Culture & Conversation Race

Adopting While Black

Sakena Jwan Washington

Nothing could prepare me for the messy political and emotional process of adopting while Black.

When my husband and I found the adoption agency we later signed with, one thing stood out: the absence of brown babies on their marketing materials. I called the agency and asked a few pointed questions.

“Most of our clients are looking for white babies,” our case manager said. “In 14 years, you’re maybe the fifth or sixth Black couple I’ve worked with.”

Our agency claimed that the shortage of adoptive parents of color created a demand among their Black expectant birth parents for “full African-American parents.” I was amused by this term; it suggested purity and a single, direct line to the motherland. After a brief attempt to explain the complexity of Black genealogy, I realized that African diaspora—and how it actually involved people of all races—was lost on her.

A Google search confirmed that we were a minority in the private adoption world. More than a dozen adoption sites had profiles of mostly white and multiracial “families in waiting”; there were rarely Black couples.

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Because there are so few families like us seeking a child, we were told we could have our baby soon—far sooner than the average wait time of nine months to one year. I learned that expectant moms of color seek out adoptive parents of color in hopes of fostering more cultural identity.

For the first time in my life, I was told that I was highly favored due to the color of my skin. “Full African-American,” my new moniker, was everywhere. I began to scour the web and noticed that several more agencies asserted that African-American couples were in great demand. It’s not that loving, transracial adoptive parents don’t exist, but Black adoptive parents are a hot commodity.

Still, nothing could prepare me for the messy political and emotional process of adopting while Black.

Adoption was not our first choice. When my husband and I got married in 2014, I thought I would get pregnant, give birth, and gripe about stretch marks in that order. But Mother Nature had her own agenda. After five miscarriages and two unsuccessful in vitro fertilization (IVF) attempts, we began considering other ways to expand our family. Walking in faith became a daily exercise. Each time I lost hope, I was learning how to find it and trust it again.

We set things in motion and scheduled our first agency consultation. Mike—not his real name—had the bravado and energy of a car salesman, clipping his own sentences as he spoke. Throughout our conversation, he kept referring to us as his “rock-star couple.” We aren’t celebrities or part of the 1 percent. But in his eyes, we were a slam dunk because we were both Black, preferred a Black newborn, and had no gender preference.

“You’ll be matched in two months,” he said. My heart dropped. What I heard was a small population of clients were open to Black infants—a small and therefore more competitive pool.

And supply and demand came into play in other ways. Due to cultural preferences, kinship adoption—within family networks—is more common in the Black community. An NPR piece titled “Six Words: ‘Black Babies Cost Less to Adopt” and a Harper’s Bazaar article both cited a noticeable price difference between Black and white infants, reflecting lesser demand for children of color. I’d seen the premium for whiteness reflected in my own search for an adoption agency. While some agencies only accepted clients who were open to Black infants, other agencies had separate and less expensive tiers for infants of color. Realizing that value differed according to race was akin to learning there was a blue-light special on Black infants. The availability of Black infants, whether rooted in racism, racial preference, or supply and demand, led to one clear message for us: Our wait time would be a fraction of what most adoptive parents experience.

Then, the “two months” sank in. Two months?  Our desire to adopt went from urgent to cautious. We didn’t have a crib, let alone a car seat. No way could we sign on with this agency. We decided to wait until January to make our profile live and accessible to birth parents wishing to place their infants.

In January, I called our case manager, and she confirmed our desire to have a Black child. Then she cautioned me, “Things will move very quickly.”

“What do you mean by ‘quickly’?” I said.

“Like a month.”

We delayed activating our profile again, this time because the Help Us Adopt grant we’d applied for was ineligible to those who had already been placed with a child. Grants would be announced in February. We waited until the last week in January and finally signed our contract with the agency.

The next two months would be marked by disappointment, rage, and hope. After processing our startup fees of $6,500, we were told it would be another two months before our profile would become active. We thought we’d already be parents in two months, not waiting to become parents.

In a classic twist of he said, she said, our case manager denied having ever said things would move as quickly as one month. As we pressed for more information, we found out she left out a lot of details like hidden fees and professional services. I don’t think our agency was inherently evil, but it was clear to me that adoption was a business. Their promises to us were nothing more than an optimistic sales pitch that glossed over the specifics of an often long and confusing process. It was difficult for me not to feel manipulated.

I searched backup agencies, fantasized about a race-based lawsuit of other Black parents who had put up money based on these promises, joined support groups, and spoke to my posse of adoptive moms and advocates—some of whom I’ve never met in person. “Adoption is not for the faint of heart,” I was told. Be patient, they said. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.

These weren’t empty platitudes. These women had been where I was. But I worried. I twisted my hair around my finger until it knotted. I counted the days on the calendar. I feared that my job performance would tank from all the anxiety. For the fourth year in a row, Mother’s Day passed with longing.

A week later, I was leaving work when I received a call. A little girl had just been born, and they wanted to know if we were interested in adopting her. We had an hour to make a decision and just a few hours to drive to Michigan to meet her.

In the span of an evening, I went from an endless holding pattern to a full meltdown that was equal parts joy and disbelief. We waited four months for this moment. We said “yes.”

In a private out-of-state adoption, there are three important milestones: termination of parental rights (TPR), a revocation period, and approval under the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children, which allows you to transport your child to your home state. The TPR was to be signed two days after we arrived, but a last-minute scheduling conflict delayed the meeting. What we anticipated would be a weeklong stay is now looking more like our first two-week family vacation. Time has never felt more abstract than at this moment.

Several days after our arrival in Michigan, our daughter was discharged from the hospital and into our care, and I am filled with hope. There are still moments when I twist my hair into knots and I count days on the calendar until my eyes glaze over. I know now that sometimes days just feel like months, and weeks feel like years, but motherhood is no longer a yearning. It’s arrived.

 

Topics and Tags:

Adoption, Family, Parenting

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