by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Dawn Friedman
When we decided to pursue a domestic adoption nearly five years ago, my husband and I – both of us white – decided that we were open to adopting transracially. We were naïve about this – we really didn’t understand the challenges for children adopted transracially – but when we started researching agencies we made note of their cross-cultural adoption programs.
We are in Columbus, OH and we wanted a local agency. We knew we didn’t want to adopt across state lines because things get iffy when you start mixing up adoption laws. (Every state has its own rules and regulations.) Also we were hoping for an open adoption and I knew it would be unlikely that we could have regular visits between our family and our child’s birth family if airfare became an issue.
We narrowed it down to three agencies in our city. (One other agency had religious requirements we would not meet being an interfaith Jewish/Christian family.) Only one called us back and that’s the agency we chose.
The three agencies we looked at all had separate programs with different costs that were dependent on characteristics of the child – namely children with “special needs” or of African descent cost less to adopt. White kids, kids of mixed race not including black – it’s the full fee to adopt them. Black kids and kids with special needs – about half. *
(I know this isn’t new to most of the people reading Anti-Racist Parent – is’s less expensive to adopt black babies in lots of states. My friend and anti-racist parent colleague, Deesha Philyaw, has done a lot of research about this and I’m sure she’ll share some of her thoughts.)
When we approached the agency we offered to pay the full fee and take whatever baby came our way. The social workers told us that we had to choose a program and that given that we were open to “any race,” we would be placed with a black child because there were fewer waiting parents in that program.
“You may as well get the fee break,” one told us. “Because if you are open to adopting a black baby, you will get a black baby.”
The uncomfortable truth was that the fee break made a difference to our budget. My job was sketchy at that time and having a wholesale adoption would make things easier. So we moved ahead and less than a year later our daughter came home to us.
We have a fully open adoption and regular contact with our daughter’s first mom. Early on we talked about the agency and I told her about the difference in fees; this was something she didn’t know when she began working with them. It’s there on the web site but she contacted them via phone and obviously they didn’t tell her that they would charge parents less for adopting her daughter. Would it have impacted her adoption decision? It sure might have and I think they should be upfront with expectant mothers who contact them.
By the same token, our daughter will know about the fee discrepancies. I have a friend who is also an adoptive mother in a transracial adoption and who also used an agency with a racist fee structure. She says, “My child will NEVER know that our adoption cost less because of his skin color!” Her argument? Knowing will cut to the core of his self-esteem – knowing that he was less valued in the adoption baby market might make him feel that he truly does have less value.
But I can’t lie to my daughter – even by omission – and the racist fee structure is part of her adoption story. I think the key is in how we talk about it and how we respond to her questions, which is not to say that we can make her feel ok about it. Of course we can’t because it’s not ok. She shouldn’t feel ok about it but I also hope we give her the strength and insight not to personalize this institutional racism.
Adoption is rife with –isms. As an adoptive parent, the paradox is recognizing my complicity while still acknowledging my terrific gratitude for having Madison in our lives. There is so much I would have done differently but had I done it differently, Madison wouldn’t be here. I struggle with knowing how to respond now that my feelings about the choices we made have changed. And this includes using an agency with a racist fee structure. But I can’t let my discomfort with my actions keep my kid in the dark about her story. Someday she will know. Someday when we’re going through her box of memories, which includes our adoption paperwork, we will tell her the truth. It is her right. It is her story.
* Our agency moved to a sliding scale after we adopted, basing fees on the income of parents. But they switched back – I’m unsure why. I only know that one social worker told me, “It didn’t work out this way.”
Dawn Friedman is a writer and mother to two children. Her articles have appeared in Salon.com, Yoga Journal, Brain Child and the Greater Good and she is the op-ed editor at Literary Mama. She is also the founder of OpenAdoptionSupport.com and since the adoption of her daughter in 2004 has become passionate about the need for adoption reform. She blogs at this woman’s work.