Licensed Psychologist, Clinical Specialty

Board Certified: Senior Disability Analyst

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M. Allan Cooperstein, Ph.D.

Abbreviated version published as Cooperstein, M.A. (1998, May).  Pennsylvania Psychologist Quarterly,
         58(5), 20-21. (20 page version is available)

           Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!
                                                                                       George C. Wallace

            We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic.
                                                                                         Jimmy Carter

           I hear that melting-pot stuff a lot, and all I can say is that we haven’t melted yet.
                                                                                       Jesse Jackson

Transracial placement involves the placing of children in foster or adoptive homes with a family of another race and/or culture. Placements either are made by public or private agencies, or may be independent. Most often, Transracial Adoptions (TRAs) occur through the public child welfare system.

For one year, I counseled (for unrelated issues) a Caucasian couple who had been foster parenting an African-American child, from 9 days of age to near 1 year. During this time, I witnessed the emergence of a loving bond between parents and child that transcended racial differences and a healthy growth in the child and the adults. Recently, although they wished to adopt the boy as their son, the foster parents learned that they would have to surrender him to a childless, same-race couple related to the biological mother. The enormous emotional impact upon the parents and concern over the child reaction to being separated from them motivated my need to examine the issues associated with TRA.

Adoption denials may be challenged as violations of the due process rights of Caucasian foster parents wishing to adopt African-American children and a violation of the rights of the children themselves. It was necessary, however, to look beyond the legal mechanisms and evaluate TRA itself in the light of informative research.

The Controversy

During the mid-seventies, controversy arose over Caucasian adoptions of African-American children, the arguments favoring TRA being based largely on speculations that African-American communities could not provide same-race adoptive parents and that raising Black children in Caucasian homes was better than an institution or foster home. Questions were raised by African-Americans over whether TRA met children’s' needs, and whether TRA might not harm African-American child by causing them to lose a sense of racial and cultural identity and the ability to relate to other African-Americans.

The Federal Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) of 1994 provided an even greater impetus for TRA, preventing placement discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, thereby catalyzing an increased recruitment of foster and adoptive parents, and increasing the number of adoptions.

TRA Research

After two decades of research, considerable disagreement exists over the benefits of TRA. Early
concerns expressed the doubt that the benefits of Caucasian parents adopting an African-American child at a younger age did not outweigh the disadvantage of adoptive failures. Without definitive studies of the adult personalities of Caucasian-raised African-Americans, placements should not proceed under the assumption that TRA is beneficial (Chimezie, 1975). Although the majority of African-Americans surveyed by Howard, Royse, and Skerl (1977) believed it to be of greater importance for Black children to receive love from Caucasian parents than placement in foster care or an institution, they also expressed apprehension over a possible loss of identification with the African-American community, a concern that has since received some support.

Personal self-esteem among TRA adoptees tends to be generally good. However, most White, adoptive families rarely discuss racial issues or associate with African-Americans. Consequently, TRA adoptees may perceive themselves as different from children of their own race, expressing negative attitudes towards them. Some families acknowledge racial identity, provide same-race role models, and live in integrated neighborhoods. The TRA children in these families show greater interest in contact with African-Americans and discussing racial identity issues with parents and peers. Other families adopted several African-American children and were considered interracial families, emphasizing racial heritage and providing a psychological support network (McRoy, Zurcher, Lauderdale, and Anderson, 1984).

Longitudinal studies appear to demonstrate that, although a sense of racial identity may be maintained by TRA children, the strength of this identification is not as enhanced as that found in same-race families. African-American identities of children from in-racial placements exceeded that of TRAs by the time they reached 8 years of age (Shireman & Johnson, 1986; Johnson, Shireman, & Watson, 1987).

Research: Bias, Methodological Flaws, and Conflicting Paradigms

One prominent argument against the validity of TRA research with African-American children is that it has been largely Eurocentric, or based upon European values and expectations, rather than Africentric. A purported African personality construct has been posited, differing in psychological functioning from European personality types (Azibo, 1988, 1990, 1991). Although the African personality construct has not been widely supported or applied to TRA research, a recent study indicates that the adjustment of TRA children declined significantly over a 10 year period. Adoptees experienced difficulty becoming competent with Africentric and Eurocentric reference group orientations, displaying greater Eurocentric reference group orientation (DeBerry, Scarr, and Weinberg, 1996).

Another problem facing researchers is that families living in a post-integration society may deny racism or any racially-problems related to the TRA child. Crucial factors, such as the developmental status of the adoptee, have not been examined as an important determining factor for positive outcomes.

Finally, the difficulties of African-American opponents of TRA in providing appropriate empirical support may have resulted in judicial decisions favoring TRA, while African-American researchers cope with challenges in conducting research on Caucasian families that impact upon their ability to receive grants for research relevant to their interests.

The Future: TRA from Forensic and Treatment Perspectives

With the exception of MEPA, adoption law is generally State law. All states have provided statutes governing the process by which a legal parent-child relationship is created between individuals not biologically parent and child. Some states having doctrines of "equitable adoption" allow courts to legally recognize adoptions even when all statutory procedures have not been completed. Consequently, a forensic psychologist who is called in on a TRA case should review MEPA and the adoption laws of one’s own State. Parent-child relationships established by adoption may, however, have direct consequences in fields of Federal law.

