawed the US system is and yet they advertise that is actually is an option, it's not...

    April 2, 2009 at 6:54 pm |
  14. Annie Kate

    I wish the celebrities would concentrate on the children here in this country. They need a good family and education just as much as the children in any other country. I never understood how Oprah could spend millions on a school in Africa but still live in Chicago with its many problems with its schools and not use her millions to help that school system and the children that attend it.

    April 2, 2009 at 6:46 pm |
  15. gwyneth

    I'm a good friend of Madonna, and I know firsthand that she is doing this in a completely selfess way. If the end product is saving.a child's life, what is all the raucus about? What does it matter what race the child is? People must be more open-minded for this to be a better world.

    April 2, 2009 at 6:41 pm |
  16. Eugene Gipson

    This is a subtle, yet obvious example of how racism is still very much in existence. Its disheartening to know those statistics as it relates to race and adoption. Why must we as a people not come to the realization that there is no such thing as a dominant race, and that we all are equal? You had no control over me being born, nor did I have control over you being born therefore we have no grounds whatsoever to take any value from any human being. Face it. God created us all. God doesn't make mistakes. He sees all. He knows all. He will judge all.

    April 2, 2009 at 6:14 pm |
  17. Joanna

    I did not realize those facts between black and white children and our foster care system. I'm not surprised though. What I don't get, and still not answered here, is why people go international instead of domestic to adopt. If black children are so much easier to adopt, then what is really going on? I wonder if people are romanticizing the ideal of adopting from a poor country. I also wonder if they believe that American children have more problems to deal with. I believe it is cruel that we leave our children in foster care for essentially their whole life and adopt internationally. I think that is almost criminal to our children. Just my feelings, though.

    April 2, 2009 at 6:07 pm |
  18. Doris Jackson

    I see nothing wrong with her adopting a child. I do feel for the grandma and my heart goes out to her, there is nothing I can say or do that will make a difference with this situation. I just want to see the best for everyone. The Children, Family and Madonna. God Bless them all.

    April 2, 2009 at 6:03 pm |

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