Intercountry Adoption: Canadian adoptions of African-American children


Joanne Thalken
Focus on Adoption magazine

by Joanne Thalken

The Oregonian newspaper recently ran a story entitled “Sending Black Babies North.” Gabrielle Glaser, a journalist who visited BC recently, and who has shown great interest in Canadian adoptions of African-American children, is the author.

Ms. Glaser interviewed several Canadian families, with African-American adopted children, and writes about the issues surrounding a wealthy nation “exporting” its children. While she is sympathetic to the Canadian families, she expresses surprise and dissatisfaction with American society, for creating a context where birth mothers often prefer to send their children to other countries, where they perceive there to be less discrimination.

Ms. Glaser interviewed American agency representatives, some of whom I have spoken with on the same topic, around reasons for the lack of families available to adopt African-American children, and the controversial method dealing with this by lowering adoption fees for children of African heritage. While agencies state their main reason in reducing fees and looking to other countries, is wanting to find families for children they see as difficult to place, this practice places children clearly as commodities, with white children on the high end of the hierarchy and black children on the bottom. 

The answer to the question why healthy African-American infants would be difficult to place, in a country where so many families want to adopt, is multi-layered, entrenched in the history, politics and socio-economic context of the country. Ms. Glaser touches on some of these layers and not others. She talks about the media hype and misinformation around “crack babies” as frightening families away from adopting children of African heritage, and of the deeply ingrained racism in the United States. She doesn’t talk about the way lowering fees to adopt African-American children perpetuates racism. Children who are assigned less “value” as babies are going to grow up in a society that assigns them less value as adults. Whether it is employment, dealing with the justice system, qualifying for a mortgage in a society that increasingly connects value with a dollar sign, a black child is starting off with a handicap.

Ms. Glaser approaches this issue, and then backs away, perhaps for fear of offending some of the agency representatives she interviewed. Lowering fees, to place black children more quickly, perhaps comes from good intentions, but we live in a world where price signifies value. While we can inform, and educate, and reinforce to individual children, over and over again, their value and worth to us, the opposing information is insidiously working its way into cultural values, and perpetuating racism.

I feel very conflicted about this issue. I speak with families all the time who are considering adopting African-American children. For some of them, this would not be an option if they were paying the non-subsidized fees. Many parents prepare to become transracial families: they read extensively and, once they have adopted, make sure their children have appropriate role models. On the level of their families, and of their individual children, things are much better than they were 30 years ago. It’s not so much about cultural, and racial awareness of families, but about fighting the tide of culture. What families are working against on one hand, they are unintentionally reinforcing on the other, by working with agencies that determine fees, based on race. 

The children as commodities issue also extends much further than the United States. In another part of Gabrielle Glaser’s adoption piece, she discusses the political context of international adoption, and quotes Richard Sullivan, UBC Associate Professor of Social Work, in saying “Poor countries without good social safety nets can solve the infertility problem of wealthier ones.” (The United States adds further to the complexity of this because it is a wealthy country without a good social safety net.) While it is true that parents instinctively revile the idea that their child is an acquisition, this does not mean that, as Dr. Sullivan states in Ms. Glaser’s article, they “just don’t want to think about it.” In my work I find that many parents struggle immensely with issues around Western imperialism, racism, and ethics. Very few parents go into the journey with a simplistic “wanting to help a child” mentality. Some people decide not to adopt because of these issues and some make compromises - adopting from a country that causes less discomfort for them than others.

Canadian parents of African-American, and other children adopted internationally, celebrate race and culture, make efforts to establish connections with their communities, and with other minority families, and make many efforts to make their children comfortable with their race, and their place in the world. Most try to be as honest and truthful with their children about the circumstances of their adoptions as they can. However, many adoptive parents are hesitant to voice a discussion on race issues, because of sensitivity to children who may overhear. No parent wants their child, the most precious and valued person in their world, to hear and then feel that they are less valued elsewhere, or that they were assigned a value at all based on their skin colour, whether high or low. The damage to fragile adolescent self-esteem, especially with children who are already dealing with race and adoption issues in Canada, could be serious.

The fact remains that these issues must be explained before teenagers, with easy access to information from the Internet and other sources, find it for themselves.  Charles Hill, transracial adoption consultant with AFABC, feels it is the parents’ responsibility to understand the issues, and to be ready to answer their children’s questions.  He recommends that parents talk about systemic racism, and how this makes it appear that a child from one race is worth more than another. Parents should stress that the cost of the adoption is not about the child’s value as a person, it is about the way economic, political and social systems perpetuate inequality.

Reading an American perspective on Canadian adoption of African- American children was enlightening. It reinforced my awareness of  the complexity of international adoption. Each country Canadians adopt from has its own web of ethical issues around adoption.  Adoptive parents not only have the responsibility to deal with adoption issues that come up in their children’s lives in Canada, but to prepare for their children to return to their birth countries.