Racial Politics: The “Business” of Domestic Private Adoption

[Written by Love Isn't Enough Guest Contributors Beth Hall, Joe Kroll, and Ruth McRoy. The authors first presented this paper at the 2010 conference, “Open Arms, Open Minds: The Ethics of Adoption in the 21st Century,” where Beth Hall received the Outstanding Practitioner in Adoption Award and Ruth McRoy received the Outstanding Researcher in Adoption Award from the Adoption Initiative at St. John’s University in New York City. Please see the end of the article for more information about the authors.]

Looking on the Internet, it is upsetting to see how few families of color are visible. I know we are out there. It is important to me as an African American woman that people see us as viable families and resources. Instead the ads are filled with offers of discounts if we are “willing to take” a fully African American child – don’t they understand that as a black woman that child is my first choice? It angers me that they would devalue me and my children based on our race….I could never work with an agency that discounts in that way – even if it means paying more money to adopt.

–  Annette, adoptive mom to Daniel & Eli

They told me that I needed to look at white families for my baby because it is hard to place Black children unless they are mixed. But I felt that my child needed parents who were the same race. They had flown me to Utah and told me they would help but when I found out they were charging the parents more depending on the race of the child I told them I couldn’t work with them anymore. They told me I would have to pay them back for what they had spent on me and that I didn’t really want to place my child for adoption. So I left on my own and found the family of my dreams to adopt my child. I know I made the right choice for me and my baby.

– Shayla, birth mother to Ezra

When it comes to adoption, “business as usual” cannot continue. The time has come to expose the unethical behavior and the inherent racism embedded in a private domestic adoption system that favors the interests of white adults over the children of color the system is supposed to serve.

Too often, adoption agencies are using racist practices under the guise of serving children, when in truth they are primarily serving the needs of their adult clients (McRoy, 1989) and their own bottom line. Even those adoption professionals who are striving to put children’s needs first are not always equipped or inclined to explore the racism of their own practices—to examine, for instance, their lack of experience working with populations of color. Some agencies assume that white families are at least adequate, if not best, for all children because of their own inability or unwillingness to recruit adoptive families of color or to recognize that their fees are a barrier to the placement of children in same-race families. While we are not saying that agencies are “selling children,” we are saying that when fees are associated with racial characteristics of the child that it has the implication that some races and often whiteness is more “marketable” or valuable.

Race-based adoption fee structures assign children different monetary values according to their race (Boccarra et al., 2010).

When a couple seeking to adopt a white baby is charged $35,000 and a couple seeking a black baby is charged $4,000, the image that comes to mind is of a practice that was outlawed in America nearly 150 years ago–the buying and selling of human beings (Schabner, 2006). According to one study of parents (mostly white) who adopted through a private adoption facilitator and/or agency, “the increase in desirability of a non-African-American baby with respect to an African-American baby (both of unknown gender) is equivalent to a decrease of at least $38,000 in adoption finalization cost (Campbell, 2010).” Many respected and licensed agencies publish sliding scales based on the race of the child to be placed. It is difficult to know how many others may be doing the same, because agencies are not required to publish their fee scales publically (Rhodes, 2005). Sliding fee scales based on a child’s race perpetuate a racist value system and too often allows well-intended white practitioners to see themselves as serving “hard-to-place” children through offering discount pricing. In this way they avoid the question of how well their practice is really serving those children and if their standard fees are keeping available families from adopting.

Basing sliding scale fees on the adoptive family’s income instead of the child’s race is one possible approach that doesn’t devalue children. Adoption professionals who see same-race families as a resource and do everything in their power to make the system accessible to families of color know that this practice becomes a means to recruit ever more families ready and eager to adopt infants of color.

Money should not be part of the equation when children, particularly children of color, are involved.

Today when children are voluntarily relinquished shortly after birth, their adoption is more like a business transaction than a child welfare service. Some assert that the growth and privatization of baby adoptions, especially involving African American and other biracial or mixed youngsters of African descent, sets the stage for an anachronistic recommodification of African Americans.

- Ruth Arelene Howe, Law Professor, Boston University

This system perpetuates the feeling in pre-adoptive parents that they are investing in the placement of the unborn child with them. Of course, private adoption practitioners must cover the cost of their services, but fee scales and client recruitment in which fees are unrelated to a particular placement can serve to avoid a practice that looks suspiciously like baby-selling, even if that is not what is intended.

