Melanie Chung-Sherman, LCSW, PLLC and adoptee kick-asser shares deep insights into the child welfare system. Spoiler alert! Race matters. Please take the time to read Melanie’s thoughts (also read here or listen here). You won’t regret it. I’m so glad there is an adoptee adoption professional like Melanie in the world.
I started working in adoption many years ago. . .long enough to see some of the children I actively placed now enter high school and college. I have left the world of child placement not that long ago and continue to reflect on my experiences professionally and personally. I worked in international adoption, private-infant adoptions, kinship adoptions, CPS foster care and state adoptions. The leaving has been cathartic and complicated at the same time, but the residual imprint will stay with me. Now, as an adoption therapist, I am faced with the outcomes, both positive and negative, of the many placement decisions that were made so long ago. Secretly, I wish that those in adoption placement could see some of the impact of their choices years later. . . and I wonder if the same choices and statements would be made. I write this after learning about another American adoptive parent returning her adopted Russian twins back to Russia and abandoning them. Frankly, I’m tired of these incidences because as one colleague and fellow adoptee stated, “One is too many.” This is not a manifesto about what must or should happen in the adoption world, but a critique based on my personal reflection. I’m not about to suggest that I have the answers–because who does? Certainly not me. Kevin, asked me to write about home studies years ago. . .I had not yet felt comfortable examining this topic personally because I was so steeped in the world of child placement at that time. Now I am ready. So here goes:
I was assigned my first home study while working as a child abuse and neglect investigator with Dallas Child Protective Services. I was in my early 20’s and fresh out of college—armed with academic pedagogy, little life experience beyond my personal connection to adoption and an idealistic view of adoption. I had yet to experience (on a professional and personal level) the immense long-term complexity that adoption brings to individuals and family systems. My supervisor asked me to complete the home study because I was adopted (as if that gave me credibility and entitlement—which it did not). She handed me a long list of questions that pertained to the state’s regulatory standards that must be addressed before completion of the interview, told me to have it typed and ready for review in a week following my visit, and sent me out. Alone. There were too many cases on everyone’s caseloads and this was merely a formality in a long list of “interventions” that had to be completed. Truth was that at that time, I was more focused on closing out the rest of my cases then with the distraction of a home study.
There I was–Miss Sally Social Worker—armed with my notepad, five-pages of questions, and a pseudo sense of self-assuredness based on the fact that I thought I knew everything about adoption because I was adopted. I guess that would have been a good place to start. . .if I was a Barista where the greatest mistake would have been a messed up latte order because I was also a coffee drinker, but the truth was that I was a fledging in the world of child welfare making tremendous decisions regarding the destiny of a child and family. I remember sitting in the living room of the family’s home and wondering what the heck I was doing. They asked me what adoption meant to me and why race mattered regarding their adoption. Loaded questions and a test to see how my beliefs on adoption might impact their ability to move forward. At that time I was offended that they would question me. I was so self-righteous then, as if my personal adoption experience lent me automatic privilege to make executive decisions on behalf of a child—as if living the experience automatically assumes “expert” status, which it does not. That was my own sense of privilege and unearned power. Today it has become an important and unique part of what I do, but over the years I have learned that it must be balanced and safe-guarded. I have been humbled over the years when I reflect back on that experience.
I have both approved and denied home studies. I have also trained and supervised social workers and case managers involved in the home study process. I have heard this argument time and again—that agencies are only interested in money—and though there is validity to this, there is so much more involved. I have been confronted with many quandaries in the world of child placement, particularly as I supervised and acclimated young workers to this complex field: 1) How does one teach the impact of racism to someone who has experienced it only anecdotally and sometimes not at all? 2) How does someone accurately measure or assess racial bias and beliefs in a perspective adoptive family through their own privileged perspective? 3) How does one objectively examine and assess a family’s capability and capacity to deal with racism if the parent’s only experiences were anecdotal in nature? 4) What happens when those making informed and educated decisions never experience the reality and pain of racial discrimination? 5) What are quantifiable indicators suggesting that a family possesses the skills and capability to ensure that they can do what is necessary to raise a child of a different race beyond the home study? 7) Will my concerns and those of other social workers be taken seriously regarding race as a responsibility to the child and not for my race? 9) Will those who have the final say in approving or denying a home study have the courage to do so without fear of litigation, retaliation or the inevitable loss of a family they worked so hard to recruit and train? 10) What happens if my own biases and beliefs trump a potentially solid family for a child?
The conceptual framework to answer these questions were nebulous—not unlike adoption altogether. I have attended countless adoption conferences and workshops and what I recognized was that the vast majority of attendees and presenters were Caucasian, middle to upper-middle class, adoptive parents ranging in age and life experience. The fact that the vast majority of first families, communities and countries that the children come from are racial minorities and at a greater socio-economic disadvantage was huge, compared to those that are adopting or actively placing children did not eclipse me. It was the huge elephant in the room and one that no one needs to talk about. The truth is that very few adoptees or first families (particularly those of color) sit on the board of directors or are in positions of authority within the child welfare system, church outreach ministries or agencies today–perpetuating the paradigm that race is secondary to finding permanent homes in the world of adoption. I vowed that I would do things differently—or at least try.
Let’s face it—race, class and culture are messy and no one likes to dialogue about those issues openly or for too long particularly when Western values denotes meritocracy and equal opportunity and adoption in many ways is viewed as an equalizer. But there is no other field that I have been a part of that exposes race and class more viscerally and more personally than adoption. Home study providers inquire what race a family is considering—I have had some parents share that race does not matter at all to others that have shared exacting shades of what a child’s skin tone should look like. I had a parent approach me and state that she always wanted a little girl to look like a “China doll” and that she hoped her daughter would have “whiter skin, than the darker ones”—this was after my workshop on transracial adoption with the agency. Despite my concerns, she was still approved by the agency. Indicating that a parent’s racial privilege and desire to adopt may be enough to cover the complexities of a child being placed in a home where he or she is the only minority child in the family and sometimes in the community, though the truth is far from that. Cases similar have been approved by adoption professionals along the way and very few, if any, of those professionals were of color.
