This is an excerpt from my masters thesis on transracial adoption training. I hope you find it informative and helpful.

-Robert O'Connor MSW, LGSW







Training for Transracial Adoptive Parents and Professionals Who Care for Transracially Adopted Children:

The Roles of Identity Formation and Self-Esteem in Successful Placements

Program Design

Robert L. O’Connor

April 2, 1997

This thesis examines the roles of identity formation and self-esteem development as interwoven determining factors of successful transracial adoptive placements. Transracially adopted children have the arduous and conflicting tasks of 1) conforming to the family culture, and 2) developing identities that are racially different from those who parent them. The goal of such a placement is for the transracially adopted child(ren) and the adopting family to join together to form a new biracial and bicultural family unit.

Using a conceptual framework encompassing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Erikson’s Stages of Development, the Dual Perspective, and the Ecosystem Perspective, the author develops a training session for transracially adopting parents, and for professionals involved with out-of-home placement. The training provides participants with parenting strategies and crucial information needed to address the unique and inherent challenges of transracial adoption.




A. Exploring the Problem 1

B. Politics of Transracial Adoption 6

C. Personal Interest 11

D. Importance to Social Workers/Adoptive Parents 11

E. Research Questions 14

F. Definition of Key Terms 15


A. Adjustment, Self-esteem and Racial Identity in Transracial Adoptees 17

B. Suggestions to Increase Likelihood of Successful Adoption Experience 25

C. Transracial Adoption Post Placement Services 29


A. Conceptual Framework 30



A. Purpose and General Overview 38


B. Objectives of the Training 40

C. Training Curriculum 45

I. Training Session #1:

Race, Culture & Ethnicity in Transracial Adoption 46

II. Training Session #2:

Producing Success in Transracial Adoption 48


50 Workshop Design







Appendix Section I: Materials for Training Session #1

Appendix Section II: Materials for Training Session #2

Exhibit I: Grooming Techniques for African American Children



Exploring The Problem

This is a workshop which explores the roles of identity formation and self-esteem as influential factors in the success of transracial adoption placements. Exploration of this topic begins with the historical introduction of children of color and specifically African American children to this country. The ambient factors contributing to the problem area are explored and include the politics and a review of the literature surrounding identity development and self-esteem of the child that has been transracially adopted.

Since the early presence of Africans in the American colonies in 1619, the rights over who shall raise the African child has been of paramount importance to the politics of this society. The African American child has been one of the most important commodities in the development and expansion of capitalism in this country (Russell, Wilson & Hall, 1992; Polanyi, 1944; McPherson, 1996). So much so was this, that the largest death toll of any U.S. battle was over the right to maintain control over this resource. More soldiers were killed and mortally wounded on one day, in the Battle of Antictan, than in all of the other wars fought by the U.S. in the 19th Century put together. The Civil War officially ended slavery in 1863 (McPherson, 1996). The historical involvement of new Europeans to this country with the indigenous Native American populations are also relevant when introducing the topic of transracial adoption. The use of boarding schools by Europeans in an effort to assimilate Native American peoples still to this day lingers in the psyches of Native peoples. This is of particular relevance given that overwhelmingly, it is persons of European decent who are the transracial adoptive applicants and the majority of transracial adoptees are African American children and until 1978, Native American children.

Today in Minnesota, foster care is an institution which houses African American and children of color at alarmingly disproportionate rates (52%) when compared to their actual percentages of the population (10%) and to their white counterparts (Hennepin County, of MN). Nationally, "an analysis by the American Public Welfare Association (APWA) of foster children in 12 states during the period 1984 to 1990 indicates that the rate at which African -American and Hispanic children leave foster care is slower than that of white children, and was substantially lower in 1990 than it was in 1984. APWA further noted that in fiscal year 1990, the number of black children in foster care in 31 states exceeded the number of white foster children in the same states. In sum, black children are more likely than white children to enter foster care in the first place, and stay in foster care longer" (APWA, 1993).

Historically, African American children have been over-represented in the foster care and other systems due to a disparity between the suggested and actualized services to this population (Hogan & Siu 1988). Researcher McRoy adds that because African American children were discriminated against and excluded from the adoption system and institutional care systems, "the foster care system became overburdened with the responsibility for black children" (1989).

