Mary Riley knows what some people have to say when they see her and her boys. But, the 68-year-old Georgia resident says simply: “I pay no mind to that.”
The stares, the occasional negative comments and the questions are a fact of life, she acknowledges, for as long as she raises them.
Riley, 68, is black and her three sons — Austin, Dustyn and Justyn — are white.
Transracial adoptions have taken place for the past 20 years and have increased significantly since 1994 with the Multiethnic Placement Act, which made it illegal to discriminate in adoption because of race.
Most transracial adoptions involve white parents adopting black children and the controversy surrounding that isn’t new. However, despite this influx of transracial adoptions, the number of black families adopting outside of their race is almost unheard of — in some opinions, rightfully so.
The issue is thorny for different reasons. Chief among them is the argument that with a disproportionate number of black children available for adoption, there is no reason for a black person to adopt a child outside of his or her race.
Gloria King, executive director of Black Adoption Placement and Resource Center in Oakland, Ca., explains that black children enter the foster care system at the same rate as white children, but they do not exit at the same rate.
In 2010, black children left the system at a rate of 24 percent and white children left at a rate of 43 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.
King says it’s been difficult for black children to get adopted due to particular circumstances, age and, sometimes, myths — such as black children are supposedly more troubled or harder to raise.
This difficulty is also one reason the few black families who do adopt choose to do so within their race and not transracially, she says.
“It’s not that [transracial adoptions with black parents] can’t be done. It can be done, but there is an extra layer in a race-conscious family,” King says.
King says ignoring the elephant in the room, especially when the elephant is holding up a race card, is not advisable whether the family is black or white. It sends the wrong message, she says.
“You are asking the person to be different or to ignore a part of who they are, and either of those things will never work,” says King.
Even so, there is no special handbook for a black family raising a white child. Chuck Johnson of the National Council for Adoption says the guidelines for raising children transracially are the same.
“Whether it’s a black family or white family, they can’t raise that child as if the child is their same race,” Johnson says as a standard rule of thumb. “They have challenges in helping that child develop a sense of identity.”
That sense can come from mixed-race churches, schools and neighborhoods — institutions that Riley says are supportive and loving to her boys.
When Riley first got the boys they were 5-, 7- and 9-years-old. Two years into her new role as a foster parent, the courts terminated parental rights of the boys’ biological mother and father.
Without a parent or guardian to claim them, the boys would be shuttled back into government care where they would join the more than 400,000 children in the foster system — with 107,000 of them waiting for adoption.
“I didn’t always think about adopting, but when I got these boys I fell in love with them and got attached to them,” she says. “I couldn’t let them go, and I was afraid they were going to get separated from each other.”
Bethany Christian Services, one of the largest adoptions agencies in the country, arranged the adoption for Riley. It finalized in April 2010.
Snarky remarks and curious reactions were not enough of a deterrent for Riley who says she would do it again in a heartbeat.
“Sometimes people stare at us and ask questions,” Riley says. “But, I accept these boys and they accept us, so I ain’t worried about anybody else.”
“I would adopt two more white boys if they needed me,” she continues. “I’m not looking at the color. They are all God’s children to me.”
Riley has attended church in Lithonia for as long as she’s lived in Georgia — three decades and counting. A retired factory worker, Riley was born and raised near Union City, Ala., ultimately marrying her longtime sweetheart, Willie Joe. He died in 2004.
“I wish he could’ve seen the boys, he would’ve loved them,” she says.
Riley remembers dealing with the young boys’ emotional scars. They had a distant and tattered relationship with their birth mother and no contact with their father. They cried, were combative and inefficient with homework.
But black or white, come Monday morning, Riley has a houseful of noise as she gets the boys ready for school at 6:45 a.m. and waits for them to return 2:45 p.m.
The same woman who raised three black women and one black man voluntarily took on the task of raising three white sons. But to Riley, it’s one in the same because children don’t love based on color.
“I was raised to love everybody and I don’t see no difference in it especially with children, they love you for you and see what you do for them,” she says. “And I would say, if you love them by all means [adopt them].”