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Adoption Techniques for Treating Adoptive Parent Issues
Adoptive Parent continuing education MFT CEUs

Section 21
Research Regarding Transracial Adoptions

CEUs Question 21 | CEUs Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Adoption
Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

Over the last 30 years, the practice of White American parents adopting African American children has been the focus of much deliberation and commentary In this article, the authors illuminate relevant literature and multicultural adoption Adoptive Parent psychology continuing education research regarding transracial adoption. Counseling and legal implications are also discussed.

Adoption is often seen as a viable alternative to ensure that children who have been permanently placed in foster care will have a stable home of their own. Moreover, numerous scholars have noted that the numbers of children nationwide in need of permanent homes were projected to reach 900,000 by the beginning of the new millennium (see Curtis, 1996; Taylor & Thornton, 1996). It is well documented that African American children are disproportionately represented among populations of children who have been separated from their families and placed in foster care (Curtis, 1996; Grow & Shapiro, 1974). Factors such as poverty and the lack of understanding on the part of agency personnel regarding the disciplinary practices of African American mothers and fathers have contributed to the overrepresentation of African American families in the child welfare system (Bradley, 2000; Denby & Alford, 1996; McRoy, Olgesby, & Grape, 1997).

Transracial Adoptions and Related Research
The question of whether White American parents should adopt African American children has been the subject of considerable debate and commentary both in the social work literature and in a segment of child development literature. The basis for much of this discussion is attributed to a position paper (Simon & Alstein, 1977) drafted by the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) that "vehemently opposed" (p. 15) the placement of African American children with White American families and referred to this type of placement as a form of "cultural genocide" (p. 202). The term cultural genocide was first coined in relation to the placement of Native American children outside of their tribe, family, culture, and identity into White American families (Hawkins-León, 1997-1998). Such outplacement occurred in such large numbers throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s that Congress responded by passing federal legislation titled the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 to arrest the irreversible decimation of the Native American tribal system (Hawkins-León, 1997-1998).

In relation to the transracial adoption of African American children, NABSW (in 1972) stated the following:
Black children should be placed only with Black families whether in foster care or for adoption. Black children belong, physically, psychologically and culturally in Black families in order that they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future .... The socialization process for every child begins at birth. Included in the socialization process is the child's cultural heritage which is an important segment of the total process. This must begin at the earliest moment; otherwise our children will not have the background and knowledge which is necessary to survive in a racist society. This is impossible if the child is placed with White parents in a White environment. (as cited in Simon & Alstein, 1977, p. 50)

After its release, this position paper by NABSW argumentatively set the tone regarding transracial adoption for nearly two decades.

In addition to the concerns raised by NABSW, African American child-rearing experts have affirmed over the last few decades that African American parents have the difficult role of preparing their children to succeed in a society that has a history of being hostile and racist toward African Americans (Bradley, 1998; Robinson & Ginter, 1999). As early as preschool, African American children are bombarded with negative messages from authority figures about race (Bradley & Sanders, 1999; Robinson & Ginter, 1999; Tatum, 1997). African American male children in particular "are frequently the victims of negative attitudes and lowered expectations from teachers, counselors, and administrators" (Lee, 1991, p. 1). Moreover, the criminal justice system has a history of targeting and harassing African American children. African American youth who gather at malls or in other public settings are often approached by law enforcement officers who perceive their behavior as "menacing" and "suspicious." Several scholars (Greene, 1992; Lee, 1991; Phinney, Lochner, & Murphy, 1990; Tatum, 1997) have posited that the internalization of such messages by African American youth can lead to higher levels of anxiety and lowered self-esteem.

To counteract the impact of these societal pressures on African American children, African American parents have used a variety of adaptive strategies to expose their children to accurate and positive information about African American people and their history. This process has been termed racial socialization. According to Greene (1992), in implementing this process African American parents must find ways of warning their children about racial dangers and disappointments without overwhelming them or being overly protective. Either extreme will facilitate the development of defensive styles that leave a child inadequately prepared to negotiate the world with a realistic perspective. (p. 64) Thus, the socialization process for African American children has been documented as being different from that for White American children.

Advocates for transracial adoption responded to the criticisms of NABSW by conducting investigations on the effects of transracial adoption on African American children. Most of these studies consistently indicated that African American adolescent and younger children adjusted well in their adoptive homes. Our analysis of these studies, however, finds cause for concern for transracially adopted African American children.

The work of Grow and Shapiro (1974) annotated one of the earliest studies on the placement of African American children with White American parents. Grow and Shapiro conducted a follow-up study of 125 adoptions of African American children by White American parents. Children were classified as African American if one of the biological parents was African American. The primary focus of this research was to assess the adjustment and well-being of preadolescent African American adoptees. Adjustment was calibrated by the child's responses to the California Test of Personality (a measure of social and personal adjustment) and the Missouri Children's Behavior Check List Test. Researchers also evaluated interview data regarding the parents' assessment of the child's attitude toward race. Reported findings indicated that 77% of the children had adjusted successfully and that this percentage was similar to reports from previous studies. Grow and Shapiro also compared the responses of African American children adoptees with those of adopted White American children and found that the scores from these two groups matched very closely. Grow and Shapiro concluded that the children in their study were adjusting in their adoptive homes successfully.