I witnessed that the overall assessment of race and culture were typically pushed to the fringes of pre-adoptive education (when it was needed the most) and assessment. In the ubiquitous effort to place a child with a permanent family, transracial and transcultural issues continued to be seen as a portion of the process and not an equal player in the overall decisions made for a child. I found that some parents and professionals were uncomfortable discussing this openly (and for obvious reasons). But what happened was that it minimized this aspect based on the ideal notion that their love would be enough girded with the privileged notion that racism was not as pervasive today, color-blindness was an experienced luxury for most parents and therefore that blindness became an expectation as they built their family so as not to alienate their child, or the overwhelming fear that personal biases might be exposed and the process could be jeopardized. It did not automatically mean that a family cannot successfully parent, but it did call for exceptional training and intense education by the professionals making decisions prior because adopting outside of race and culture is not the same as biological parenting.
Therefore, some agencies have shied away from going too in-depth regarding training and pre-adoption education and some do not address at all—essentially, leaving this up to the home study provider to address separately. I remember being the only home study provider of color (and the only adoptee for that matter) for the agencies I have been employed or contracted with until recently. There are no universal guidelines for home study providers and the regulations (including MEPA) can be interpreted and implemented differently.
Frankly, I grew tired of the following: 1) families living in very rural settings where the child would be the only child representative of his or her race in the community with no other resources or access to those who might look like them; 2) families who had no intention or felt the importance to integrate race and culture into their home because their child would be American now; 3) families who viewed race not as an identity, but as a statement; 4) or a family that literally described what the spectrum of what “too dark” was—ultimately objectifying a child before he or she ever entered their home; 5) a family that shared they felt called by God to adopt, but only if the child was a specific race or ethnicity; 6) or a family-system with a history of racial prejudice within the extended family that had not been resolved; 7) families that had no other choice but to choose a specific country or adoption program that they could be approved for or afford, but it was evident that the issue of race was still significant; or 8) adoption professionals minimizing the impact of race for the sake of placement as not to upset a family or referrals.
Despite concerns, most studies were approved by adoption staff and administrators because there were no other concrete concerns with the family. My argument continues to be if race is minimized, then what else could be minimized after a child is placed? I found that addressing race was becoming more obligatory in order to address compliance issues for licensing and standards, but rarely was that the sole reason that a family may or may not be approved to adopt or at least referred to additional training and education prior. It was one thing to adopt a baby, but they grow up. . .to minimize the beauty of God’s diversity is to deny a great part of the children who are placed and an essential part of their identity and well-being.
Concerns regarding race were oftentimes overlooked with the exception of some quality supervisors along the way, but there were too many times that they were also superseded by others for the proverbial big picture and the potential for a placement—“A family is better than nothing.” I am tired of this statement, not because I do not believe it is not true, but because it tends to over generalize and marginalize the deeper issues that need to be adequately addressed in transracial adoption before a child arrives. . .many times justifying the means to the end. The agency may or may not be around after a child is placed leaving the child and family in a vacuum long after placement when the issues of identity and race begin to manifest. It may mean that not every family will choose or should choose to adopt, but I would rather see families select-out because they were educated, informed and recognized that transracial adoption may not be the best for a child or their family long-term.
When families cannot or will not do this, then it is the responsibility of the agency, facilitators and providers to stand in the gap for the child—and that is easier said than done in a culture that continues to allow prospective families to “shop” around for an agency that tends to reflect a specific kind of process that matches their current needs and belief systems, but sometimes these that may or may not align with a child’s universal needs and there are many child placing agencies that continues to accommodate this notion. I have seen families “jump” agencies when things did not go their way, a home study was denied or incomplete or when they were pushed and challenged regarding the process. The sad fact is that this continues to happen and agencies continue to approve believing they “can do better” or that what happened at another agency was an isolated incident, and that practice will not serve any child well. Those should be red-flags, but too many times it became a checkered flag signaling “go.” These practices have led to heightened competition between agencies, facilitator and brokers that results in lack of collaboration, high turnover of staff and lack of solid professional training, inconsistent information-sharing between professionals, and tightened regulations coupled with executive decisions based more on ideology, rather than sound, evidenced-based research, application and expertise to posit change for children.
I still believe in the significance of permanency—or I would not be able to do the work that I have done through the years. There is brokenness in a system that most everyone will agree exists—including the professionals working inside that system (many of whom do tremendously hard work each day). This is a system that was originally created out of necessity. The truth is that government systems such as the agencies, facilitators, attorneys, CPS, USCIS, COA and Hague will never make a good parent because they should not be parents in the first place. . . the blunt and sad reality is that there will always be a need for adoption because there is already a brokenness in the world, but that is not the fault of the child. And, yes, children need a permanent place to land, but the ends should never justify the means to get there and there are many things that must be considered carefully—including race. The need for regulation is important as is the need to address the reasons for placement—so we find ourselves here. Regarding best practice, race and culture is a critical part of a child’s identity and thus a portion that must be accounted for if we are to assess physical, social, emotional, spiritual and psychological well-being as well as thoroughly train and examine the assessment skills of those providing home study services. I offer no radical solution because I have heard one too many over the years that try to offer their own “catch-all” and have grown weary of those too. So I continue to do the best I can despite the brokenness out there and bring the best services, advocate for change and healing that I can to adoptees, first families and adoptive families long after the adoption is done, agencies have stepped away and files have been sealed and closed.