Catherine Johnston and her husband Paul were living in Oakland, California, when they decided to adopt a child, choosing to adopt from China in part because Paul's family had come from the country. Assuring the Chinese adoption officials that their extended family would provide an ethnically and culturally familiar home back in Oakland put them on the fast track to adoption.
While the exact terms were never spelled out for Johnston, adoption wait times from China for parents with Chinese heritage tend to be a year shorter, and studies have shown that children growing up in an ethnically and culturally-familiar home struggle less with their own ethnic identity.
Johnston, who is white and an adoptee, credits Paul's family for allowing her daughter to grow up avoiding many of those challenges.
"I think I always knew that it is better for the children to be in a same-race environment, and we could provide that," Johnston, who brought her daughter home in 2008, told NBC News. "My daughter is very identified as a Chinese person, and she doesn't seem to have any qualms about that."
Families adopting transracially — when the child and parents are of different races — may immerse the child in the parents' culture while failing to expose them to their own ethnic heritage, leading to a struggle with identity as the child grows and are treated as an outsider.
"Children of color have been historically underserved in adoption and foster care, and it plays out in a number of ways," Beth Hall, executive director and co-founder of Pact, a transracial adoption support organization based in California, told NBC News. "Many of those kids who are placed with white families may or may not understand the contextual meaning of being a person of color in America."
An alternative to transracial adoption is to expressly match children with parents of the same ethnic and cultural background, but unlike the Johnstons, who adopted abroad through a private agency, domestic adoption and foster care must obey U.S. regulations. Specifically, two federal laws — the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA) and its follow-up Interethnic Placement Act of 1996 (IEPA) — were passed to eliminate preferential racial discrimination and place children in homes as quickly as possible.
Some city departments have started reaching out to Asian-American communities to foster Asian-American children, as Los Angeles County did last December. But while the majority of agencies follow MEPA's and IEPA's non-discrimination policies, they are not nearly as careful in following the second portion of the laws, which require good-faith effort to recruit ethnically diverse families, according to a 2008 study by the Donaldson Adoption Institute.
Even those Asian-American parents looking to adopt have run into resistance. At its essence, the U.S. adoption system was created with white parents in mind as the ideal adopting and fostering unit, according to Hall.
"There was a time about 15 years ago where if families came in to talk about adopting a child and brought their parents, the often white social workers would often pathologize that and say, 'Well, obviously they're just not independent people,'" Hall said. "But the truth is, that kind of independence separated from a multi-generational household is really a Euro-centric value. They didn't recognize that in certain communities and cultures, many of which include Asian cultures, that's a highly-valued thing that would be seen as an asset."
Likewise, social workers critiqued prospective Asian-American parents who were not proficient in English, believing it would limit their ability to be good American parents, Hall added. This systemic bias from cultural disconnect is improving, as adoption agencies have begun to hire staff specifically to work with with nonwhite communities, especially those with language barriers, but it has not been totally fixed.
"People will often characterize it as, 'we can't find these particular families,' but are not necessarily looking at themselves as why they are not welcoming and inviting to those particular families," Hall said.
Adoption agencies just aren't heading into Asian-American communities to actively recruit parents, JaeRan Kim, assistant professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma School of Social Work, told NBC News. Some do general recruitment via billboards and websites, where agencies expect that people will come to them, but targeted recruitment of Asian-American communities means people from agencies actually heading into the community, Kim said, giving examples like holding informational meetings in neighborhoods and places of faith and engaging with community leaders.
"It's been shown, especially in the African-American communities, that when there are specific and targeted recruitment and engagement, then you see those families from those backgrounds are likely to adopt," Kim said. "In areas where you see higher rates of adoption, it's been a lot more focus on that kind of recruitment. I haven't seen that level in the Asian communities."
Child welfare professionals value the ability to place children within homes that ethnically and culturally match but prioritize meeting the child's most basic needs first, said Kim. But others say that maintaining a sense of cultural identity for the child is just as important and is part of the larger goal of a child's broad well-being.
"What it comes to is that African-American and Native American children, because of historical practices in the past that have been really oppressive and damaging to these populations, that there's been more attention on matching those children but not as much with Asian-Americans. There tends to be a sense that they're more assimilate-able," Kim said. "I would argue that it's as important as it would be for any child."
