Black Families, Adoption and the Child Welfare System

Black Families, Adoption and the Child Welfare System

Black family sitting together smiling on steps, young girl looking up at older brother
Written by Tony Hynes, MA, C.A.S.E. Training Specialist and author of The Son With Two Moms, Interracial adoptee with LGBTQ identifying adoptive parents, Ph.D. Student
Published on: Feb 03, 2024
Category Adoption

According to a 2023 Gallup poll, “1 in 3 Black Americans (34%) say they have thought “a lot” about providing foster care for a child” — a greater rate than the 23% recorded for U.S. adults in other racial/ethnic groups.

The celebration of Black History Month provides the opportunity to take a crucial look at the experiences, both historically and currently, of black families in the child welfare system. Within the world of child welfare, Black children are often talked about during Black History Month. However, Black families are talked about with less frequency. When Black families are talked about within child welfare, it is sometimes done in a chastising, rather than uplifting fashion.

For instance, the Black family who sees their child or children go into the foster care system is often cast as a broken family, while the family their child is placed with is considered “whole,” “safe,” “permanent,” and “loving.”

Due to historically racist child welfare practices, community models of informal care, and factors intersecting with poverty, Black families are underrepresented in the total number of families that formally adopt in the United States. The public narrative in child welfare and beyond is that there is an unwillingness by Black families to adopt.

The recent Gallup poll also revealed 1 in 4 Black adults (25%) say they have seriously considered adopting a child from foster care. This adopting a child from foster care consideration by Black adults is 10% greater than percentages for all other racial/ethnic groups combined. On top of this, Despite the rising visibility of organizations such as “Yes We Adopt”, which highlight and promote Black families wishing to adopt, assumptions tied to our perceptions of adoption, saviorism, and race continue to persist.

Families often ask adoption professionals to prepare their families for the racism their family, and their children will face in their communities.

Still, the truth is that the United States would likely have fewer Black children in the child welfare system if more adoption-centered organizations and adoptive parents refused to remain silent partners in the racial bias embedded in the child welfare system.

For example, the Safe Families Act, passed in 1997, created compelling financial incentives for states to reduce their foster care populations by promoting adoption rather than offering cash, food, housing, or childcare assistance to families. Ultimately, this shift in policy disincentivized states to keep families together.

Under the Safe Families Act, states receive $20 million for exceeding the average number of adoptions their states complete in specified years. [i] To further promote adoptions, the Safe Families Act also stipulates that courts terminate the rights of birth parents whose children are in foster care within two years. This mandate hampers birth parents from regaining their parental rights even when they are in positions to provide a safe, permanent home environment for their children.

Due to a confluence of factors, impoverished families are more likely to have their children removed from their homes. As Black families comprise a disproportionate segment of the impoverished, promoting adoption and weakening strategies that support family reunification has hit them especially hard.

Some within the child welfare field point out that reunification (the process of children in the child welfare system being placed back in the homes/lives of their birth families) is not a simple process, and that it is often hard for birth families to engage with the system in a manner that aides in reuniting them with their children. However, policies that encourage the prompt termination of parental rights while elevating permanent adoptive placements; send an implicit message to birth families that once their children are in the child welfare system it may only be a matter of time before they will be taken away from them on a more permanent basis — an act undercutting goals in child welfare practice that espouse the creation and maintenance of trustful environments between parents and individuals within the child welfare system.

In the adoption world, the argument is often made that children will languish in foster care if two-year parent rights limits and adoption incentives are not enforced. An assumption inferring that the practice of adoption itself is more ideal than foster care and reunification and that incentivizing adoption is still needed at a time when additional wraparound services are provided to make it easier for families to reunite.

However, the assumption that adoptive homes are better or “more ideal” than foster environments because they provide more permanent home environments ignores the common challenges children in adoptive household’s face.

In the case of the Black interracially adopted child, for example, permanence may mean a permanent lack of understanding and support from their families on issues of race. For other adopted children, permanence may mean experiencing a permanent state of verbal and physical abuse in the home.

While the Safe Families Act and other structural policies in the child welfare system are harmful, they do not stand alone in contributing to racial inequities for Black children and families. Black families are also at increased risk of having their children removed from their homes due to the racial bias present in individual actors in the child welfare system.[ii]

Studies have found that Black families are more likely than White families to be reported and investigated by Child Protective Services. They are also more likely to have their children removed from the home, even when poverty and other relevant circumstances are considered. [iii] In one study, among cases opened for services in which children were removed, Black families were assessed as having fewer risk factors within their homes than White families, yet constituted the overwhelming majority of homes previously deemed at risk for child removal. [iv]

After Black children are removed from the homes of their birth families, they are frequently adopted by parents who do not mirror their racial makeup, and who have not been prepared to raise children who do not look like them. A set of acts passed by Congress predicted both phenomena.