African American children also historically have been the first into foster care and the last to exit foster care, sometimes waiting on average two and a half times longer for a placement than their white counterparts (Olsen, 1982a). This is firstly significant given the demonstrated fact that, despite the myth, there are African American families available to adopt African American children who are targeted and un-targeted for adoption. This is in direct contradiction to the age old myth that one; African Americans do not take good care of their young and therefore are not interested in adopting African American children, and two; that if Caucasians do not adopt the African American children waiting in foster care, these children would grow up in foster care, because African American families are not available to adopt African American children. Author, Robert B. Hill’s study, Informal Adoptions Among Black Families, revealed that 90% of African American children born out of wedlock are informally adopted (1977). Gershenson’s study, Community Response to Children Free for Adoption, demonstrates that with respect to formal adoptions through child caring agencies and the courts, African American families adopt at a rate of 4.5 times greater than any other ethnic group (1984). Also in support of dispelling this myth is Hill’s Black Pulse Survey, conducted in 1981 and in 1993, which showed that there were three million African American households interested in adoption. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were approximately 69,000 children in 1990, and currently 126,000 children available for adoption nationwide and 43%-45% of these children are African American (1990, 2001).


The North American Council on Adoptable Children’s "Barriers to Same Race Placement" revealed a placement rate of 94% of Black children with African-American families by African American-run agencies (1991). Also, agencies which struggle to place African American children and other children of color would do well to consult with successful African American agencies. Such agencies as the Association of Black Social Workers’ Child Adoption, Counseling and Referral Service (New York Chapter), Homes for Black Children (Detroit), the Institute for Black Parents (Los Angeles), Roots, Inc. (Georgia), and the One Church One Child Program (nationwide) serve to dispel this myth. Secondly, this is significant given the documented historical and present devaluation of African American families as resources for African American children by public and private agencies (McRoy, 1989). This is so even though according to the law as established by Congress’ Title IV-B of the Social Security Act, states and their subordinates must diligently recruit ethnically and racially diverse foster and adoptive families. If states and their agencies followed this law, this could result in more and faster adoptions for minority children (Library of Congress, 1996).

Leora Neal M.S.W. C.S.W., the Executive Director of the New York Chapter, Association of Black Social Workers Child Adoption, Counseling and Referral Services, indicates that this does not happen because there is a $15,000 - $100,000 a year per child disincentive to releasing large numbers of children (1996). She further argues that public and some private agencies would have to downsize or literally fold if large numbers of children and accompanying dollars left an agency and were not replaced with equal numbers of children and the dollars that follow them.

When African American children enter foster care, and when they exit, they may be placed into culturally incongruent homes. The African American Adoption Project (AAAP) in Minnesota was created to recruit African American families for the African American children in foster care. For the most part, these children were not even targeted for adoption, much less targeted for congruent placements prior to the African American Adoption Project’s inception. "We found that African American couples were available for these children..." (Tredwell, 1996). The National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) and the North American Council on Adoptable Children both have indicated that "many black families are interested in adopting children, but are disqualified because of the criteria established by white adoption agencies" (NABSW, 1972; & NACAC, 1991; Lee, 1987; McRoy, 1989).

The North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) found that "heavy dependence upon fee income, coupled with the fact that supplies of healthy white infants are decreasing drastically, force many agencies to place transracially to ensure survival" (NACAC, 1991). Based upon this and the newly enacted Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA), signed into law by President Clinton in October, 1994, it is likely that transracial adoption (TRA) will not only continue, but is likely to increase in occurrence. This type of placement may result in a dramatic increased trauma to the adoptee and to the newly adoptive family unit (Simon & Alstein, 1987; Grow & Shapiro, 1974; Ladner, 1977; Katz, 1977; Silverman & Feigelman, 1981). Support services suggested by research need to be made available to reduce the aforementioned trauma to the adoptee and to the new family unit (NACAC, 1991; Jones, 1979; McRoy, Zurcher, Lauderdale, Anderson, 1984; Zuniga, 1991).

