County adoption officials struggle to place black children

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“Waiting Children” is a website created by Hennepin County’s Children, Family and Adult Services Department. On it, you can browse through information on children in Hennepin County waiting for adoptive families. It includes biographical information for each child including their likes, dislikes, academic and behavioral challenges, and a brief history on how they’ve faired while in the foster care system.

Of the 64 children currently listed on the website as of September 5, 2006, only 18 of them are not of African descent. After viewing the website, the unavoidable question is what makes so many Black children “waiting” children? Does skin color really make them less desirable candidates for permanent homes?

Mitch Davis (not his real name) has worked for several years as an adoption resource person with Hennepin County. His main responsibility is matching children with families and completing the adoption process. The children he sees are not children who are voluntarily given up for adoption, but who have come through the child protection system where parental rights have been terminated.

“Outside of work, I look at children,” said Davis, “and it seems that for every 10 children I see, one of them is African American. But at work, 75 percent of these children are African American.”

Though African Americans make up only 9 percent of Hennepin County’s total population, African Americans are, by far, the largest racial group in the adoption system, followed (not very closely) by Native Americans. Davis said that over the past couple of years he has seen a slight increase in Hispanic and Hmong families, but for African Americans the numbers have remained consistent.

Davis believes economic status is the biggest contributing factor. “The children that I see,” he said, “are coming from impoverished homes. Adoption assistance used to be an incentive for lower-class families to take a child in. It isn’t much. It only helps to finance raising a child, but many of those funds have been cut.”

When asked why so many African American children were waiting for homes, Davis explained that there is a hierarchy of qualifications necessary for placing a child into a permanent home. The top of that list is family members or kin.

Kin can be anyone with a strong relationship with the family but is not necessarily biologically related. However, in order for a child to be placed in a family of relatives or kin, the family members must clear a five-year criminal background check.

Many of the issues that cause the child to be placed in the adoption system often affect the extended family, which makes it unlikely that they will pass the background check. Extended families may also be impoverished, elderly, in poor health, or have children of their own and are unwilling or unable to take on the responsibility of raising another child.

Issues that cause the child to be removed from his or her home don’t always affect the extended family. But, stable family members are often separated from the child due to drugs or other lifestyle differences. Adoptive resource services are often unable to locate them.

“We work very hard to reunite and keep families together,” Davis said. “In fact, special permission by the state’s human services department is required to separate siblings. Rarely is that permission granted.”

He explained that kin is often not a relative but someone the child has contact with and knows, like a close neighbor. “Sometimes family members have lost contact,” Davis said. “The child doesn’t identify with them as kin. But connection is important. The child must know the family or kin that they are being placed with.”

Davis said that there are several key elements that influence how long it takes a child to be placed in a home. The first is age: The older the child, the more likely the adoptive family will believe that the child will present problems that they are unable to handle. The time a child spends in out-of-home placement works against her or him.

The second most prevalent element is the child’s special needs. This is determined by the fact that they have been removed from their home due to abuse or neglect, and by the social environment that they have been exposed to.

Many of these children also have physical and learning disabilities that require a high level of supervision and care. Children with very demanding needs are less likely to be adopted.

“Even with all the challenges I come across while trying to place children in good homes,” said Davis, “the question for me is not why so many African American children are waiting for homes, but how so many got to this point. I’m curious about how they moved through the system before they got to me.”

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