Terri Cooney, 48, and her husband Jim, 54, were just providing foster care for infant Nathan. They already had two children-both white-one by birth and another by adoption. But as the months went by, their attachment to Nathan grew deeper. The fact that he was black and they white mattered less and less.
For a full 18 months, Nathan stayed in their home as social workers sought to resolve legal issues with the child's birthparents. Nathan's delay had to do with locating an absent father to seek consent for adoption; but it isn't uncommon for black children in America to endure such lengthy delays in processing, most often while a black family is being sought to take the child.
By the time everything was straightened out, Bethany Christian Services was concerned about taking Nathan out of an already stable family environment.
"Would you be wiling to adopt?" Bethany asked the Cooneys.
The said yes, and have since adopted five more black and biracial children. Their decision was made after much prayer and was based on believing "God wanted us to do this." Terri says, "We felt it wouldn't be a bed of roses. We weren't foolish."
But some influential portions of the black community argue the couple was wrong to adopt Nathan. And compared to the seemingly apathetic attitude toward adoption needy children amount the majority of American evangelicals, the Cooneys' actions might look radical to some.
Race is a heated subject of debate within adoption circles nationwide. Transracial adoption, which is usually whites adopting black or other minority children, has been under attack.
Some say it ruins a black child's cultural identity. But many Christians black and white see transracial adoption as a sound option, although one infrequently employed. Only 1 percent of all adoptions in America are whites adopting black children, according to one respected journal, The Future of Children.
Given the rise in black and other minority orphans and the biblical mandate to care for orphans, many say that more Christians will need to adopt-some, transracially.
Will that happen? Says Terry Schlossberg, executive director of Presbyterians Pro-Life: "the problem of care for children in our society is reaching astronomical proportions. I think the church is out to lunch on the subject."
If a society is judged by how it handles its children, as pro-lifers often say, then what about adoption? And what about transracial adoption? Ultimately, are American Christians-black and white-walking the pro-life walk, or just talking the anti-abortion talk?
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) reportedly was infuriated in 1989 by a Cincinnati, Ohio, case in which a black child was quickly taken from white, Christian, foster parents after they expressed a desire to adopt. The reason: The child allegedly needed a black home. The child was killed not long after by an abusive black adoptive couple in upstate New York.
As a result, Metzebaum last summer crafted the Multiethnic Adoption Act, which originally was designed to fight discrimination against couples seeking to adopt transracially.
Se. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) is co-sponsoring the bill with Metzenbaum. "The goal of ending discrimination in adoption placements is one which I and Sen. Metzenbaum have both shared," Coats told World. "I believe this bill will help decrease the length of time that children wait for adoption, protect the best interest of the child in adoption and foster-care placements, and prevent discrimination."
The bill cleared committee in October and should go to the Senate floor before summer recess; proponents say they are holding off until they fell confident they have the support needed for passage. They are shooting for a unanimous voice vote.
Even then, the bill will likely face tougher scrutiny in the House, where the 28-member Congressional Black Caucus is likely to be influenced by the bill's opponents.
Metzenbaum and others had expressed alarm at the growing number of adoptable foster children-especially black children-stuck in America's foster-care system.
From 1986 to 1991, America's foster-care numbers jumped 53 percent, from 280,000 to 429,000 children. About 38 percent of those children are black, though blacks only constitute 12.5 percent of the nation's population. The rise in orphaned or abandoned black children is even worse in America's big cities. In Detroit alone, 80 percent of foster children awaiting adoption are black, according to The Future of Children.
The number of black foster children needing care due to AIDS-stricken or drug-addicted mothers is increasing. Abandoning babies has become common. Seventy-five percent of the 20,000 "boarder babies" abandoned in hospitals nationwide last year were black and tested drug-exposed. A portion ended in foster care.
Placement of newborns is less of a problem, though race still makes finding homes for some black and biracial babies difficult. Conversely, the 30,000 to 40,000 white babies available each year are in great demand.
Whites move through foster care faster, too, while many black and biracial children linger. In California, a recent study showed that black foster children in that state were 75 percent less likely to be adopted than their white counterparts.