Historically, adoption developed in the 1920s as a service to childless white couples who were seeking to adopt healthy white infants born to unmarried mothers unable to provide for them. Private agencies derived their funding from such placements and sought to place as many infants as possible with these white couples. In addition to the white clientele, these agencies were usually staffed by white social workers and lead by all-white policy making boards (McRoy, 1989). This was a very good business, given that white infants were in healthy supply and demand. However, the supply of white infants decreased sharply between 1969 and 1971 by almost 50%, most likely as a result of the generalized use of contraceptives and introduction of less restrictive abortion legislation, coupled with an increase in the tolerance of unwed parenthood during the 1960s (Child Welfare League of America, 1972).

Concurrently, the number of white homes approved versus black homes approved for adoptable children saw black homes approved at half the rate of that of their white counterparts. Black birth mothers who were previously denied relinquishment by private agencies now were encouraged to relinquish. In all, the total available white infant population declined, while the white adoptive parent pool continued to become more competitive. Agencies began to change the perception of would-be adoptive white parents towards black babies in attempts to cast them in a more favorable light. Terms which emphasized the half-white heritage of "black-white child[ren]," "child of mixed marriage," or "interracial child" became the norm replacing the prevailing trend of that time to identify anyone with a drop of black blood as "black" or "Negro" (McRoy, 1989).

Politics of Transracial Adoption (TRA)

In the United States, in the "melting pot," "tossed salad" or "stew" of racial and cultural existence, the status of race relations can be viewed through the lenses focused on the judicial system and on the educational system, but neither invokes the truest core of prevailing sensitivities like the debate and politics surrounding transracial adoption. In the forefront of the issue is the age-old dynamic between the African American community and the Caucasian community. Both are standing on their respective and traditional foundations of entitlement.

Some political proponents of transracial adoption suggest that opponents of this practice are race radicals and separatists. Further, some proponents believe that, "...minority children placed for adoption have neither the right nor the need to develop a distinct ethnic identity or awareness of cultural heritage," insisting that there is more than one way of successfully raising minority children in non-minority homes (Hayes, 1993). This type of thinking is however not supported by the majority of research on the topic of transracial adoption. Even those researchers who purport that there is no difference in self-esteem development tend to support the notion that it is a child’s right to develop an identity that is consistent with the child’s race (Chestang, 1972).

Political proponents of TRA may also believe that "love is enough" and choose not to be swayed by concerns of identity formation (Ladner, 1977). These families often take a "color blind" approach to dealing with the racial identity of their transracially adopted children. Also, an overwhelming majority of these families tend to live in predominately white neighborhoods and send their black children to predominately white schools opposed to integrated neighborhoods and integrated schools. These children may generally be viewed as culturally different and better than other blacks (McRoy, Zurcher, Lauderdale & Anderson, 1984).

Proponents of TRA also may believe that policies that support same-race placement practices are "absurd anti-racist policy, which assumes that keeping black children separated from white families will somehow serve their interests, or protect them from racism." These proponents may also place a greater belief in policies which reflect "an ideal society, not divided on grounds of race or skin color," and believe that "physical features should be no more relevant in adoption placement than, say hair or eye color" (Bagley, 1993). One of the most common arguments on behalf of TRA practices is that which suggests that if an African American child is not allowed to be adopted by a white person, then the child will indefinitely be condemned to the foster care system or institutional living (Chimezie, 1975). When presented with solely these two options, even the African American community has given support to TRA; such was the case in a study done among 150 African Americans households in 1977 when given these two options (Howard & Skerl, 1977).

Political opponents of TRA suggest that such a practice represents unequal resource allocation due to the historical implications of racism in the public sector. "Historically, the treatment of African American children in the U.S. welfare system has been marked by racism manifested in inequitable policies and insufficient and inadequate services" (Billingsly & Giovannoni, 1972). Some studies indicate widespread misdistribution of services which result in minority children waiting on average two and one half times longer for placement (Olsen, 1982). Such a misdistribution of resources would presently be against the law, according to the new MEPA legislation. An amendment to the original legislation now indicates that equal resources in the form of recruitment of foster and adoptive families for all races must take place reflective of the children in out-of-home care (MEPA, 1994).