Some Asian-American communities have also inherited cultural stigmas limiting their willingness to adopt or foster Asian-American children.
"In Korea, there's been an effort to increase domestic adoption, but there's a very taboo approach. If you adopt, as an Asian-American or as a Korean person in Korea, you're breaking that kind of bloodline," Kevin Vollmers, a Korean adoptee and founder of multimedia advocacy company LGA, told NBC News. "In one of my previous lives, I talked to Korean folks about possibly adopting from Korea, for example. Or possibly adopting from the [U.S.] foster care system, kids who are Hmong here. They won't have it, because it's kind of breaking that bloodline."
In Vollmers' previous experience working for two adoption agencies, the population of Asian Americans wishing to adopt from abroad is low, as is the population of Asian-American parents in the foster care system, but Vollmers' points to some cases in his home state of Minnesota, where Hmong family members will take in children from within their families, but not children they aren't related to.
Vollmers sees this as a greater cultural disconnect between white American culture and minority cultures in the U.S.
"Broadly speaking, [adoption is] a very white institution. Period. It's an extension of the idea that white folks should be able to adopt whoever they want and have families," Vollmers said. "You don't see Southeast Asian families going to the lengths that white adoptive parents will do to adopt. They will contact their senators, they will go to Vietnam, they will meet with ambassadors — they will do anything and everything possible to open that door."
Build a Support System
The adoption system itself is fragmented: Each state has different adoption rules and policies, which must also obey national laws like MEPA and IEPA. City, county, and sometimes regional civic authorities handle the adoption process, while the 3,000-odd public and private national adoption agencies match parents and adoptees.
Support organizations like Pact directly assist families in their regions, but nationally-spanning organizations supporting transracial adoption are rare. As such, there aren't established best practices.
Part of the support Pact provides includes educating parents about how to discuss racial, ethnic, and cultural differences with their children, as well as how best to expose them to their ethnic and cultural heritage. Pact also holds an annual summer camp for transracial adoption families to attend and learn while bonding with Pact's transracial adoption community — one that Johnston and her family are part of.
"The reality is that the child is going to grow up to become a member of that ethnic group regardless of how they were raised," Kim said. "The rest of the world will see you as Asian, even if you don't grow up thinking of yourself as an Asian person."
There's an argument that it's better to transracially adopt someone outside their ethnic group than for them to "linger or languish in the foster care system," said Kim. But it shouldn't be an either/or dilemma.
"We need to provide as many opportunities for a culturally-connected foster home," Kim said. "They're children for only the first 18 years, and then they engage with the rest of the world. Of course we want them to have families, but we want them to have a solid sense of their identity and who they are, and culture is a big part of that."
The struggle has been and will continue to be increasing access to transracial adoption support systems for parents in any location. It's also to make parents aware of these services to begin with, according to Amanda Baden, associate professor of counselor education at Montclair State University and founder of TransracialAdoption.net.
"With proper support and efforts and motivation on the part of the adoptive parents, [transracial adoption] can be a very viable solution. The fact is, the degree of effort varies wildly," Baden said. "The training for adopted parents is vital. It's so important for them to recognize and understand different issues."
At the end of the day, she added, there's nothing pushing adoption agencies to provide this kind of education. Adoption is an industry, and agencies are businesses who hire adoption officials that graduate schools where transracial adoption isn't part of the curriculum. If there's not a financial incentive to educate and support a transracial adoption community, then there's no motivation to train the adoption officials in transracial adoption issues.
There's a contingent of adult transracial adoptees who actively argue against transracial adoption. Baden, a transracial adoptee from Hong Kong, is a cautious supporter of transracial adoption — so long as the children and families are supported and educated.
"A lot of adult transracial adoptees are pretty vocal, and sadly, I think people who could be working to improve [transracial adoption] aren't listening," Baden said. "We can't just say, 'End all adoption,' because it's just not practical. What we need to think about is helping people learn, how to raise kids and work with families to help them understand and empathize so they don't create another generation of kids who feel quite lost in their racial and ethnic heritage."