The black community, where formal and informal adoptions have occurred at a higher rate than in the white community, now seems to be approaching overload, Bill Pierce, executive director of the National Council for Adoption, told a special Senate panel last year.
At the current rate of placement by the 17 black-operated agencies nationwide, says Pierce, it would take an added 760 similar specialty agencies to find homes for all of the 17,500 currently available black foster children.
Many black women hear such horror stories and decide to abort, says Mary Beth Seader, NCFA spokeswoman. "What they think when they hear and see these stories about waiting black children is: Nobody wants my child."
In some cases and places, racism still remains a factor. Dorothy Wallis, executive director of a crisis pregnancy center in Baton Rouge, La., regularly counsels women considering aborting a baby purely because he is biracial. "They will normally tell me: No one is going to want my baby."
An answer would seem to be transracial adoption.
Yet thousands of white Christians seeking to provide loving homes for black children have been stifled by systemic, bureaucratic garble since 1972, when the National Association of Black Social Workers labeled transracial adoption black "genocide."
"It is cultural genocide," NABSW executive director Leora Neal told World. "If you don't practice your culture, it dies out....It is not a color issue. It's a culture issue."
Many of the estimated 2,000 agencies-public and private-in America have thus been influenced.
Seventy-eight of Bethany Christian Service's 222 placements of minority and biracial children last year were transracial. One hundred were black parents getting black babies. "Bethany prefers to place African-American children with like-race families," explains Harold Wiersma, the agency's domestic specialist. "We feel that this is in keeping with the racial and cultural pride that can be instilled in these children." Still, he admits, his and other agencies can't always find a black home, and it often costs more time and money to do so.
Christian agencies like Georgia-based New Beginnings and Louisiana-based Adoption Option claim NABSW's stance is dead wrong for Christians, for whom race should be a moot point. And they point to a myriad of studies showing that blacks growing up in white homes are well adjusted, with good self-esteem, and most often a high regard for being black.
If transracial adoption is a positive option, then a larger question looms for sincere, biblical Christian: Given the fact that most white couples-currently more than a million-would rather wait at times four or more years and sometimes pay $15,000 to $20,000 for a "perfect white infant," who in the church will adopt a child of another race who is sometimes older and carries a history full of question marks?
Where are the Jim and Terri Cooneys?
At the end of the hallway, before the last door on the left, Donna and Chris Rice paused. Their adoption agent stepped out of the way. "Well, she's in here," the agent said sweetly. The couple walked in. The foster father stood up and placed the baby in Donna's arms. The she, Chris, and son Benjamin (by birth) had their first chat with their new daughter named Talia.
The Jackson, Miss., white couple adopted the biracial girl about two months after her white birthmother delivered here. They had always been open to biracial or black children, but knew the sensitivities involved and thus had prepared for a Korean child, since Chris grew up on a missionary family in Korea.
In fact, about 9,000 American couples-mostly white-adopt international children each year, compared to around 1,000 black American children adopted by white American couples each year, according to recent estimates in The Future of Children. (No complete numbers breaking down American adoptions of American children along racial lines have been available since 1975.)
The Rices live close to black and mixed-race families. They work for a ministry in a black area of town. Yet when the phone call came about a biracial baby, they had to search their souls.
Among some family members and friends, and even in his own thinking, Chris realized that adopting an international child would have been considered "a neat, exotic, interesting thing to do. But once you move to the level of it being a black child,...all of a sudden people raise all these issues and concerns."
Questions filled the Rice's minds: "Were we ready to raise a black child? Could we do a good job of raising a black child?...Would we be able to take the additional pressures of what it means to be a white family raising a black child?"
It comes down to knowing how to fix a black girl's hair so she isn't ridiculed by her friends, the Rice's note. And beyond that, it means understanding "what it means to be black in America."
The Rices understand the opposition to white families adopting black children. A white couple shouldn't adopt a black child until they've had "a significant relationship with black people that has caused them to know that black children are just a wonderful as white children," is Donna's belief.
But as Christians, their bottom line is, "It is better," says Chris, "for a child to have a loving, two-parent home than for them to be raised in the foster-care system all their lives.