Some political opponents of TRA suggest that the private sector is economically driven in support of TRA practices. "The original purpose was to assist white couples seeking healthy white infants...private agencies derived most of their funding from the fees paid by adopting parents. Their goal was to place as many infants as possible with white couples" (McRoy, 1989). The North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) found that "heavy dependence upon fee income, coupled with the fact that supplies of healthy white infants are decreasing drastically, force many agencies to place transracially to ensure survival" (NACAC, 1991). African American families were excluded from relinquishing children and formally adopting prior to a shortage of white infants and a surplus of white couples wanting to adopt (Morgenstern, 1971; McRoy & Zurcher, 1983; Hasenfeld, 1983; Day, 1979). Persons of color are some times upset when pricing lists for babies of color are faxed or appear over the internet and read like grocery lists. These lists give the cost per baby depending on the baby’s racial composition. The cheapest babies on the list are African American babies, the most expensive are Caucasian babies. Economists may refer to this as a simple equation of supply and demand. For African Americans and other ethnic groups, this practice may be viewed as akin to slavery.

Some political opponents of TRA suggest that TRA is a form of cultural genocide and that homes for children of color are available, should the focus of placing agencies shift towards congruent placement practices (McRoy, 1989; Chimezie, 1975; NABSW, 1973; Hill, 1977; Tredwell, 96; Jones, 1975; Scott, 1976). Other scholarly work has resulted in opinions that, " this society only black families can assure an environment in which there is optimal opportunity for growth, development, and identification" (Chestang, 1972).

It is suggested that agencies acknowledge that fees serve as a barrier to same race adoptions in the communities of color and that this acknowledgment include solutions to this barrier; there is a lack of workers of color represented in adoption agencies and that this results in bias against would be adopters of color seeking an inracial adoption placement (NACAC, 1991; Tredwell, 1996; Scott, 1976). Leora Neal, M.S.W. C.S.W., the Executive Director of the New York Chapter, Association of Black Social Workers Child Adoption, Counseling and Referral Services points out that 44% of the children available for adoption nationwide are white ( mostly school-age and/or have special needs). "However, there is little discussion concerning these children and their right to a permanent home. There is no suggestion from proponents of transracial adoptions that white children who are ‘languishing in the system’ be adopted by African-Americans or other people of color. African-American families who have tried to adopt white children have been blocked by child caring agencies and the court most of the time. Accordingly, in practice, transracial adoptions are a ‘one-way street.’ The question arises whether the thrust for increasing transracial adoptions is truly concerned with the ‘best interest of Black children’ or ‘the right of [W]hite people to parent whichever child they choose?’" (1996).


Personal Interest

Based upon group experience with transracially adopted adults, and the personal experience of being transracially adopted, this author saw a critical need to develop a formalized response to the inherent needs of those involved with the transracial adoption process.

This author believed it to be of paramount importance that persons who were transracially adopted have their perspectives represented through a formal structure. Many may have a theoretical understanding of the impacts of transracial adoption but may not have a practical and qualitative understanding of its impact. Therefore, research and the resulting information has produced the following workshop.

Importance To Social Workers And Adoptive Parents

Given recent legislative activity, such as the passing and implementation of the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994, signed by President Clinton and authored by Senator Metsenbaum, it is important to be prepared for the growing needs of children in out-of-home placement. Specifically of increasing concern is the number of children of color who will need homes while in the foster care system and when these children are ready for permanent adoptive placements. "At the end of fiscal year 1990, the most recent year for which detailed data are available, adoption had been established as the goal for 69,000 foster children;" 43% of which were African American (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). Historically, these children have not been targeted to receive quality services which are in their best interests. But instead, these children have received what was convenient and traditionally accessible to them. For this reason, it is important that social workers:


1) have a working understanding of the Multiethnic Placement Act and the newest legislation and how to best implement these laws in the best interest of the child(ren) in their care;

2) have a working knowledge of the resources necessary to support a successful transracial placement;

3) know how to teach potential parents how to access these resources on behalf of their children;

4) have a working understanding of how their personal values of race, class, religion, and culture affect how they intercede on behalf of their clients

5) see the child(ren) whom they are placing as the clients rather than the would-be parent(s); and

6) be capable of assessing accurately the strengths and limitations of the families that they are working with through the use of a bicultural continuum assessment mechanism, a psychiatric assessment and other instruments capable of assessing cultural competency and readiness to parent.

The Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA P.L. 103-382 of the 103rd Congress) has made it illegal to recruit families for children and to place children using race as a vital criterion. This was signed into law by President Clinton on October 20, 1994. On January 1, 1997, the Interethnic Placement legislation (P.L. 104-188 of the 104 Congress) removed the use of race as a part of any criteria in the placement process. Research studies, however, show that recognizing a child’s racial identity and culture is paramount to a healthy development and is in the child’s best interest (Morin, 1977; Robertson, 1975). Therefore, it is incumbent upon adoption agencies and all communities to ensure that would-be adoptive parents are professionally prepared to parent children across racial and cultural lines. Additionally, and of the utmost importance is ensuring adequate support for the whole development of the adopted child. This becomes increasingly important for transracially adopted children who suffer a double loss because they have lost both their cultural and racial connections as well as family (Verrier, 1993).

Research Questions

This workshop derived its premises based upon the search for the answers to the following questions:

1) What is the ideology behind culturally incongruent placement practices in the public and private sectors?

2) Why do the majority of research findings support transracial placement practices (all things being considered equal), despite social workers’ and practitioners’ assertion that such practices result in an increased trauma to the adoptee?

3) Given the likelihood of continued transracial adoption placement practices in both the private and public sectors, what are areas to target to increase the likelihood of successful transracial adoption placement outcomes?





Definition of Key Terms

The following are terms frequently used within the field of out-of-home placement and specifically within adoption. Transracial adoption is also referred to as "interracial," "cross-cultural," and "transcultural", "international" or "biracial" adoption.

Adoptee: is the person who is adopted into a family unit

Adoption: is the taking on of a child to parent that a person or persons did not previously have responsibility for and is of an implied long duration. More specifically, adoption is the legal permanent transference of guardianship of a child from one party to a single parent or couple for the purpose of creating a stable new family unit as defined by state and federal law.

Adoptive family: is the parent or parents and accompanying family system that receives the adoptee.

Assimilation: is the learning of language, values, expectations and roles of the dominanting group while abdicating the development or recognition of those consistent with one’s own race, ethnicity or culture.

Transracial Adoption (TRA): is the adoption of a child from one racial/ethnic background into an adoptive family of a differing racial background. In the U.S., this usually refers to Caucasian parents adopting African American children or children from other countries.

Inracial or Same Race Adoption: is the adoption of a child from one racial/ethnic background into an adoptive family of the same racial/ethnic background.

Triad: refers to the triangular relationship between the birth parents (usually birth mother), adoptive parent(s), and the adoptee.

Birth Family: refers to the adoptee’s birth parents and their family system.

Biculturalism: is the incorporation of two cultures (the parent's and the adopted person's) within a home environment creating a new family cultural identity that is observed and practiced by all family members in the home.

Additionally, it is the capacity to function effectively and comfortably within two distinct cultural contexts [outside of the home](Velasquez & Velasquez, 1980).

Cultural Tourism: is expressly seeking out a cultural experience that is different from ones own in attempts to express biculturalism, but is largely only symbolic in nature, leaving the authentic culture outside of the home and outside of the world view of the tourist.

Culture: consists of the behavioral patterns, symbols, institutions, values, and other human-made components of society and is the unique achievement of a human group which distinguishes it from other groups (Foreman, Gayle, Y.)

Extended or Honorary family: refers to those persons who may be, but are often not, biologically or formally related to the adoptee. These family members are usually chosen by the adoptee and assume traditional familial roles such as cousin, sister, brother and grandparents solely based upon affinity.

Successful transracial adoptive placement :is subjectively defined by members of the adoptive triad but may include the following: the adoptee being able to identify and claim a racial identity consistent with the racial norm of the child; having an intact ability to participate in the mores and culture and to develop coping and defense mechanisms consistent with the child’s race; having an ability to maintain a normatively healthy relationship with adoptive family members; and having an ability to pass on to offspring an intact sense of the aforementioned.




Within the literature which was reviewed to explore identity development, adjustment, and suggestions to increase the success of the transracial adoptive placements, many sources were discovered. Almost all of the literature was dated after the landmark position statement made by the Black Social Workers Association in 1972 raising concerns about the notion that transracial adoption practices leads to "cultural genocide." The overall focus on transracial adoption appeared to be heightened from the mid 1970s to the late 1980s with some of the most comprehensive articles being written by Ruth McRoy (1982, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1989). Also, Rita Simon is credited with contributing much to the debate over transracial adoption (1981, 1984, 1987). The majority of literature, quantitatively, appears to support the placement practice of transracial adoption as being harmless; however when critically reading, the research appears to qualitatively balance the argument.

