Black Kids, White Parents
What happens when adopted children don’t look like mom and dad?
Gene Warner, Buffalo News, Apr. 18
They’re used to the stares and quizzical looks and questions whenever they take their two toddlers to the grocery store or out into their University District neighborhood.
Are they yours? Julie and Chris Sansone are asked. Are they really yours?
Yes, toddlers Christopher and Rae Sansone really are their children. The two adopted kids were born less than seven months apart. Christopher, almost 2½, is biracial, three-quarters African-American and one-quarter Native American. His little sister, Rae, 21 months old, is black. Their parents are white, although Julie Sansone is one-sixteenth Native-American. Chris Sansone is an Italian-American.
Here’s a young family of four, a small ethnic stew, smack dab in the middle of perhaps Buffalo’s most integrated community, the University District. “We want to bring up our children in a neighborhood where they see people who look like them and people who don’t,” Julie Sansone said.
The Sansones weren’t on any crusade. They adopted a biracial kid, and then a black one, for pragmatic reasons. It was the quickest way to start their family.
“We never sat down and said we wanted to adopt a black baby,” Chris Sansone said. “It was more just wanting to have a baby together.”
Sociologists call the Sansones a trans-racial family, one of dozens in Western New York, experts say. The number may rise to hundreds if you include children in foster care.
Trans-racial adoptions, like the Sansones’, have been an issue for more than 30 years, ever since the National Association of Black Social Workers branded trans-racial adoption the equivalent of “cultural genocide” in the early 1970s. It remains an issue, largely because of the disproportionate number of African-American children available to be adopted.
In Erie County, for example, the 466 children waiting to be adopted in late February included 229 African-American children, or 49.1 percent of the total. Another 28 children are inter-racial; when they’re added, the figure rises to 55.2 percent.
That’s in a county where the African-American population is just 13 percent.
So, despite strong efforts by the county Social Services Department to find more black adoptive and foster families, there’s still a relative shortage of African-American families to adopt all the black kids available.
“There are tremendous African-American families out there,” said Maryjane K. Link, adoption training specialist with the state Office of Children & Family Services. “But we need to clone them.” Thus, the question: Who should adopt African-American children?
“I generally take the view that an African child should be placed with an African family if at all possible, because I think the African child risks suffering serious psychological issues as that child matures,” said L. Nathan Hare, executive director of Community Action Organization of Erie County.
A child raised in a white family without any link to the African-American community will feel no equity in that community, Hare explained. And the child’s skin color may keep him or her from being accepted everywhere that the parents are.
“So that child may be forced into a person-without-a-country situation,” he said.
Judith O’Mara, director of adoption and foster care for Baker Victory Services, also sees how difficult it may be for that child. “There’s always that struggle for acceptance,” she said. “What race and culture do they belong to?”
But O’Mara and others involved in the adoption process understand the tightrope they’re walking on this issue. Kids’ lives are at stake.
“I think kids should be placed in a home that’s going to love and nurture them,” said Melanie S. Sims, director of foster care and adoptive services for St. Augustine Center. “As long as the family who’s adopting the child can keep them connected to their cultural heritage and accept their differences, it will be successful.”
Adoption officials often have a tough call to make. But as a rule, they’d rather not have an African-American child remain indefinitely in foster care if there’s a suitable white adoptive family available.
“At the end of the day, it’s the child we have to be most concerned about,” Hare said.
In Erie County, two factors have helped reduce the number of African-American children waiting to be adopted.
In the early — and mid-1990s, according to Hare, the county Social Services Department made a concerted effort to work with agencies seeking to find African-American adoptive and foster care families. And the federal Multi-Ethnic Placement Act of 1994 said, in effect, that an agency couldn’t hold up the adoption of a black child by a white family just because of race.
But not every white parent, no matter how well-intentioned, may fit a black child’s needs. Experts agree that the extreme color-blind position — where a parent never addresses the issue — can be harmful for the child.
“I think it would be difficult for Caucasian families to have a black child if they’re naive and believe there are no differences (between the races),” said Sims, a black woman who grew up on Grand Island.
“If your parents don’t see color, then I think the child suffers, because there’s still racism and discrimination in the world,” she added. “They grow up thinking all white people are accepting and wonderful and that there’s no racism in the world. I think the parents need to be honest, tell the truth and tell them, “Some people aren’t going to love and respect you like I do.’ “
The Sansones are neither naive nor colorblind. They know there will be challenges when the kids get older, when they start questioning their identities, wanting to know where they came from. But they’re excited, as any relatively new parents are, about the challenges ahead.
The Sansones also relish the chance for themselves and their children to explore each other’s cultures, traditions and history.
The parents are reading all about black history. Christopher, only 28 months old, already sports (dread)locks. And the family talks about the possibility of going to services at a church in the heart of the city’s African-American community.
That’s the kind of cross-cultural sensitivity that impresses adoption officials.