That's how Howard Metzenbaum saw it when he proposed the Multiethnic Placement Act last year. Since then, Metzenbaum staffers say the senator and his staff have been surprised how the bill has stirred up dust. Debate over the bill led to a Feb. 15 gathering in Washington of adoption officials from both sides of the philosophical fence.
On one side, among others, was Ms. Neal of NABSW, who advocates "family preservation," seeking to return foster children to their biological families if at all possible; if not, then linking the child with a relative or a suitable black couple. Ms. Neal said the NABSW would support transracial placement as "the last resort."
Prior to NABSW issuing its 1972 stand against transracial adoptions, they were on the rise, peaking in 1971 with more than 2,500. But by 1976, transracial placements had dropped to 1,076. In 1986 the estimate was 1,169.
Among others opposite Ms. Neal at the February meeting was the NCFA's Mary Beth Seader.
The NCFA says keeping a child in its family is good when possible, but returning a child to an unhealthy family in the name of family preservation isn't. Further, the time often taken to link a child to other relatives or a black couple (often 3.5 to 5.5 years) can relegate the child to a maddening foster-home shuffle, psychologically scarring the child for life. And the older the child gets, the less adoptable he or she gets-hard, but true.
Despite a facilitator's efforts, the two groups made no progress that day.
One congressional staffer asked Ms. Seader, "How can we come up with legislation if you people can't even agree with what's going on?" That is like "saying to the pro-lifers and pro-choicers, 'Get in the room and agree on legislation and we'll pass it," answers Ms. Seader. "With some issues, you have to pick a side."
Metzenbaum, influenced by the NABSW, added language to his bill stating that federal agencies can't "unduly" delay adoptions. Ms. Seader and others protested, saying the turn of phrase would only create further debate about what an undue delay in placement is-"a day, a month, a year?" she asks.
Now, Metzenbaum has promised to amend the bill himself-whenever it goes to the Senate floor-to delete "unduly." Ms. Seader says is he does, then the NCFA will support the bill.
Ultimately, all parties involved say the Department of Health and Human Services will have to define "delay" in terms of actual days in the system. What would "reasonable" by in Ms. Seader' mind? Realistically, she said, no more than 30 days, although "one day without a mother" is too long.
As for NABSW's Ms. Neal, she is more concerned about securing stronger language urging federal initiative to recruit black families.
There is the tension. And NCFA's Pierce tells a story of white foster parents in Minnesota caught in the middle of the present search-and-delay system. The couple wanted to adopt a black toddler they'd been caring for. Upon hearing this, public social workers staged a nationwide search to find biological relatives, and eventually placed the child with maternal grandparents in Virginia, who didn't even know the child existed.
It's "politics and racism" of a reversed variety, Pierce says. "Removing a child from a stable, secure family with whom he has bonded or depriving a child of a permanent, stable, secure family because of racial issues is nothing less than child abuse."
Black Christians supportive of adoption nonetheless come down on either side of this racial placement debate.
Innovative black church-run groups-including Chicago-based One Church, One Child, and Mississippi-based Ministers for Adoption-have placed thousands of black children by finding black families through church networking.
Minority agencies have no problems finding black couples, Ms. Neal asserts, and agencies that do aren't doing their jobs right. Often adoption fees are too high, or age limits on the couple too extreme, or income levels too rigid, and this must be dealt with, she says.
"If you have workers who are not African American and don't understand the culture they are dealing with, you are not going to get results," Ms. Neal says.
Tell that to Phoebe Dawson, the black executive director of new Beginnings, an adoption agency run out of Edgewood Baptist Church in Columbus, Ga. Since 1985, her agency has placed 55 black children and 28 biracial children in white homes, and 43 black children and 8 biracial children in black homes.
Putting black children in black homes just because they are black isn't the answer, she says. "There are a lot of black foster children in black homes, but these homes aren't committed to being parents." She says some couples have been known to take babies for the accompanying federal support dollars.
Ms. Dawson has white families waiting for black children, but has trouble finding black couples. "I am not comfortable going out trying to beat the bushes to find someone to take a baby when I have parents waiting in the wings that want them," she says. "I am not looking for sympathetic parents. I want parents that will love this child as their very own."