Adjustment, Self-esteem and Racial Identity in Transracial Adoptees

Adjustment and racial identity development have been and are two of the very corner-stones of the debate over transracial versus inracial adoption preferences and accompanying legislation. The most resounding opposition to TRA came in the form of a position statement from the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) in 1972 in which they referred to "fears of cultural genocide on the one hand, and a concern for the child’s identity on the other." Additional concerns, also shared by other opponents of transracial adoption, included the feeling that white homes would not teach African American children to "1) develop positive identities; 2) learn the survival skills necessary in a racist society; and 3) develop the cultural and linguistic attributes crucial to functioning effectively in the black community" (Jones & Else, 1979). Since that time, much of the research has focused on this issue with varying results.

Studies done in 1982 and 1984 highlighted the adjustment and self-perception of transracially adopted children in what appears to give credence to the concerns raised by the Black Social Worker’s Association. These studies included thirty white families residing in three geographical areas of the United States: the Midwest, Upper-Midwest, and Southeast. The families all had adopted children under the age of ten, and all adoptions had been finalized. The children ranged in age from ten years to seventeen. The mean age was thirteen and the mean grade was 8.1. The majority of the black children were under three years of age at the time of placement.

Adoptive parents filled out two questionnaires of ninety-one items. Their children filled out a ninety-five-item inventory. This inventory was designed to elicit open discussion of the child’s experiences and feelings in the adoptive family and community, the child’s feelings about his or her racial identity, and the child’s attitude toward being transracially adopted. Teams of black and white interviewers interviewed the families separately. These questions assessed the characteristics of the adoptive family and of the adopted child; preplacement history; racial composition of the neighborhood; the adoptive family’s social interaction with blacks; and parents’ attitudes toward the child’s racial attitudes.

Results of the study yielded the following information: twenty-six or 87% of the thirty black adoptees were living in neighborhoods whose black residents ranged from 0 to 10% of the population; the majority (73%) of the transracial adoptive children were attending predominately white schools; 80% of the children had never had any black teachers; 83% of the black adopted children had at least one black friend; 75% indicated that most of their friends were white. When adoptees were asked if they would like more personal contact with blacks, thirteen or 43% replied in the affirmative. The remaining 57% either said "no" or that they "didn’t care one way or another." Sixty-two percent of the children who desired no greater contact with blacks indicated that they "liked whites better" or "really had nothing in common with blacks." Each of these respondents was living in a predominately white neighborhood. Results also suggest that their was a strong correlation between how the adopted parents viewed the race of the child and the child’s willingness to identify and claim their own race as differing from their parents. As a result of this correlation, researchers indicated that parents should view their children as racially different than themselves and nurture a sense of racial pride (Anderson, Lauderdale, McRoy, & Zurcher 1982, 1984).

Another study, done by Allen, investigated the formation of racial identity in black children adopted by white parents. The families that he studied lived in predominately white communities. The parents themselves were reared in white communities and had no contact with persons of color. He described the children’s burden of exerting unnecessary energy warding off and dealing with the white communities skewed perceptions of them as people of color. He found that in terms of racial identity, the adoptees moved in one of three directions: (1) true self-hate or an acceptance of the values of the dominant group and a resulting belief in white superiority, and black inferiority; (2) acceptance of one’s blackness as a positive virtue, without any element of self-hate; and (3) a mixture of self-hate and self-acceptance and an ambivalent feeling about one’s racial identity, (with positive feelings about some aspects and negative feelings about other aspects). Three of the adoptees fell into the third category, and one fell into the first (1976).

Other studies have identified tendencies towards white parents advocating the primacy of a "human identity" and denying the importance of racial identity and minimizing its importance. Instead, supporting a belief that raising a child of a different race is not dissimilar to parenting a child of the white race and that the child is prepared for adulthood if given love and security. This was a study of transracially adopted Korean children (Chartrand, 1979).

Some parents who have adopted transracially have aided their child’s identity development by deliberately teaching their child to see themselves as members of their racial group; providing playmates of similar racial background; socializing with adults from their child’s culture; living in integrated neighborhoods; emphasizing black history and culture to the child; perceiving the child as racially different; willing to confront existing racial norms; promoting black heroes; and observing the importance that skin color and social classification may play for the child (Morin, 1977; Robertson, 1975).