“The family has to be willing to support the child’s ethnic heritage,” said Link, from the state agency. “If they live in Iowa and there are no black people within 200 miles, that might not be such a good idea.”
For now, Christopher and Rae are way too young for this to be an issue. They do what toddlers do. On a recent visit, Christopher was playing with a toy train, Rae snuggling with her mother. And both wanted to do some damage with a visitor’s pen and notebook.
The only obvious sign of their racial heritage might be Christopher’s stylish locks. But that’s not completely a cultural thing.
“I love Bob Marley, and I’ve always wanted a child with locks,” his father said. “I wish I could do it.”
Adoption experts say that preserving the kids’ cultural heritage is crucial, because it’s part of a child’s identity. Adopted children, especially if they’ve gone through foster care, often have separation issues. And the whole identity question becomes trickier for a child of a different race.
“When they get to adolescence, children start to explore who they are and where they came from,” said Judith A. Bellafaire, who chairs the local Coalition of Adoption and Foster Family Agencies. “If we help them explore that, that helps them in their growth and development. That’s true whether they want to pierce their eyebrows, color their hair or explore their heritage.”
Adoptive parents also have to understand that it’s no reflection on them when their children want to find out who their birth parents are and why they gave them up, added Bellafaire, a foster family specialist at Hillside Children’s Center in Lockport.
The toughest time for trans-racial adopted children may be preadolescence, starting before they reach age 4, said Sims, the adoption expert from St. Augustine’s. “All they see is white faces, and they think it’s normal, that that’s how it’s supposed to be,” she said.
But then come the questions, starting at around age 4:
“Daddy, how come you’re so pale?” or “Why am I a different color?” or “My teacher said you’re white.”
Later, at age 9 or 10, kids start wrestling with who they are, where they came from and why they’re different. That’s when parents have to come up with answers — accurate ones.
The Sansones know one of their kids may say, “You don’t know what it’s like to be black.”
“No, I don’t know what it feels like,” Julie Sansone said she might reply. “Tell me. What issues are you going through?”
And then there’s “The Story Behind M&Ms,” a novel about racism written by two rural Minnesota teenagers. Jerome, a black child adopted by white parents, is taunted by other kids at school. He goes home and tells his mother that he’s tired of being “white” in every way, except for the color of his skin.
People are like M&Ms, his mother explains. Each candy has a different color on the outside, but they’re all the same inside.
Sims, from St. Augustine’s, cited two local cases that show how parents can bridge the trans-racial gap with their kids:
— A white foster mother in the city’s Broadway-Fillmore area likes to take African-American children, especially teenage girls. And she works hard to help them embrace their heritage.
She allows them to hop a bus to have their own hairdresser braid their hair and lets them attend their own church.
“She adapts to the needs of the kid,” Sims said.
— It’s rare, but sometimes the racial roles are reversed.
One black foster mom took in a 9-year-old white girl, who spent most of her time with African-Americans, going to a predominantly black school and a black church.
“This girl now has what many people would call a “black attitude,’ “ Sims said. “She’s a little feisty. Now she can swing her hips and have a tone in her voice.
“For the child, it just gave her exposure to another culture,” she added. “Because the foster mother was loving and nurturing, the child was comfortable in her environment and building her self-esteem.”
No matter how loving and nurturing, no matter how hard parents try to make their children comfortable with their race, the child still may face some issues. Sims mentioned the biggest concern she has for a black child adopted by white parents.
“I’m concerned about the lack of acceptance from both races,” she said. “The black race might consider them an Uncle Tom or a sellout. And the white race might reject them because of their color. So they become confused.”
The Sansones — he’s from Orchard Park, she from Oklahoma — seem eager for the challenge. They married in October 1999. When they learned they couldn’t have children, after Julie had to have major surgery, they knew they wanted to adopt. And they had a strong conviction to adopt locally, if possible, to raise their children near where they were born.
Still, they put their names on lists for Baker Victory Services and a local group connected with a Bogota, Colombia, orphanage. In the spring of 2001, Baker Victory officials told them they might have to wait three or four years — unless they’d consider adopting an African-American or biracial child.
Shortly before Christmas that year, they got a call about a baby boy who had been born Nov. 15. His birth family wanted a two-parent family, and the Sansones fit the bill. Six months later, in June 2002, the Sansones got a call about a baby girl whose birth mother wanted a two-parent family with someone of color in the family. Again, the Sansones didn’t hesitate.
“When someone calls you and says there’s a child who needs a home, that child is yours once they make the call,” Julie Sansone said. “You feel it happened for a reason. We were meant to be a family, the four of us.”
The Sansones hope to adopt again. “We would accept anything, whatever fate brings us,” Julie Sansone said. “But we think it would be great for Christopher and Rae to share a culture, so if our next child is black or Native American, that would be great.”
For now, as they chase their two toddlers around the house, the Sansones are grateful for the two gifts they have.
“We say, celebrate diversity,” Julie Sansone said. “It’s great to have people of different colors, different cultures and different backgrounds, all living in the same community — and in the same family.”