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Race Plays Into Adoption Bias Against Foster Kids

Race Plays Into Adoption Bias Against Foster Kids

Although hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S wait in foster care for adoption, America leads the world in turning to international channels to adopt abroad. A new study finds that these foster kids — most of whom are children of color — are passed over because of racial bias, especially against African-Americans.

University of Vermont researchers discovered a number of race-based reasons for why people choose to adopt abroad and how the complicated issue of race in America plays into that decision.

“The fact that some respondents went abroad to actively seek children of color challenges the assumption that parents simply choose to adopt abroad because they are in search of white children they could not find in the United States,” said sociologist and lead author Dr. Nikki Khanna.

“Yet, even for many parents who were open to or actively seeking children of color, they had limits; they were open to children of varying racial backgrounds, but not black — especially not African American.”

Investigators interviewed 41 predominantly white parents from the northeastern United States who adopted 33 children from 10 different countries of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds.

They found that when it came to adopting domestically, the majority of children were white, with 18 of the parents explicitly stating that they did not want to adopt a black child, particularly African-American children. The reason, according to the adoptive parents was that they believed a black child would be “too different” both physically and culturally.

In some cases, the decision not to adopt domestically was based on non-racial factors such as the fear of birth parents changing their mind and wanting their child back.

Some parents expressed concern about open adoptions where the birth parents maintain some degree of contact with their child, which is more common in domestic adoption. Others preferred choosing or being matched with a child from another country as opposed to being chosen by a birth mother in the U.S. from a pool of candidates.

There was also an assumption that adoptive children in the U.S. have more health issues due to alcohol or drug abuse by their mothers.

When it came to race, the most commonly cited reason for not adopting a black child, especially an African American, was that parents “did not think it was in the child’s best interest.”

Researchers placed this response into two categories: racism (concern over how the child would be treated by their community and extended family) and socialization (feeling ill equipped to teach child about African-American culture and how to deal with racism).

Investigators uncovered additional reasons for not wanting to adopt a black child included bonding fears; family prejudice; and racial stereotypes. The latter included the portrayal of black males being too out of control and unruly as opposed to more positive racial stereotypes of Asian women, for example, who are perceived as more “obedient, docile, and passive.”

Khanna says that although parents would sometimes use “coded” language to mask potentially racist comments, many were surprisingly frank.

For example, some parents expressed concern over being able to bond with a black child given the differences in physical appearances. One woman, who adopted a child from Guatemala, said that she “probably wouldn’t have adopted a black child … Hispanic seems less different for me than black.”

Another couple said that even though they wanted to diversify their family by adopting a child of color, adopting a black child seemed too different.

“It’s weird that we were fine with Asian,” said the woman. “We were fine with South American. And we weren’t fine with African American.” When asked why she said, “maybe I wasn’t exposed, or I just thought it would be too different.”

The new study suggests the challenges ahead in easing biracial and multiracial issues in the United States.

Researchers lament that while Americans continue to adopt primarily from China, Ethiopia, Korea, Ukraine, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Nigeria, more than 400,000 children remain in foster care in the U.S. Approximately 60 percent of those are children of color, including 35 percent who are black.

“Given these findings, encouraging American parents to adopt in the United States may prove difficult,” said Khanna.

“These findings also have implications for broader race relations in the United States, given that parental preferences regarding the race of their adoptees reflect the American racial hierarchy that relegates black/African Americans to the bottom tier.”

The article, “We Didn’t Even Think about Adopting Domestically: The Role of Race and Other Factors in Shaping Parents’ Decisions to Adopt Abroad,” appears in the journal Sociological Perspectives.

Source: University of Vermont

Race Plays Into Adoption Bias Against Foster Kids

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Race Plays Into Adoption Bias Against Foster Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 7 Mar 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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