Throughout the different studies, the hypotheses were that there would be no difference in the reported levels of self-esteem between children in-racially and transracially adopted (McRoy & Zurcher, 1982, 1983, 1984; Watson, Johnson & Shireman, 1987; Bagley, 1993). The findings were equally uniform indicating "no significant difference was found in the self-esteem scores of the two respondent groups" (McRoy ET AL., 1984). The relationship between self-esteem and racial identity appears to be consistently believed and portrayed, quantitatively, as disassociated. Qualitatively, there appears to be grounds for further investigation.

Uniform within each of the studies was the tendency to dismiss maladjustment of the adoptee as having any relationship to the transracial adoption itself. "When problems did emerge, in the adolescent years, no apparent cause for this appeared in the previously collected data on the adoptive family" (Bagley, 1993). "While Feigelman and Silverman did find that a larger proportion (31%) of black children adopted by white families had higher maladjustment scores than white children adopted by white parents (2%), their analysis indicated that the age at placement may have been the crucial determinant of the adjustment score, rather than the type of adoptive placement," "But in none of these cases could we adduce factors in the adoption or in the fact of being a black child in a Caucasian family as having any casual significance in this maladjustment" (Johnson, Shireman & Watson, 1987).

Mikawa and Boston found that in evaluating the psychological characteristics of adopted children and their adjustment that emotional difficulties and maladjustment came from the difficulties in the parent-child relationship and not the adoption in and of itself (1968). This would suggest that differing racial and or cultural configurations between the parent and the adoptee could be one of the difficulties in the parent-child relationship that needs to be worked through particularly as the child seeks biculturalism. This is further demonstrated through the 1979 study results found by Chartrand. This study of white parents’ adjustment to parenting their newly adopted Korean children found that race indeed was something that they were not adequately prepared for. This was found to be a major concern likely to impact the adjustment of the child and the new family unit.

According to theorists Erik Erikson the concept of self-esteem and mastery during the school-age years is largely a product of "industry" and "inferiority." For children to develop a sense of mastery or self-esteem, they need to feel good about themselves and their ability to positively effect their surroundings. As children struggle with finding ways to say, "I can" versus "I can’t" or "I understand" in approaching tasks and developing relationships with peers, they incorporate their successes and failures into a self-concept and then place a value on themselves based upon this calculation. These same school-aged children attempt to incorporate into their equations of self-worth their understanding of their adoption and all of its intricacies. With the addition of this element into the equation, children in this stage commonly show significant changes in adjustment to adoption; and a ceding of positive feelings towards adoption often gives way to ambivalence (Brodzinsky, Schechter & Henig, 1992). For the transracially adopted child in this stage, the tasks, stresses, and challenges compound this equation and may make it a more difficult period (Helwig & Ruthven, 1990).

The importance of self-esteem in psychological development and adjustment has been given considerable attention in research. Psychologist Stanley Coopersmith studied school-aged boys with high self-esteem. He found that boys with high self-esteem were more independent, creative, assertive, socially outgoing, popular, confident and nonconforming than boys with low self-esteem. He was also able to develop a list of maternal factors that appeared to foster the positive self-esteem of the boys in his study. According to Coopersmith, boys with high self-esteem had mothers who:

1. are more accepting and affectionate toward their children;

2. take an interest in their children’s activities and friends;

3. are generally more attentive to their children;

4. set clear limits on behavior, enforcing rules in a firm and decisive manner;

5. punish their children by denying privileges rather than by using physical punishment or withdrawal of affection and;

6. allow their children greater individual expression, including a say in making family plans and setting their own bedtimes (1967).

These suggestions become increasingly important for the parents of the transracially adopted child who will likely be challenged more by the biracial and potentially bicultural differences in the home. The parents will need to allow their child to express him/her self within the cultural context of their particular race. Parents will do best when they are accepting and unconditionally affectionate towards their children and promote biculturalism through leadership and participation. In the transracial family, the extent to which family members function in the "two worlds" of the different cultures in the home can determine the amount and areas of potential conflict between individual family members (Velasquez, McClure, & Benavides, 1979).

