The rewarding challenges of transracial adoption

Story and slideshow by CHRISTIE TAYLOR

Experience the lively dancing and drumming at Asante Dance and Drum.

It’s a typical Saturday at Asante Dance and Drum in Lindon, Utah, with moms accompanying energetic children to their weekly classes. The chilly spring morning hasn’t dampened any of the families’ spirits as they enthusiastically welcome each other to class.

One of the usual dance teachers is unable to attend this week’s lesson, which sends the moms into organization mode as they try to figure out a fill-in for her class of 5-year-olds. One woman bravely offers, settling any disturbance the lively morning has suffered.

Nothing is distinctive about this morning or this scenario except every mom who has come to this studio is white, and every child is black.

Another feature that sets this particular morning apart is the rhythmic and repetitive drumbeats that begin to float through the air as the boys begin their drum lesson. The pounding sound from hands hitting leather-covered drums takes on a faraway sound of an ancient African village.

In another room, fast-paced hip-hop tempos pour from the speakers of a class full of African-American girls practicing the week’s hip-hop dance lesson.

The moms gather in the foyer chatting while the background beats and music play. With big smiles on their faces and enormous amounts of pride in their tones, they discuss their children’s weekly happenings.

The commonality of these women is they have all adopted transracial or transcultural children. The terms were designated to describe the process of adopting a child of one ethnicity or race by parents of another race or ethnicity, according to U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

“In the United States these terms usually refer to the placement of children of color or children from another country with Caucasian adoptive parents,” the website states.

The classes at Asante provide a support group for these white parents and their adopted black children, and offer the diversity the children aren’t exposed to in their everyday lives.

The adoptions of the students at Asante fill both the transracial and transcultural categories. Most of the children in this group who were adopted transculturally came from Ethiopia.

Hannie Smith, 13, who was adopted from that country when she was 4 years old, thinks the dance class has been a great way to reconnect to her culture. “It’s cool to bring us all together,” she says about the weekly class.

Smith, who lives in Utah County and is maybe one of five ethnic students in her kindergarten through 12th-grade-level school, loves coming to the class and connecting with other children like her.

Asante Dance and Drum was formed specifically for children like Smith who are adopted by white parents and experience little diversity in their communities. The original founder of the group left and it was up to the moms to keep the program running.

The dedicated women running the program want the group to expand to include anyone interested in learning more about the diverse group and to children of all ethnicities.

“We’re not just about adoption, we’re about the whole child, celebrating our differences and similarities,” said Sage Service, one of the adoptive moms.

Service adopted her daughter, Mya, as an infant. She has taken Mya to the dance class since she was 3 months old to expose her to the diversity as well as show support for the program.

The lack of diversity these adopted children experience is one of the main reasons why transracial adoptions are so controversial in the United States.

Adoption experts seem to have conflicting opinions on children being placed in homes without at least one parent who resembles them in ethnicity, according to HHS.

Some think a child should always be placed with at least one parent of the same race so the child has a way of forming a racial identity; others argue that race shouldn’t even be considered when determining placement of a child. The latter feel the family needs of the child far outweigh ensuring they are placed with same-race parents, according to HHS.

In 1994 a bill addressing transracial and transcultural adoption came before Congress. The bill, submitted by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum  of Ohio, caused intense debate among members of Congress, but eventually passed both the Senate and House of Representatives.

The Multiethnic Placement Act brought people from opposite sides of the controversy together and paved the way for both sides to agree. According to HHS, “adults of all cultures need to work together to help adopted children of all cultures reach their highest potential.”

While having a family has been a huge benefit in the lives of the children at Asante, a wish for more diversity education, especially in school, was a common theme among them. Many said that although they were happy with their home lives, school was more of a challenge.

“I wish we did talk about it [diversity] more,” said Hope Vanderwerff, a 14-year-old attending Canyon View Junior High in Orem. “We learn about other countries in world geography, but that’s about it.”

Diversity aside, some experts believe the rise in transracial and transcultural adoptions can be attributed to the scarcity of young white children available for adoption, according to HHS.