Shortly before the Safe Families Act was enacted, two other acts were passed: The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) of 1994 and its amended version, the Interethnic Placement Act (IEPA) of 1996. These acts banned discrimination on the basis of the race, color, or national origin of the child or the prospective foster or adoptive parent[v] and opened the way for non-Black parents to adopt Black children and other children of color without having to negotiate institutional barriers from adoption agencies who had previously prioritized matching children with same-race parents. As is common in adoption practice, the amended version of MEPA was passed with adoptive parent’s best interests at heart. For example, the amended MEPA states, “in most cases, a child’s best interests can be served without consideration of RCNO (Race, Country National Origin),” and that “prospective parents may make requests about any characteristics they want in a child, including RCNO.”[vi]

MEPA also states that agencies are not allowed to honor or take into consideration birth parents’/legal guardians’ wishes to have their children live with adoptive or foster parents of a specific RCNO. For the parent of color, wanting their child to live with or around people of their racial/ethnic groups does not indicate racial prejudice. Rather, it is a wish for their children to grow up in environments that often help maintain their connections to their birth culture. Regarding MEPA, the thought process may be that because parents no longer have their parental rights, their wishes are secondary when it comes to placing their children. However, to the adopted child, the connection and role of their birth parents (their first parents) does not die at the hands of legislation.

Even when birth families are not there in physical form for their children, they remain present in the minds of adopted children.

In contrast to its stance on birth parents, MEPA states that agencies are not required to place a child with an adoptive or foster parent who has indicated that they do not want a child of a specific RCNO.

In other words, the Black child’s birth parents/legal guardians do not get to decide what the race of their child’s new parents will be. The Black child does not get to decide what race their parents will be. The adoptive parent, however, not only has the right to determine what race their child will be, but that parent has the prerogative to deny a child matched with them if they object to adopting the child based on her race. In addition, neither the original nor the amended Act requires that adoption agencies that receive federal funds mandate culturally responsive training for parents who choose to adopt across races.

It is little wonder, then, that over the last 20 years, multitudes of Black adopted children have reported growing up in homes that made them feel disconnected from their racial identities, birth families, and same-race peer groups. It is also not surprising that Black adopted children, whose interracial adoptive parents were not required to receive extensive training on the do’s and don’ts of interracial adoptive parenting, were frequently placed in predominately White spaces. It is in these spaces that Black children frequently report feeling ostracized and ‘othered’ due to their race, and where they frequently feel they lack the opportunity to forge relationships with people around them who make them feel comfortable talking about such experiences.

Not fitting neatly within their own racial groups or that of their mostly White parents is not a feeling that is unique to interracial adoptees, but it is an experience common to them.
In addition to feelings of uncertainty around their own racial authenticity, interracial adoptees who have not experienced racially and culturally affirming experiences in their communities, classrooms, and home life often report having lower overall self-esteem, an additional circumstance highlighting the importance of making culturally responsive training available for interracial adoptive parents.

The education that adoptive parents receive concerning the history of Black families and the child welfare system is inadequate at best, and at worst, it is non-existent. In a positive shift away from this unfortunate reality, child welfare professionals across the nation are now seeking ways to address racial inequities in the system.

In one such instance, in an experimental initiative, one county drastically reduced the number of Black children in foster care by instituting a blind removal process. In this process, all personal and demographic information on a family is removed from the paperwork distributed to the investigating caseworker, including race, location, and names.

This process was credited with helping caseworkers see the racial bias present in their decisions.

Caseworkers reported that processing new cases without the paperwork that included identifying information helped them see that their prior decisions had been affected by the way they were viewing the profiles of families whose addresses were in the predominantly Black parts of town.

In an effort to address racial inequities by offering families support services rather than removal services, other states and counties have also instituted increased family counseling services in lieu of Child Protective Services investigations. Several states have also created disproportionately staff positions designed to reduce racial disproportionately in their state and county child welfare systems. [viii]

Discussions then should continue to center on how to decrease disproportionality in the child welfare system. If we are to diligently pursue the drive for change— those who act on behalf of adopted and foster children must continue to acknowledge, honor, and support Black families.

Written by Tony Hynes, MA, C.A.S.E. Training Specialist and author of The Son With Two Moms, Interracial adoptee with LGBTQ identifying adoptive parents, Ph.D. Student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, studying social connectedness among adult interracial adoptees.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the policy or position of any agency, employer, or other organization.

[i] Spar, K., & Shuman, M. (2004). Child Welfare: Implementation of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (PL 105–89). Congressional Research Service.
[ii] Villalpando, F. (2019). Family First Prevention Services Act: An Overhaul of National Child Welfare Policies. Child. Legal Rts. J., 39, 283.
[iii] Roberts, Dorothy, Sangoi, Lisa. March 26th, 2018. The Black Families Matter: How The Child Welfare System Punishes Poor Families of Color
[iv] Dettlaff, A. J., Rivaux, S. L., Baumann, D. J., Fluke, J. D., Rycraft, J. R., & James, J. (2011). Disentangling substantiation: The influence of race, income, and risk on the substantiation decision in child welfare. Children and Youth Services Review, 33(9), 1630–1637
[v] Hollinger, J. H. (2007). Overview of the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA).
[vi] US Department of Health and Human Services. (2014). Ensuring the best interests of the children. Through compliance with the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994, as amended, and the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
[vii] US Department of Health and Human Services. (2014). Ensuring the best interests of the children. Through compliance with the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994h, as amended, and the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


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