Fees have nothing to do with parent suitability. Pact has been committed to finding same race families to adopt African American infants, they pay fees for our services. Much of the language used to describe the families being recruited like “families willing or able to adopt African American children” often fits primarily to transracial placements because, of course, for African American pre-adopters these children are the first choice. Don’t all children deserve to be adopted by families who desire them first rather than families who are possibly being convinced by lowered fees? Other examples draw analogies to the placement of “special needs or disabled children” and therefore imply that being African American is somehow a special need or disability. How does lowering the cost of placement fees insure finding “suitable” families for African American children? We are concerned about a system where families who are eager to adopt without full preparation might be tempted to move forward simply because they can pay less to adopt an African American child?

Placement is emphasized over education and support.

Across the nation, we are hearing more and more stories of independent agencies, adoption attorneys, and facilitators who use Yellow Pages and other forms of advertising to expand their practices by recruiting expectant/birth parents (Judd). They sometimes recruit African American expectant/birth parents without having identified any families who are prepared to adopt African American children. In a more recent and disturbing trend, some of these same professionals are creating “African American” placement programs and offering these services to expectant mothers, but placing no emphasis at all on recruiting African American families, or expending any effort on preparing the white families they serve to parent children of color. At the same time, the number of transracial adoptions of African American children from the foster care system is growing.  In 1997, 11.6 percent of adoptions with state agency involvement were transracial—by 2003, that number had risen to 16.9 percent (Hansen and Pollack, 2010). As these numbers increase, many authorities seem to be re-embracing the outdated approach to transracial adoption that claims “love is enough,” when we now know that children of color do best with parents who understand that love is only the beginning. The current foster-adopt system and the private adoption business put all of their emphasis on placement, leaving families on their own to face the challenges of adoption’s lifelong issues. Simply placing a child and leaving his or her family to figure it all out is not enough. In particular, to place a child with someone who is not prepared to address the child’s racial identity, or worse, believes that there is no reason to do so, is doing a lifelong disservice to that child and family. When one listens to transracially adopted adults, it becomes clear that children must either be placed with parents who are share their race, OR be placed with parents who understand that their children must have access to a community that can foster and mentor their full racial/ethnic identity.

The politics of race often reduces the likelihood of social workers discussing race in real terms.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that often those running placement programs themselves have little education about racial identity and have not critically examined their own experience of whiteness—in other words, have not encountered anything that might challenge their belief that placement trumps race. The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, which makes it illegal to delay or deny adoptive placements based on race or culture has had the unfortunate result of keeping social workers from offering real training about race to transracial adopters, even when they have the knowledge and experience to do so. The Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services has mandated a colorblind approach to parent preparation, which has resulted in transracial adopters not receiving the specialized unique education and support they need and crave (McRoy, Mica, Freundlich & Kroll, 2007).

As a system, child welfare has long struggled with racial inequity in its effectiveness in serving children and parents—both birth and adoptive (Roberts, Solinger & May). Current adoption laws impose penalties on federally-financed agencies that “discriminate” by giving preference to the placement of children in same-race families, which effectively promotes transracial placement, yet there are no penalties for failure to identify adoptive families of color. Their recruitment while suggested is not mandated in the same way (Clemeston).  While these laws only apply to public agencies, they underscore our societal discomfort with rules which work against white people as if giving preference to people of color is somehow an affront not to be tolerated rather than a legitimate service to the children currently waiting for adoption.

We need to revise our goals as a community.

In a perfect world, no fees would be charged for the placement of children, removing the financial incentive to please the “consumer.” In the meantime, we suggest the immediate imposition of sliding scale fee structures that are based on income and assets rather than the race of the child. In order to apply the scale according to the needs of the children, families who are in short supply can be incentivized according to their qualifications and their ability to pay. This requires agencies to focus first on the needs of children rather than their own bottom line—child welfare as it should be.

Often professionals and agencies will say that they can’t attract families of color and in particular African American parents. If this is true, shouldn’t practitioners be lowering thier fees for needed families, ie. African American or other families color? By reducing fees for all families based on the race of the child, rather that for families based on their availability to serve as resources for children, we risk attracting families who aren’t really choosing adoption of children of color as a first choice for their family. Every child deserves parents and a home where his or her racial heritage and socialization is an important goal. No child should be place with a family because they are tempted by the lowered fees and not necessarily well suited or prepared to meet the needs of the child they adopt.

When professionals tell us that African American families are not ready or available to adopt African American and biracial infants we don’t find that credible. Pact always has many families of color waiting to adopt because we have remained committed to recruiting, training and supporting those families in a culturally sensitive and competent way[1].

