Sunday, July 09, 2000

Adoption case tests bonds of love and race

Lawsuit could break ground on interracial-adoption policies

By Lucy May and Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Lisa and Michael Zaret with their adopted son.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        Lisa and Michael Zaret wanted no part of any debate over which parents can best love some of the nation's most fragile children. They wanted a child. But when the white Anderson Township couple tried to adopt a 2-year-old black toddler, they say they ran into so many obstacles that lesser efforts might have failed.

        Today, the Zarets are involved with a landmark legal case that may help guide interracial adoptions in America.

        A federal lawsuit, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, accuses Hamilton County of violating federal law by delaying or denying adoptions when would-be parents are of a different race than the child.

        Violating the federal law, the Zarets and others say, discriminates against them as much as denying minorities housing or jobs because of their race. Moreover, they say, holding up adoptions to place kids with parents of the same race hurts children who desperately need permanent homes.

        Critics of the law, however, say it's unrealistic to try to be completely colorblind in a race-conscious society. The issue is especially apparent when white parents try to adopt black children, who are the majority of those awaiting placement.

        No matter how much love is involved, advocates of same-race adoption say, few parents have the skills to guide children of another race through their cultural growth.

        The topic is so delicate that people struggle to find words to discuss it without seeming insensitive or biased.

        “Sometimes I feel like we (society) go to extremes,” says Cindy Steffen, of Union, Ky. “We've become so diversified that we feel bad when we aren't.”

        Mrs. Steffen and her husband, David, who are white, adopted Christopher, 10, two years ago. The couple talked briefly about adopting a child of color but decided in favor of a white child.

        “We live in a predominantly white area,” Mrs. Steffen says. “We didn't want to introduce the child into an area where he or she might have problems — on top of the problems they might already have.

        “I wouldn't know what to do,” she says of raising a black or biracial child. “I just didn't have the experience. In doing this — adopting — you have to think about what is best for the child and what is best for you.”

        The Zarets had tried to have a baby. But after years of unsuccessful fertility treatments, they turned to Hamilton County, where scores of children in foster care await permanent homes every day.

        As they waited for the county to match them with a child, a friend told Mrs. Zaret about her granddaughter's half-brother, a 2-year-old in foster care who needed a home. He kicked and screamed and rarely smiled. He had a club foot and couldn't talk much. He had been sexually and physically abused.

        With the county's permission, the Zarets went to meet him. They fell in love. That was in May 1999.

        Their adoption of the boy was finalized in February. But first, the Zarets say, they struggled with Hamilton County adoption workers who lost their applications and paperwork, accused them of lying and said their neighborhood was too white.

        County officials will not comment on individual cases.

        The Zarets' son, who will be 4 in September, rarely hits or kicks anymore. He smiles a lot, says “please” and “thank you” and calls the Zarets Mommy and Daddy.

        The Zarets beam as the boy wheels around their home in his toy car.

        “He's very smart for a child that had so many disadvantages,” Mrs. Zaret, 38, says. She smiles a mom smile and adds, “I may be a little biased.”

        The Zarets have a plan to help him learn about many cultures, such as teaching him about Kwanzaa, an African-American celebration of family around Christmas, and Hanukkah, because Mr. Zaret is Jewish.

        “What guided me through all this is just an overwhelming belief that kids need to be safe and loved first, and that's more important than race and culture,” Mr. Zaret, 53, says.

A question of questions
        The lawsuit against Hamilton County's Department of Human Services and several agency employees was filed in April 1999 by Ronald Halcomb, a former county social worker.

        He says he filed suit after he watched county adoption workers put off or deny placements of minority children with white parents. When he complained, he was harassed by colleagues, Mr. Halcomb says.

        His lawyers are civil rights attorneys Alphonse Gerhardstein and Scott Greenwood, who also is Mr. Halcomb's partner.

        That has led to whispering that the real goal of the lawsuit is to make it easier for gay couples to adopt. Mr. Greenwood denies that. He says the lawsuit aims to prevent Hamilton County from discriminating against prospective parents and delaying the adoptions of children who need permanent homes.

        After the suit was filed, Dr. Kenneth and Ellen Read, a white couple who adopted a black child through the county, joined the lawsuit because of problems they say they had adopting their son.

        Now, the Zarets and two other families are trying to join the lawsuit to support the Reads and eliminate the discrimination they say they faced.

        County officials say neither they nor adoption workers have ever broken the law and follow regulations of the Ohio Department of Human Services.

