March 31, 2009 -- No matter how comfortable white, A-list stars like Madonna and Angelina Jolie look toting their black babies, experts say adoption rates for African-American children still lag far behind those of white children.
As Madonna awaits a Malawi court's decision Friday that would allow her to adopt a second child from the poor African nation, members of the U.S. adoption community debate whether white celebrities who adopt black children help or hurt transracial adoption.
"On the positive side -- and I think it's mainly positive -- maybe they can help normalize this process," said Adam Pertman, executive director for the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research and advocacy group. "If Angelina Jolie and Steven Spielberg and Hugh Jackman did it, it must be OK. And that normalization is good for kids.
"The big negative is this notion of adoption as baby buying and something only people of privilege get to do, that Madonna stepped to the front of the line, and how is Angelina going to raise all these children," Pertman said. "It's this notion of children as trophies. And it's just not true. There is no evidence she's doing anything illegal or unethical. She's simply getting more attention."
Fueling the fire are stories like the one posted on The Huffington Post Web site Monday. The story tracked down the black velour tracksuit Madonna was wearing during her tour of an impoverished school in Malawi and learned it was by designer Chanel and retails for $2,800.
But the attention that's paid to celebrities who adopt transracially diverts attention from the real story facing African-American children and adoption, experts say. There was a small increase in transracial adoptions from 17.2 percent in 1996 to 20.1 percent in 2003, according to a study by the Donaldson Institute.
The study found that African-American children are still disproportionately represented in foster care and remain less likely than children of other racial and ethnic groups to be adopted in a timely fashion. While black children accounted for 15 percent of America's child population, they represented 32 percent of the 510,000 children in foster care in 2006.
In many cases, black children, particularly older ones in foster care, are still viewed as "special-needs" children because they can be more difficult to place with parents, white or black.
As a result, some adoption agencies will subsidize the adoption costs, through state or other funding, to make transracial adoptions less expensive for prospective parents, according to Joan Jaeger, outreach and communications coordinator for the Cradle, an agency outside Chicago that specializes in transracial adoption. It can mean the difference between $13,000 for a black baby and $29,000 for a white one, Jaeger said.
More People Open to Adopting Transracially
White parents Martina Brockway and Mike Timble say the lower cost was only one factor in adopting their black son, Kayin, through the Cradle. Brockway, who taught English in exclusively black schools before becoming a stay-at-home mom when she became pregnant with their first child Rumeur, now 5, says she knew African-American babies had a greater need for homes. That meant they would also have to wait less time, in their case, nine months, to receive a baby.
"We just kind of felt that we were equipped and in the mind-set that we could do this," Brockway said. "We can't be black ourselves, but we can do everything possible to have this multicultural and diverse life."
With a more visible multicultural America, including a biracial president in the White House, more parents, including celebrities, appear to be open to adopting transracially.
Jolie and Madonna may be two of the most visible white celebrities to have adopted black children, but before them, Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw, and Tom Cruise and then wife Nicole Kidman, adopted black boys.
Hugh Jackman recently spoke with ABC News' Barbara Walters about his decision to adopt mixed-race children, including son Oscar, who he has said is African-American, white, Hawaiian and Cherokee.
"It was like, where's the need?" he told Walters. "The need was obviously mixed-race children. And that was it."
Today, adoptions from African countries, particularly Ethiopia, are taking off in much the same way that adopting from China was once popular.
"I think you could draw a straight line from Angelina Jolie's adoption to the increase in Ethiopian adoptions," Jaeger said.
Mary-Louise Parker adopted her daughter Caroline "Ash" Aberash from Africa, although she has not publicy identified the country.
"I can't adopt 500 children, but I did adopt this one beautiful little girl, and it was an amazing thing," she told an audience during a Q&A with a journalist from the New Yorker. "Especially after having been to a Third World country, and having seen the desperation there, and the need, and all the children, and holding those children and seeing them and touching them."
Not everyone is happy to see celebrities traveling abroad to adopt a black child. "I don't want to say they shouldn't," adoptive parent Brockway said. "Children everywhere need a home, but we do have a large number of children who are in foster care, and a lot of them are African-Americans."
'I Felt We Belonged Together'
Child advocacy group Save the Children recently criticized Madonna for adopting from a Malawi orphanage out of concern that her actions would encourage other poor parents to abandon their children in hopes that they would be adopted.
Actress Joely Fisher considered adopting an African baby when she traveled to Mozambique in July for the charity, but changed her mind. "Once I was there, I felt the people I met wanted me to help them sustain their lives in their own country," she told People magazine.
So when she returned home, she began the process of a private adoption and ultimately adopted a black girl, Olivia Luna.
She told the magazine she is unfazed by her daughter's different race. "I had no preference; I felt we belonged together," she said.
Pertman of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute believes every child, no matter from what country, deserves a home. "We should not be pitting children against each other," he said. "And where do we get off telling people how they should form their families? The question should be how do we set up policies and practices that enable all of these children to get homes?"
Some policy changes under the Clinton administration have had a significant impact on transracial adoptions, Pertman said. One was to limit the time children would be in temporary care before becoming eligible for adoption and another was to tie financial incentives states receive to how many kids were placed in permanent homes.
Then Congress passed the Multiethnic Placement Act in 1994, which essentially mandated color-blindness in adoptions. Pertman said it has not worked to significantly decrease the number of black kids in foster care, despite the slight increase in transracial adoptions.
Part of the reason is that white parents still need to be trained in how to raise black children, everything from how to do their hair to how to talk to them about racism.
"The problem is we don't live in a colorblind society," said Pertman, who supports changing the law. "Race is still an issue. You enable parents to do a better job when you're color conscious."
Robert O'Connor, an African-American who was adopted by white parents and now studies transracial adoptions as an assistant professor of social work at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn., agreed.
"It's very important to believe in biculturalism versus assimilation," said O'Connor, who grew up on a rural farm and a suburb in Minnesota where he and his brother were the only black people in town. "Parents need to make sure their homes represent not just their culture but the child's culture, and it can't be what I refer to as 'cultural tourism.' The family needs to see themselves as a family of color as opposed to a white family that adopted a child of color."
No Way Around Issues of Racial Identity
O'Connor said the adopted black children in celebrity families may be insulated from some of the issues that average multiracial families face but they will, at some point, have to wrestle with issues of racial identity.
"They will have to work out that racial identity before the public eye and that scrutiny could cause them greater difficulty," he said. "These children are seen as members of a larger community, whether their parents recognize it or not. Sometimes transracial adoptees feel guilty about doing so well versus the people they came from. I call it 'survivors remorse.' For children of celebrities, I think negotiating where they came from and connecting with people of origin will be a much wider gulf to traverse."