McRoy and Zurcher (1983) conducted the first study of transracial adoptees that used a comparison group of inracial adoptees. They were also the first to examine the experiences of African American children from the parents' and the adoptees' perspective. The sample consisted of 60 families, 30 White American and 30 African American. Slightly more than half of the adoptees had two biological African American parents. Most of these children had been placed with African American adoptive parents. Nearly all children with only one biological African American parent were placed with White American parents. An interracial team of African American and White researchers conducted face-to-face interviews both with the adoptive parents together and with the children alone. In addition, both parents and children completed the Tennessee Self-Concept Scale. McRoy and Zurcher (1983) wrote that the results indicated that "transracial and inracial adoptive parents enjoyed their adopted children and considered their decision to adopt a good one" (p. 36). Researchers also noted that the families were different in several aspects. The transracial adoptive parents were less likely than were inracial adoptive parents to deliberately instruct their adoptees about African American heritage and pride. The transracial parents primarily emphasized that "all humans are alike." The inracial parents accentuated the positive qualities of being African American. The inracial adolescent adoptees tended to discuss racist experiences more openly and frequently with their parents than did the transracial adoptees. McRoy and Zurcher concluded that although White adoptive parents had yet to behaviorally respond to the racial and cultural needs of African American children, they should still be considered as a resource for permanent placement for African Americans.

Over a period of 20 years, Simon and Alstein (1992) followed a group of families that adopted African American children. Their research began in 1972, and the original sample consisted of 204 families who adopted transracially. Of the 366 adoptees, 120 were African American. Using projective measures such as the Clark Doll test, pictures, and other instruments, Simon and Alstein (1992) found that "African American children perceived themselves as African American as accurately as White American children perceive themselves as White American" (p. 87). They also found that the parents tended to believe that race did not and would not be a major issue for their children. A large majority (77%) of the White American parents lived in predominately White American neighborhoods, and 63% of the adoptees reported that most of their friends were White American . Simon and Alstein (1992) concluded that their study consistently showed that African American children reared by White American parents fared no worse than did other African American children.

Vroegh (1997) reported the fifth phase of her longitudinal study of transracial adoption outcomes. The sample consisted of 52 late adolescent African American adoptees. Thirty-four of the adoptees were from transracial families, and the remaining 18 'were from inracial families. Each of the participants was interviewed by an interracial team of researchers and each completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Findings revealed that 90% of the sample were "doing well in life." Based on longitudinal data, Vroegh concluded that transracial adoptees had "developed identities" (p. 572). Vroegh found that this fact was evidenced by 90% of the inracial adoptees and 88% of the transracial adoptees labeling themselves as either African American or of "mixed" race.

Although a preponderance of evidence supports the declaration that African American adoptees are adjusting well in transracial home environments, these and other often-cited conclusions have been challenged on methodological, analytical, and interpretative grounds (Alexander & Curtis, 1996; Chimezie, 1977; Gopaul-McNicol, 1996; Hollingsworth, 1997; McRoy & Zurcher, 1983; Penn & Coverdale, 1996; Taylor & Thornton, 1996; Willis, 1996). An extensive review of studies on transracial adoption conducted by Hollingsworth (1997) indicated that most of the data regarding the experiences of transracial adoptees were gathered only from the adoptive parents. This particular research method provided very little insight regarding the child's own perception of their adoptive experience (Penn & Coverdale, 1996). Furthemore, Willis (1996) reported that when transracial adoptees were interviewed, many of the appraisal and evaluation procedures used by the researchers had numerous methodological limitations. For example, the Clark Doll Test, a projective measure used in several of the longitudinal studies, has been severely criticized as being invalid if used to evaluate anything more than a child's preference for a doll in a contrived, forced choice situation

In addition, numerous researchers have charged that when the research population involved African American and White American adoptees, the behaviors and experiences of White American children were held as the standard. Furthermore, if White American children were not part of the study, African American adoption experiences were compared with White American children both indirectly and by assumption. Seminal studies such as the work of Grow and Shapiro (1974) and Simon and Alstein (1992) are prime examples of this tendency. In each of these two studies, researchers found that African American adoptees evidenced psychological outcomes similar to those found in White American children. Based on these findings, the investigators concluded that transracial adoption was a logical option for African American children. Finally, and most important, Taylor and Thornton (1996) argued that in the studies that reported "the successful adjustment" of transracial adoptees, researchers omitted or minimized other important outcomes in their analyses such as (a) the presence of racial identity and awareness issues among transracial adoptees (e.g., McRoy & Zurcher, 1983; Shireman & Johnson, 1986); (b) the large number of transracial adoptive families who resided in predominately White American neighborhoods (e.g., Grow & Shapiro, 1974; Simon & Alstein, 1992); (c) the general belief of White American parents that race would not be a major issue for their transracially adopted children in the future (e.g., McRoy & Zurcher, 1983); and (d) the discovery of emotional maladjustment among some African American adoptees (e.g., Silverman & Feigelman, 1981).

- Bradley, Carla, Hawkins-Leon, Cynthia G.; The Transracial Adoption Debate: Counseling and Legal Implications; Journal of Counseling & Development; Fall2002; Vol. 80 Issue 4

The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates. 

Personal Reflection Exercise #7
The preceding section contained information about transracial adoption research. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 21
What criticisms have been raised regarding the Clark Doll Test? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booklet.

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