But some families have other reasons for adopting transracially.

Anna Watson was a county worker who had eight biological children before she decided on transracial adoption. She met her daughter, Jane, while working in foster care when Jane was an infant. (Both have requested pseudonyms to protect their privacy.)

When Watson applied to adopt the infant she was denied. “We were the wrong color,” she said.

She wouldn’t accept that as a legitimate answer and hired an attorney to sue for custody. Jane’s biological family fully supported Watson’s intent to adopt and she eventually won the case.

“She was born on drugs, she shook and threw up and was developmentally delayed,” Watson said about Jane. The biggest reward and challenge was all the hard work it took to get her daughter to the healthy, beautiful young woman she is today.

When Jane was about 17 months old, Watson discovered the toddler’s biological mother was pregnant again. She wanted to adopt that baby as well. She was told the infant would be placed with her when she was born. Instead, the newborn was placed with an ill-equipped 65-year-old woman because she was also black.

She said the state even went so far as to call her and threaten to pull her foster care license if she chose to pursue the adoption.

Watson went to court a second time and sued for custody anyway.

In court, Jane was asked to draw a picture of herself and her mom. The young girl drew herself as brown and her mom as white. Watson said that when the court asked her daughter why she had chosen those colors, Jane said, “Because heavenly father said so.”

She won the case and legally adopted Jane’s sister.

Jane, now 19, teaches African-American and hip-hop classes at Asante and is getting ready to serve an LDS mission in Atlanta. Her sister was accepted to Brigham Young University and will attend this fall.

Jane said it was interesting growing up in Utah. With little diversity outside of her family, she found school a challenge.

“I experienced a lot of stereotypical name-calling, she said. “Sometimes I would get offended, but realized they just didn’t understand or they were doing it to be rude.”

The only time she would bring it up to her mom was if it was constant. Other than that she would just try to stand up for herself.

“My mom was so forward, so if it was small comments I would just keep them to myself,” she said.

Susie Augenstein didn’t struggle with the adoption process itself. Her challenges began after she brought her adopted children home.

Augenstein adopted a sister and brother from Ethiopia, both of whom had survival issues. She said her son, who was struggling the most, would often push his new parents to test their love for him. She said they had to constantly reassure him.

It took a lot of time, patience and counseling to get him to trust the parents and their love for him.

That was tested again during a recent trip to Ethiopia. The Augensteins’ son feared they were taking him back, when in actuality the family was going to meet the children’s aunt. When she placed the children for adoption, she told the orphanage that the biological mother was dead. That was the only way the institution would take the children.

Augenstein recommends that any parent who adopts a child, whether transracial or transcultural, find a good counselor who can help deal with the issues of trust that children may experience.

Like many of the other moms at Asante, Carrie Peterson was inspired to adopt after learning about children’s poor living conditions. In her case she was compelled to adopt after hearing media reports about the horrific conditions of Romanian orphans. Although she ultimately did not adopt children from that country, she did adopt two newborn girls from Philadelphia.

Peterson said that in 1992, the concept of transracial adoption was fairly new in Utah.

She found that being among the first families to adopt transracially caused many people to be patronizing because they thought she was so “saintly” for adopting poor black children.

“We’re just a family, we just love each other,” she said. She doesn’t feel saintly about her choice to adopt; she just wanted to have a family and these children needed one.

Sage Service doesn’t feel any better than anyone else either for her choice to adopt transracially. “Mya would still be the amazing girl she is and have a great heart had I not adopted her,” she said. She feels Mya’s experiences would be different, but not better or worse.

Rhonda Fairbourn, the adoptive mom who filled in for the absent dance teacher, thinks each dimension of raising children, whether biological or adopted, has its struggles.

“I was living in a bubble,” she said about her life before she adopted. “I don’t live in a bubble anymore because of the kids’ struggles.” All her children have had problems in all different ways.

These families can all attest that adopting transracially has its challenges. And although it’s controversial, the love they feel for their children is real.

As Sonya Doty, an adoptive mom said, “It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but the most rewarding.”