Madonna and adoption: what’s race got to do with it?

[Editor's note: According to the New York Times: "A judge has rejected Madonna's request to adopt a second child from Malawi because of a requirement that prospective parents live in the southern African nation for at least 18 months, another judge and a lawyer said Friday."]

by Carmen Van Kerckhove, originally published at CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 blog

Madonna’s present attempt to adopt a second child from the African nation of Malawi has reopened a discussion on the question of why so many Americans choose to adopt internationally instead of domestically.

Unfortunately, this conversation rarely gets beyond complaints about the red tape involved in domestic adoption on the one hand, and sweeping statements about how international adoptive parents are saving the lives of helpless children in impoverished countries on the other.

What’s missing from the discussion is a clear-eyed look at how race impacts the adoption and child welfare system in America.

Here’s one sobering fact: Adopting a black child can cost half the amount of adopting a white child. And although every state has its own rules and regulations regarding adoption, many adoption agencies have separate programs that provide fee reductions for parents willing to adopt children with special needs or those of African descent.

Anyone who has taken a basic economics course can draw conclusions about what this price structure reveals regarding the relative supply and demand of black children versus white ones, as distasteful as it is to think about the lives of children in terms of market dynamics.

And it’s no secret that black children are over-represented in the child welfare system. For example, 21.4% of the children in foster care in the state of Minnesota in 2003 were African-American — even though African-American children made up only 5% of Minnesota’s overall population at that time.

Right-wing pundits enamored with the idea of “welfare queens” and “crack babies” may blame the over-representation on some flavor of inherent dysfunction among blacks, but the reality is that racial bias greatly influences the ways in which child welfare laws are interpreted and enforced.

Contrary to popular belief, most children who end up in the foster care system are put there due to neglect, not abuse by their parents, according to adoption expert Jae Ran Kim:

Neglect covers a wide berth of issues including a lack of or inadequate shelter, supervision, nutrition, and education. The standards for these differ from state to state. In Minnesota, for example, a child 12 or over is considered responsible enough to get themselves to school. A child who misses 25 days of school in a semester would be considered truant if the child is 12, but the parents would be charged with educational neglect if the child is 11.

Racial discrepancies in the ways cases are handled suggest that social workers are far more likely to place children of color in foster care than they are white children:

A 1997 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found that social workers were more likely to place African American and American Indian children in foster care [rather than] in-home services when compared to white children with the same family issues. Once in foster care, African American children typically stay there twice the length of white children. Often this is a result of bias all the way from the social worker to the judge.

We’ll never be able to carry on a rational, honest conversation about adoption — its challenges and solutions — until we take a hard look at how it is impacted by race.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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