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Transracial adoption, sometimes called interracial or biracial adoption, legally joins parents and children of different races. Transracial adoption can take place domestically through agencies or foster care, or internationally when children are brought from another country. The most common transracial adoptions in the United States occur when white parents adopt children of other races. Because of each child's need to establish an identity true to his or her heritage, however, the choice is controversial and the process complex.


In the past, the main criterion for adoption approval was whether placement in the new family was in the child's best interest. The procedure was in the hands of a social service agency, and the judgment of the professional staff prevailed. Social workers and counselors approached transracial adoption (TRA) with the same policy, although they generally preferred to match children with families of the same race. The practice of TRA became more widespread as laws and customs changed and fewer white infants were available for adoption. In most cases, social services operated on the assumption that permanent homes were better for children than institutional or foster care, even if the adoptive family was of a different race. But in the early 1970s, minority adults began to voice their opposition to TRA.

The main issue was—and still is—whether white parents can provide the cultural context and socialization that children of color need in a race-conscious society. Opponents believed that regardless of how well black or biracial children were loved, educated, and supported, they ultimately needed to find a place in the community of their race. The same argument was presented for Native American, Asian, and Hispanic children. Studies of children brought up by racially dissimilar parents show that while some individuals struggle with establishing a racial or ethnic identity or have difficulty adjusting to society as they grow older, others adapt well and thrive.


The social changes of the 1960s, when civil rights laws advanced racial equality and liberal thinkers encouraged colorblindness, also influenced adoption procedures. Fewer white infants were available for adoption as legal abortion and single motherhood became realistic options. At the same time, little thought was given to the need for young children to establish ethnic identities, and most social workers believed a home with a loving white family was the best choice for a child of color when a family of the child's own race was unavailable.

However, in 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) led a movement against adoption of black children by white parents. They charged that a racist system denied black children's right to their heritage and was biased against black adoptive parents because of unrealistic evaluation criteria. Native American leaders agreed that allowing white parents to raise their children undermined the children's cultural legacy and made it impossible for them to develop an appropriate racial identity. Both groups labeled transracial adoption as racial and cultural genocide—a plot by whites to take away the children of minorities and raise them in the white culture. Others argued that life in a white family simply could not prepare a child of color to deal with the challenges and racism he or she would face in American society.

As a result, during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, transracial adoptions dropped sharply. Agencies usually used race matching when placing African American children into adoptive homes, and transracial adoption was considered a last resort. Opponents of race matching quoted studies that showed children of transracial adoptions fared as well as other adopted children did, and that the age at which they were adopted had more of an impact on their lives than the race of the adoptive parents.

Adoption Laws

The pendulum began to swing in the other direction by the mid-1990s. A high percentage of children in foster care were African American and thousands were available for adoption, although they remained in temporary placements twice as long as adoptable white children. The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, passed in 1994, sought to reduce the wait time for a child to be adopted and discouraged discrimination in placement. The law punished agencies that did not comply by withholding federal funds. In November of 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), which was intended to increase adoptions of any kind and suggested that race should not be a consideration in adoptions.

Today, white, transracial parents are encouraged to involve their black children in African American culture and prepare them for the impact racism is likely to have on their lives. Interacting with a multiracial community allows all members of racially mixed families to experience unfamiliar cultural perspectives. Many parents also prepare their children for discrimination, whether as overt hostility, unconscious inequities, or the microaggressions people of color experience every day. Yet even with connections to their ethnic communities, children may experience a transracial adoption paradox—that is, while they have many of the educational and social advantages of growing up in white communities, they still are treated as racial minorities in society.

Intercountry Adoptions

While transracial adoptions in America are likely to involve white parents and black children, intercountry adoptions often include Asian and Latino children from nations with many orphaned or abandoned children and high poverty rates. Adoptive parents may choose to adopt internationally because they wish to adopt an infant, rather than an older child. Many white children have been adopted from Eastern European countries, but American parents also adopt Korean, Indian, and Chinese babies. Such adoptions can be very expensive, with costs ranging from about $20,000 for an adoption from Thailand to $40,000 in South Korea or China, as of 2014. The entire process can take up to three years. Parents are often required to spend weeks at a time in the country of the adoptive child. In contrast, a domestic adoption through the foster care system in the United States may cost less than $5,000. Domestic adoptions through private agencies, however, may be as expensive as intercountry adoptions.


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