Griffith & Duby (1991) examined the historical underpinnings of the current TRA dispute. Examining trends following the Supreme Court's declaration that judicial standards must preempt community values in the area of race, they contend that community preferences for same-race families and the biased norms of mental health professionals continue to impact upon opinion in the legal arena. While policymakers invoke the language but, perhaps, not the spirit of mental health in their arguments, mental health practitioners should be aware of the ongoing debate and uncertainty over TRAs. TRA judicial denials may be challenged as violations of the due process rights of Caucasian foster parents wishing to adopt African-American children and a violation of the rights of the children themselves.

One approach to this matter is the use of Bonding Assessments. These are used to determine whether to return a child to a parent from whom s/he was removed, when two or more families claim custody of the child, when opposing psychological, social or legal professionals disagree on which potential caretaker can best meet the child's needs, and when transracial adoptions are considered. The bonding Interview is the primary tool in the assessment and consists of a semi-structured observational session in which evaluators provides materials and gives the adult-child dyad a series of tasks (Stokes and Strothman, 1996).

Research has shown mixed outcomes associated with TRA. Although personal self-esteem has been favorable, reference group esteem does not fare so well, as predicted in the '70s. Although supporters and opponents of TRA agree that minority children available for adoption have the right and need to develop a sense of ethnic identity and knowledge of their cultural origins, TRA issues have generated tension and accusations of racial bias in the application of scientific methodology and interpretations. For the ultimate welfare of these children, multiracial research efforts are needed so placements may be made without bias, setting aside personal and cultural differences. The benefits reaped would also help agencies who facilitate TRAs, provide information applicable to other racial/ethnic groups of foster care and adoptive children, address issues related to bonding and permanency effects, and better inform us about the developmental consequences of breaking bonds developed early in the formative years.

For the present, psychologists dealing with TRA should

    • Become familiar with the issues.

    • Assess appropriate racial, gender, and alternative life-style values of the family, neighborhood, extended family, school, and community.

    • Encourage cultural diversity in the family/home.

    • Help parents avoid token diversity and recommend finding materials and visual representations that accurately reflect children’s in-country experiences.

    • Recommend against limiting organization of activities only around cultural holidays or food.

    • Avoid tokenism, such as one Black doll amidst many White dolls, or only one book about any cultural group.

    • Be aware of unfair practices in your agency, practice, or community that affect the lives of your clients.

    • Address the lack of ethnic-sensitive toys, literature, and children's books at your treatment facility.

    • Seek assistance through

Workshops: e.g., Racism Issues and Multiracial Families, Jim Mahoney, MSW, 1220 South Division, Spokane, WA 99202.

           Organizations: e.g., the National Association of Black Social
        Workers (NABSW), 1969 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10035 and
           New York State Citizens' Coalition for Children (NYSCCC), Inc.,
           306 East State Street, Suite 220, Ithaca, NY 14850.

            Reading Materials: Transracial Adoptive Parenting: A Black
            White Community Issue by Leora Neal and Al Stumph
            (available through NABSW).

We Americans have the chance to become someday a nation in which all radical stocks and classes can exist in their own selfhoods, but meet on a basis of respect and equality and live together, socially, economically, and politically. We can become a dynamic equilibrium, a harmony of many different elements, in which the whole will be greater than all its parts and greater than any society the world has seen before. It can still happen.
                                                                                      Shirley Chisholm


Azibo, D. A. (1988). Personality, clinical, and social psychological research on Blacks: Appropriate and inappropriate research frameworks. Western Journal of Black Studies, 12(4), 220-233.

Azibo, D. A. (1990). Treatment and training implications of the advances in African personality theory. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 14, 53-65.

Azibo, D. A. (1991). Towards a metatheory of the African personality. Special Issue: Incorporating an African world view into psychology: II. Journal of Black Psychology, 17(2) 37-45.

Chimezie, A. (1975). Transracial adoption of black children. Social Work, 20(4), 296-301.

DeBerry, K. M., Scarr, S., & Weinberg, R. (1996). Family racial socialization and ecological competence: Longitudinal assessments of African-American transracial adoptees. Child Development, 67(5), 2375-2399.

Griffith, E. E., & Duby, J. L. (1991). Recent developments in the transracial adoption debate.

Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry & the Law Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry & the Law , 19 (4), 339-350.

Howard, A., Royse, D. D., & Skerl, J. A. (1977). Transracial adoption: The Black community perspective. Social Work, 22(3), 184-189.

Johnson, P. R., Shireman, J. F., & Watson, K. W. (1987) Transracial adoption and the development of Black identity at age eight. Child Welfare, 66(1), 45-55.

McRoy, R. G., Zurcher, L. A., Landerdale, M. L., & Anderson, R. E. (1984). Social Casework, 65(1) 34-39.

Shireman, J. F.& Johnson, P. R. (1986). A longitudinal study of Black adoptions: Single parent, transracial, and traditional. Social Work, 31(3), 172-176.

Stokes, J. C. & Strothman, L. J. (1996). The use of bonding studies in child welfare permanency planning. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 13(4), 347-367.


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The purpose of the content is to educate, inform and recommend. Under no circumstances is it meant to replace the expert care and advice of a qualified professional as rapid advances in medicine may cause information to become outdated, invalid or subject to debate. Accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Dr. Cooperstein assumes no responsibility for how information, products and books presented are used and does not warrant or guarantee the content, accuracy or veracity of any linked sites. Dr. Cooperstein  makes no guarantee to any representations made by listings in professionals or support services directories.

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Last updated: June 26, 2011 12:55 PM