Often professionals describe pre-adoptive parents of color as unwilling or unable to pay adoption-related fees. But in a field where fees can range from a few thousand dollars to may tens of thousances, agencies and adoption providers who are serving children first should commit to full transparency about their fees structures and models. Currently there is no mandate requiring that fee scales for adoption be published but this must change if we want an ethical “marketplace” in the context of infant placement. Industry wide standards that disallow for-profit business models in child-welfare are highly suspect and no child, no matter there race, is well served in a “marketplace” that allows fee structures that appear to be based on profitability and “customer” (ie. desperate pre-adoptive clients) desires alone.

Ultimately, not only are race-based fee structures unethical, they do not serve the children of color they claim to help, and may in fact stop parents, both birth and adoptive, from accessing the very system that claims to want to serve them–not to mention the incredible dilemma of explaining such systems to birth parents and ultimately the adoptees themselves.

The uncomfortable truth was that the fee break [for adopting our African American child] made a difference to our budget…. But I can’t lie to my daughter – even by omission – and the racist fee structure is now part of her adoption story.

- Dawn Friedman, adoptive parent

We would welcome a world where adoption was completely subsidized, so that money would never be a driving factor. Since we are not yet there, we call for both professionals and those in the process of adopting to examine practices carefully to make sure they support children first, without implying diminished value to anyone based on their race. At the same time, it is crucial to recognize that placement is just the beginning, and make sure that adoptive parents are receiving the education they need—about race and other issues—to successfully meet their children’s needs and help them grow into healthy, happy adults.


  • Beth Hall is the Director of Pact, An Adoption Alliance (www.pactadopt.org) and co-author of Inside Transracial Adoption.
  • Joe Kroll, an adoptive and birth father, has served as the Executive Director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children (www.nacac.org) since 1985.
  • Dr. Ruth G. McRoy, Ph.D., an internationally recognized researcher in the area of adoption and foster care, is the Donahue and Difelice Professor of Social Work at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work and Board President of NACAC.


  • Boccarra, M., Collard-Wexler, A., Felli, L., Yarlv, L. (2010) Gender and Racial Biases: Evidence from Child Adoption. Center for Economic Policy Research http://www.cepr.org/pubs/new-dps/dplist.asp?dpno=7647
  • Campbell, C. Black Babies, Boys Less Likely to Be Adopted (2010) Economix New York Times January 25, 2010
  • Clemetson, Lynette. Overcoming Adoption’s Racial Barriers. August 17, 2006. New York Times.
  • Freundlich, M. (2000) Adoption and Ethics. Volume I: The Role of Race, Culture and National Origin in Adoption, Volume II: The Market Forces in Adoption. Child Welfare League of America.
  • Friedman, D. 2008. Love Isn’t Enough: On Raising A Family in a Colorstruck World. Anti-racist Parent Blog. http://loveisntenough.com/2008/05/09/half-price-adoptions–should-we-tell-our-kids/
  • Giles, T & Kroll, J. (1991) Barriers to Same Race Placement. NACAC: Executive Summary
  • Hansen, M. E. & Pollack, D. (2010) Transracial Adoption of Black Children: An Economic Analysis. In Michele Bratcher Goodwin (Ed) Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families (pp. 133-143). Cambridge University Press.
  • Howe, R.A. “Adoption Laws and Practices: Serving Whose Interests?” In Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families, edited by Michele Bratcher Goodwin, 86-93.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Judd, Alan. Adoption Agencies Break Rules, Escape Punishment. April 25, 2010. Atlanta Journal Consitutuion.
  • McRoy, R., Mica, M., Freundlich, M., Kroll, J. (2007).  Making MEPA-IEP Work:  Tools for Professionals.  Child Welfare 86 (2) 49-66.
  • McRoy, R.G.  (1989).  An organizational dilemma:  The case of transracial adoptions.  Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 25(2), 145-160.
  • McRoy, R.G., & Hall, C. C. I. (1996). Transracial adoptions in whose best interest? In M. Root (Ed.), The Multicultural Experience (pp. 63-78). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Rhodes, Dusty. (2005). Baby Trade. Illinois Times, February 17, 2005.
  • Roberts, Dorothy. (2002). Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. Civitas Books.
  • Schabner, D. Buying and Selling. www.drblackman.com 2006.
  • Solinger, Ricki & Ellen Tyler May. (2000) Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade. Routledge.

[1] Pact is happy to work cooperatively with agencies who are looking to ensure that expectant/birth parents have a full range of choices to consider as adoptive parents for their child. Please contact us for information about pre-adoptive families of color looking to adopt.

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