        “At all times ... (the county) always acted in the best interests of the child,” legal papers filed by the county state.

        For much of the past year, lawyers for both sides have been negotiating to settle the lawsuit and come up with new adoption policies. A hearing on pre-trial motions is scheduled for Aug. 14.

        Ultimately, the suit may help clarify what adoption workers can and cannot do under the federal law. It might set standards for questions that social workers can ask about how parents will handle race-sensitive situations.

        Can race be a tie-breaker if two sets of adoptive parents are equally qualified? Can adoption workers ask white parents if they know how to take care of a black child's skin and hair?

        “We're watching it very carefully,” says Joe Kroll, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, an advocacy group for parents, adoption agencies and children. The group says child welfare agencies should be able to judge how well adoptive parents will be able to guide their chidren through issues of race.

        “If the court makes a ruling that you have to be totally colorblind to make your placement decisions, I think that's irresponsible.”

Love conquers, to age 8
        Nationwide last year, 51 percent of the 117,000 children waiting for adoption were black. African-American children wait longer than whites; relatively few are the infants and toddlers sought by adoptive parents. Some children were abandoned in hospitals, infected with HIV. Others were physically or mentally abused.

        In Hamilton County, 58 of the 65 children available for adoption as of July 6 were African-American.

        Mindy Good, spokeswoman for the county Department of Human Services, will not comment on the suit. But she says race, religion, nationality, gender and income are not factors in whether someone can become an adoptive parent.

        Rather, she says, adoption workers look for stable parents who can raise a child in a safe and happy home.

        “They really enjoy being parents,” Ms. Good says of the best adoptive parents. “They're flexible, patient and responsible.”

        Former U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, who initiated the 1994 law that says race cannot be considered in adoptions, says he's dismayed that the issue remains divisive six years later.

        “Nothing has frustrated me more in the entire time I've been in Washington than the unwillingness of those at the policy-making level and out in the field to enforce the law,” Mr. Metzenbaum says.

        “We're talking about little kids with no one to look out for them who wind up getting the short end of the stick ... all because of this false racism.”

        But groups including the National Association of Black Social Workers, backed by many white colleagues, oppose interracial adoption except as a last resort.

        Others take a middle ground. They say same-race placement is too extreme, but that it's unrealistic to totally ignore race in placements.

        “The law, because we're trying to be a colorblind society, is looking at it as an issue of black and white, yes or no. You can't look at it that way,” says Cynthia G. Hawkins-Leon, an associate professor at the New England School of Law who specializes in adoption issues.

        She says some prospective adoptive parents think love can transcend racism.

        “Well, that's fine until age 8 or even less. That's unrealistic,” she says.

        Will white parents know what to do if their adoptive, African-American daughter is the only girl who isn't asked to the prom, she asks. Will they know how to prepare their children for racist remarks?

        Prof. Hawkins-Leon doesn't think it's impossible for white parents to handle these situations. She just thinks that social workers need to be able to evaluate whether the parents are prepared and, in some cases, deny the adoption if they are not.

Advice on hair
        Ever since high school, all Regina Bell ever wanted was to be a mom. As her four boys got older, she and her husband, Dick, began taking in foster children.

        They had fostered 30 children when they brought Amelia home.

        “She was one inch bigger than a Barbie doll,” Mrs. Bell says. “We realized we couldn't live without her.”

        That's when they started the process to adopt Amelia, their first adopted daughter. The Bells are white. Amelia is black.

        It wasn't easy. The Bells lived in Pittsburgh at the time and went all the way to the governor of Pennsylvania to cut through the race-based bureaucracy they believed they were encountering there.

        Now the Bells live in North Avondale and have five adopted children — four African-American daughters and one biracial son. Aside from Amelia, all were adopted through Hamilton County. The kids range in age from 2 to 8.

        The first time they had a problem with the county was with Rebecca, they say. By the time the Bells started proceedings to adopt her, they already had two African-American daughters.

        County workers said the Bells were unrealistic about raising African-American children, Mrs. Bell says.

        “It's kind of like you're good enough to be a foster parent, but you're not good enough to adopt,” she says. “Nobody ever asked me from the county, "Do you love her?'”

        The Bells get funny looks sometimes, says Mrs. Bell, 48. She gets lots of advice about fixing the girls' hair when it doesn't look just right.

        “I try harder now for the girls' sake,” she says of their hair. “I don't want this to be a burden they have to carry.”

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