Skin tone, adoption and black children: Is colorism an issue?

theGRIO REPORT - Could the skin tone of black children play a role in whether they are chosen -- especially if the family considering them is black? Adoption experts weigh in...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

African-American children make up 30 percent of the 500,000 children currently in the American foster care system, despite being only 14 percent of the U.S. population. On top of being over-represented, these youths are less frequently selected for adoption compared to other kids.

Could the skin tone of black children play a role in whether they are chosen — especially if the family considering them is black? Mardie Caldwell, founder and CEO of the Lifetime Adoption agency, says this is true — and that this bias is exclusive to African-Americans.

“We’ve found that many African-American families have definite preferences for the type of children they want, whether it’s newborns [or older children], and also in terms of their physical appearance,” Caldwell told theGrio. The author of seven books on the adoption process, including her latest, Called to Adoption, suggested that the finicky tastes of black families has made private agencies reluctant to work with them.

“A lot of organizations and other adoption professionals have actually stopped doing African-American adoptions. We’re one of the few centers, Lifetime Adoptions, that does African-American and biracial adoptions, and we’re one of the largest in the United States,” she explained. “When families come to us they will actually give us preferences and say ‘we want to stick with a child that looks like us, and we’re lighter-skinned or we’re darker-skinned.’ It does make it difficult at times.”

By contrast, “if we have families that may be biracial — one partner is Caucasian and the other is African-American — we can come to them with any black child, and they’re more open,” Caldwell said. “The same is true with Caucasian families, which is why you’re seeing more Caucasians adopting children of color, because they really don’t care about the shade.”

This color consciousness even affects women adopting out their offspring. “I’ve had birth moms even state that ‘I’m more of a Snickers bar, and I’m looking for more of a family that [my child will] fit in.’ Yet, ”[i]t’s mostly the families, not the parents, which is really kind of sad,” Caldwell commiserated.

Unlike most, Lifetime Adoptions is a national private agency based in California with staff dedicated to serving African-American families. The firm tends to work with children who are not raised in foster care, so the mothers of these children are not abusive or addicted. Private agencies like this one offer these benefits, but also tend to be for-profit, meaning the child selection process can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Jacqueline D. Wilson, MSW/LSW, believes this could be one factor affecting the attitudes of the African-Americans Caldwell has encountered. The CEO of the Three Rivers Adoption Council in Pittsburgh told theGrio: “It took me by surprise to learn that she said that, because I have never encountered that at all. We go through a thorough investigation process before we approve families, and I don’t know of one that has ever said that in 12 years.”

During that 12-year period, Wilson has led Three Rivers as a full-service non-profit adoption agency that specializes in African-American adoption services among other functions. Three Rivers also recruits in the African-American community to increase the number of black families interested in adopting. The children her organization focuses on come out of the foster care system, so have lived with foster families, or lived in group homes.

Wilson believes some potential parents attempting to “match” their adoptive child do so to camouflage the fact that the child is adopted — something impossible with older children. “We’ve not had that as an issue — people saying ‘Oh I’m dark skinned, so I want a dark-skinned child, so that people can’t tell the child’s adopted.’ The child already knows its adopted, and so does everybody else,” Wilson continued.

Private adoption agencies like Caldwell’s usually specialize in newborns and children up to five — a time frame that allows parents to hide the adoption process from their kids. Plus, birth mothers in private adoption relinquish their babies voluntarily. Combined with the huge sums involved, these aspects of choice feed into the phenomenon of both mothers and adoptive parents trying to “match” black children in terms of skin hue. There is also the psychological aftereffect of people choosing to adopt because of an inability to conceive. For them, a “matching” infant is a consolation. ”[Some] people who are looking for newborns are grieving from not being able to conceive a child — perhaps this is where that is coming from,” Wilson told theGrio.

Wilson has referred people seeking newborns to private, for-profit agencies like Lifetime, “but even among the people that I’ve referred to private agencies, they have not made that an issue at all,” she said.

Yet, colorism in the black community — preferential treatment based on skin color — is a well documented phenomenon. In her 2007 essay For Light-Skinned Only?, National Public Radio contributor Jasmyne Cannick recounted several incidents of light-skinned preference from popular culture, recent news, and American history.

Of this deeply entrenched practice, Cannick wrote: “History has shown that black people with lighter skin were treated better. In the days of slavery, the dark-skinned blacks worked in the fields while light-skinned blacks worked in the house, hence the terms ‘field Negroes’ and ‘house Negroes.’ It got so bad, that not only did the slave owners, who were often responsible for the lighter shade of brown his slaves had, give lighter-skinned blacks more respect, but so did the dark-skinned blacks.”

One expert in black adoption does not believe this mindset has magically evaporated for African-American families selecting children for adoption — specifically in the case of black women.

“We regularly have single black women, aunts or grandmothers come in and ask for what I call a ‘Cadillac’ description: Light-skinned, gray-green eyes, good hair, musically inclined,” Zena F. Oglesby, Jr., MSW, said in a 2011 article from “That’s cultural ignorance.”

The founder the Black Parenting Institute, of one of the first non-profit adoption agencies specifically for African-Americans, Oglesby also told the online publication that these adoptive parents often revise their requests when they encounter real kids.

“In most cases when they lay eyes on the children they fall head over heels in love — often with the little chocolate boy with big brown eyes, [and] kinky hair who can’t play a musical note, but loves to build things,” he said.

Ruth Amerson, founder and CEO of Another Choice for Black Children, hopes that people will focus on success stories like these, rather than the rare instances of colorism that do occur. Her non-profit, private agency has worked with what she describes as “all kinds of families.” She also contends that skin color is not an issue.

More important is, “highlighting the success that black adoption agencies have had in relation to finding families for children in the foster care system,” Amerson told theGrio. “There are about eight black adoption agencies in this country that are struggling to fight for children of color. There are so many barriers that continue to impact our efforts to place children of color in adoptive homes. Skin tone is the least of these issues.”

In fact, Oglesby believes the racism of social service agencies is a much greater threat to black children than colorism among blacks. White social workers too often deem potential black parents to be unfit based on unsound assumptions. Black children are placed into foster care at higher rates for parental infractions that wouldn’t result in removal had the parents been white.

This has created a crisis in which black children are plucked from good homes, and black families are prevented from adopting them. Private, non-profit adoption firms like Oglesby’s came into existence to reverse some of these damaging trends. “We turned [this situation] around and approved many of them,” he told Black Voice News about clients previously rejected by the foster care system. “We proved the system was beyond broken.”

For African-American clients who prefer an infant and have the money to spend, a private company like Lifetime might be the way to go. But for those seeking to help — and love — older African-American kids from foster care settings, a non-profit, black-focused firm might be ideal. And luckily for these children in need, skin color rarely seems to be an issue for families working with non-profit agencies.

“Adopting out of foster care — I used to be a foster mom myself — is a wonderful way to go, if you are on a tight budget and if you don’t mind that sometimes they don’t have all the background on children,” Cadwell said. “There’s more paperwork, and it’s a little more tedious. They have to try a reunification with the birth parents before placing the child.”

But for African-American families that think they have the patience for the foster care process, Caldwell recommends this method for initial attempts.

“For us, we feel every child should be cared for,” she said.

TheGrio contacted Zena F. Oglesby, Jr., MSW for comment, but he did not respond in time for publication.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb