By BECKY McKENDRY
Capital News Service
LANSING – Decades later, Rhonda Roorda still becomes emotional.
“Sometimes I still feel the trauma of knowing that but for the grace of God, I could have aged out of the foster care system,” said Roorda, an African-American woman who was adopted by a white couple in 1971. “I could have fallen through the cracks.”
The most recent national data by the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System suggests that many of these cracks in the foster care system are shrinking. The total number of children entering foster care has decreased by 18 percent since 2007. Fewer children are waiting for adoption placement. The average length of stay in the foster care system is decreasing.
But statistics also show that Roorda’s old fears are many children’s realities: The system can still be a struggle, particularly for older children and African-American children of any age.
Even though the total number of African-Americans foster children is decreasing, data from the North American Council on Adoptable Children shows that the ones who are in the system in Michigan are adopted at slower rates than other races.
Explanations are harder to pinpoint, but those involved in the system cite many factors.
“There aren’t a lot of advocates out there fighting for African-American foster kids,” said Roorda, who now lives in Brighton and has written three books about transracial adoption.
“There isn’t enough recruitment by agencies to reach out to families of color, and there aren’t enough resources to help non-African-American families who are trying to figure out how to raise a transracial child,” she said.
The Department of Human Services declined comment.
It is a multi-layered problem with many painful components, Roorda said.
“The fees associated with adopting black children have always been lower than any other race,” Roorda said. “Some argue that the agencies are trying to promote adopting these kids by lowering the cost for families, but you’re really stigmatizing them, telling them they aren’t worth as much.”
Adoption fees include agency, medical and legal costs and vary greatly, but the difference between black and white children can be tens of thousands of dollars.
When Roorda was adopted, she said she was classified as “special needs” – not because of her mental or physical capabilities, but because she was a dark-skinned girl more than a year-and-a-half old – considered to be one of the least “valuable” on the fee scale.
“How are you going to attach a value to a child like that?” she said. “They never forget it. I never did.”
This difference in fees is one factor that “points to institutionalized racism,” said social worker Rita Walters.
“There’s a crisis for black children in foster care right now,” said Walters, who also serves as a field liasion for Michigan State University’s School of Social Work.
“They are being overrepresented in the foster care population. There’s a disproportionate amount of black children removed from homes. As an African-American, I have an issue with that,” she said.
Adoption agencies can only do so much, said Kris Faasse, adoption services director at Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids.
“Federal law says there can’t be race-specific resources,” Faasse said. “It would prevent me from creating some sort of race-specific education or resource because we’re required to offer it to all families.”
But Roorda says the difference in adoption outcomes for black children prove such resources are necessary, and they might help ease uncertainty about transracial adoption.
“My parents didn’t have resources to help them raise a child of a different race,” she said. “And you need that. You need to have someone who understands black hair care products, you need to see a neighbor or a godmother who looks like you.”
One thing that advocates, social workers, adoptees and agencies seem to agree on is the need for a better data system. Because of the differences between public and private adoption, there is no universal source to track adoption statistics.
“Better data, more research to identify trends and problem areas – that’s what leads to funding and advocacy and says ‘these children matter,’” said Roorda.
That’s something foster children especially need to hear, she said.
“We don’t look at adoption as a first-class option and we don’t look at black children as a first-class option,” she said. “We need research, education, outreach and to be shouting from the mountaintops that these beautiful children matter and give them a voice.”