Black Families Should Adopt More Black Foster Kids

Courtesy of Brennan Nevada Johnson
Courtesy of Brennan Nevada Johnson

In 1995, my family was awarded the distinction, “Family of The Year” by what was then known as the Ocean State Adoption Resource Exchange. We were being honored because of my mother’s decision and journey of being a 31-year-old, single, Black woman who chose to adopt not one, but two Black babies out of Baltimore.

When word got out about our story, my mother, sister, and I were interviewed around the clock by local newspapers, radio stations, and on TV discussing the importance of Black adoption. I was only 4 years old, too young to understand why it was such a big deal.

Sure, adoption wasn’t uncommon, and this was an award that was given out annually. But what made our perspective so special was that you almost never saw or heard about situations where Black adults (like my mother) were adopting Black children. Nearly three decades later, it’s still something of a rarity to see Black children being adopted and raised by Black parents.

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How do I know this to be true? When you’re adopted, you tend to gravitate to and connect with others who were also adopted.

Adoptive parents, for the most part, do a great job of helping to facilitate these efforts for their adopted kids. As a result, I’ve met dozens of other Black people who were adopted, but their parents were almost always white or of a different race.

Knowing this, I realized that their upbringing was most likely much different than mine. I had the privilege of having a Black mother not only love me, but also help me identify and interact with the world as a Black person. I recognize how fortunate my sister and I were to be adopted as infants by a successful, educated, Black woman. Had we not, we probably would have ended up in a similar situation as most Black children who don’t get adopted—trapped in the foster care system.

As May is Foster Care Awareness month, the injustices of foster care that are haunting non-adopted Black youth have sadly not improved since my family started advocating and talking about this problem in the 1990s. As of September 2020, more than 400,000 children were in the foster system in the U.S.

A disproportionate number of these children are Black—who account for 14 percent of the children in the nation, yet make up 23 percent of the kids in the child welfare system.

The reasons why Black children don’t get adopted is heartbreaking, to say the least. It’s been reported that darker-skinned babies are considered less ideal and not as likely to get adopted compared to lighter-skinned children. Not to mention the chances get worse once they start to get older.

For example, in the Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit, the character Jolene (played by Moses Ingram) was Black and also the oldest teenager in the group foster care home alongside the protagonist, Beth Harmon. When Beth, who is white and much younger, got adopted before her, she blamed not getting adopted on being “too Black.” When this scene rolled, it gave me chills because it’s the harsh reality for too many Black children who are left to grow out of foster care.

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Foster care is a tough life. There’s no other way to put it. Very briefly, in my childhood I was put in the foster care system and was unfairly separated from my mother and sister as a result of predatory and racist practices and treatment from child welfare services. Even though this was for less than a year, I bounced around between schools and households. I also despised my emotionally abusive foster parent, who happened to be white. As an adult, I now recognize that the vetting system for foster parents needs to be drastically improved, and made fairer for Black foster and adoptive parents. (Black foster youth tend to be exposed more to unsafe environments than their white counterparts.)

What’s scariest about all of this is the disturbing correlation (and increasing trend) between foster care youth outgrowing the system, then eventually flooding prisons—better known as foster care-to-prison pipeline. What’s worse is this particularly affects youth of color who generally don’t have access to the support and necessary resources to develop personally or professionally. Resorting to crime is all too common for foster care youth when they first enter society. One study showed that more than 90 percent of youth in foster care who have moved five or more times will become involved in the juvenile justice system.

So why don’t Black families adopt more Black kids?

My mother explained to me that Black families tend to do a lot of kinship adoption, which means adopting within the family. (For example, a grandmother raising her son’s kid.) But it’s rare for Black parents to adopt outside of the family.

Among the myths that keep Black families from adopting is the idea that adopting children is very expensive, which simply is not true. (This misconception might come from seeing celebrities with extreme wealth like Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron with Black babies.)

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When my mom adopted me and my sister, she received special need subsidies from adoption organizations—since race was considered to be a special need, because many Black kids and kids of color needed to be adopted. There are also adoption child tax credits available, as well. Another factor that prevents Black families from adopting as much as they should is that they want to avoid any relationship and interaction with government services—an unfortunate result of systemic discrimination.

The foster care system is fundamentally broken and has so many deep-rooted issues in racism and bias—which have been verified from those employed by the system.

When I look at my life now, as a successful Black business owner thriving in NYC at 31 years old, I can’t help but think that my lifestyle could be possible for so many other Black children who are in desperate need of a permanent home—not a temporary one that is only going to cause so much mental, emotional and physical harm as these kids grow up.

The weight of this should not be on Black communities alone. However, Black families have the opportunity to try and at least slow down (and eventually break) the cycle of Black children spending their entire youth and adolescent years in the foster care system.

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