Charlotte Low Allen writes in a 1989 edition of Policy Review, "No campaign to replace abortion by adoption will be plausible without special efforts to place the [then] 36,000 hard-core 'special-needs' children who are the worst served by current adoption policies."
So where are the pro-life adopters?
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, and his wife have three adopted children.
Operation Rescue's Rick Blinn broadened his pro-life commitment six years ago when he and his wife adopted a handicapped child. OR's Randall Terry is reported to have three black children. Former OR president Keith Tucci founded an adoption agency years ago.
But they are leaders. What about normal laypeople?
In April of 1992, during the Buffalo, N.Y., rescues, OR leaders founded the National Adoption Project, which is now based in Dallas. NAP has received 888 calls from people interested in adopting, many seeking to receive "special needs children," which include handicapped, older, and minority children-any harder-to-place child.
Most are referred to Dixie Lawrence, NAP's national adoption coordinator, who runs an independent private special-needs adoption agency called Adoption Option in Baton Rouge. As of now, she's received about 500 calls from people referred to OR's NAP, about 20 or which have ended in adoptions of a handicapped and/or minority child.
Ms. Lawrence's agency places a total of about 40 black newborns a year, 85 percent or so to white homes. About 40 biracial babies are place yearly-all to white homes.
She will waive fees to black couples and still "can't get families." The trouble locating blacks may be in part due to the lower number of middle-class black couples in the largely rural South, as opposed to the higher numbers in the North and West, where NABSW and other minority groups focus their efforts.
But Ms. Lawrence is more concerned about the church at large. She and others caution that adoption isn't for everyone, yet they ask how will someone ever know if their hearts aren't open to the possibility?
Ms. Lawrence blames America's pastors for preaching even less about adoption that they do against abortion. The result is a "form of selfishness" that often fails to regard adopting children as a privilege to be obedient. "We are more worried about caring for our own emotional needs and desires and filling our empty nests. But we forget about the calling God put upon the Christian community to care for the orphans and to bring the homeless into our homes."
Presbyterians Pro-Life's Mrs. Schlossberg speculates many Christians "either see the solutions in terms of federal government intervention, or remain ignorant." She notes some denominations like the United Methodist denomination are actually "active in the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights" and yet offer no adoption programs or assistance.
June Ring, founder of PLAN, the Pro Life & Adoption Network, says, "The question seems to be more basic than, 'Does transracial adoption work?' Too many people are still not sure same-race adoption works...I think we need a whole new view of adoption in the church, one that says adoption is a great way to build a family, infertile or not."
Which leads to a rhetorical question: What if, suddenly, by God's grace, the message of adoption caught on, spreading like wildfire?
What if the 1.6 million yearly abortions were cut in half, leaving 800,000 more babies entering the world? Of those, say 20 percent became eligible for adoption, matching the 1960s figures.
Would there be homes for an extra 160,000 children a year?
Up to 2 million couples currently are seeking to adopt. If all were qualified and took babies as fast as they were born, 2 million couples-about 1 million infertile, and 1 million fertile-would equal zero in about 12 years. New couples would continue to come forth, though.
But would the church come forward for these (not to mention the 400,000 or more already lingering in foster care)?
Bethany's Wiersma has faith "there would be more and more families saying, 'Hey, we're available.'"
Adds NCFA's Ms. Seader, "When we saw the conditions in Romania on 20/20, people saw a need and so they came forward. I don't believe there is ever going to be an unwanted child in this world."
For a time, Cortnie was. She was turned down three times by prospective parents because her birthmother was Hispanic and her father's race was unknown. She also had no prenatal care. Just too many risks.
Susan Minvielle, 34, and her husband Dwayne were seeking to adopt, and every morning Susan entered her Catholic church near Baton Rouge and lit a candle for her future baby.
The Minvielles eventually got Cortnie, now 3, whose birthmother had aborted the child prior to her. "It is very scary to even think that Cortnie may not have existed" beyond the womb, says Susan, who recently wrote President Clinton to tell him as much.
In the bathtub one night recently, Cortnie kept saying, "Thank you God! Thank you God!"
"What are you thanking God for?" Susan finally asked.