Erik Erickson’s major focus on the adjustment of and formation of identity is during his "identity" versus "role confusion" stage, ages 13 to 19. Here the ability to say "I can" versus "I can’t" as components of mastery and self-esteem manifests itself in the adolescents’ ability to fit in and to make sense of who they are or what their role is in the order of things. An excerpt from the book, "Being Adopted: The Life Long Search For Self," highlights the following example of the transracial adolescent struggling in this stage of development: "‘I look black, but I can’t even dance,’ complains Daniel, who is now eighteen. ‘I’m not interested in rap music; I don’t like to hang out.’ Daniel has accepted his parents’ mainstream, middle-class values, and he says the blacks in school consider him ‘an Oreo--black on the outside, white on the inside’" (1992). This section continues on to outline how Daniel had taken on values which were "more white than black" and highlighted the difficulty of not being accepted by either the white or black community of students. The potential ensuing "identity crisis" as coined by Erikson, leaves persons seriously confused when attempting to discern the answers to, "Who am I?" or "Who will I become?" and the like.

As noted throughout this chapter, all white neighborhoods and schools, with little contact with same-race institutions tended not to provide environments conducive to answering questions or providing clarity for the transracially adopted child around issues of identity formation. The literature reviewed in this section tended to have results which presented self-esteem in transracial and in-racial placements as producing equally positive results. Qualitatively, the identity developmental experiences of transracial adoptees tended to lean towards greater challenges for the transracial adoptee versus the in-racial adoptee.

Suggestions to Increase Likelihood of Successful Adoption Experience

“White adoptive parents should be capable of realistically perceiving the child’s racial heritage as different from their own, and they should be willing to make changes conducive to the child’s development of a positive racial identity.  These changes might include moving to an integrated neighborhood and enrolling the child in an integrated school, thus providing the child with opportunities to interact with black role models and to have relationships with black peers.  Moreover, the child’s racial identity could be served by the parents’ establishing sustained social relationships with black families” (Anderson, Lauderdale, McRoy & Zurcher, 1982).

One key suggestion to increase the likelihood of a successful adoption experience is to utilize support group services for both parents and the adoptee.  A number of different types of support groups have been successful in reducing the adjustment tension caused by the addition of a new family member to the home.  Pannor and Nerlove used short-term educative therapy groups successfully to explore identity formation, and other “topics that were frequently avoided...children sensed that raising certain questions threatened or embarrassed the parents because they aroused feelings that the parents were unable to handle or because the parents simply were not prepared to deal with the questions” (1977).

Rathbun and Kolodny used group work with white parents who adopted Chinese girls from Hong Kong.  The stated concern of the parents was how to parent the girls in a way that would adequately prepare them for their social reality as “a member of a minority group while simultaneously attempting to help...[her] become emotionally a part of a family that is part of the dominant majority.” Additionally, the parents were concerned about the “children’s dual culture and racial background.” Because of the parent’s ability to speak collectively about the common concerns, they were better prepared to cope with them (1967).

Another suggestion found throughout the literature to support the likelihood of a successful adoption experience was to assess the would-be adopter(s) through the use of a psychiatric evaluation to determine motives and suitability of the adopter(s).  One author, Inker, advocating for the use of a psychiatric assessment indicated that a child’s interests in an adoption proceeding cannot  properly be ascertained without social and medical information gleaned through this process (1971).  Bieder proposes that a psychiatric evaluation, although often resisted by prospective adoptive candidates and social service organizations, is “clearly in the best interests of the children to be adopted” (1971). 

As children develop and grow older, the concept of race becomes cognitively less abstract and race in interpersonal relationships becomes more of a salient factor (Katz, 1982).  For this reason, older children are more likely to have more intact senses of identity which may include a sense of cultural enrootedness.  It may, therefore, be more difficult for an older child of color to be incorporated into a family which is not of the same race or culture (Offord, Aponte & Cross, 1969; Johnson, Shireman & Watson, 1987).  As indicated earlier, maladjustment has less to do with adoption itself and more to do with the interpersonal relationships between the adoptee and the adopting parent(s) (Mikawa & Boston, 1968).  Part of what may be this interpersonal relationship conflict may be conflicting cultural view points or weltanschauung based upon the differing social realities aided by racism.

Transracial adoptees often report that once leaving home, they feel that they do not fit or belong in either the African American community or the majority white community.  Even though possibly feeling more accepted by the African American community, African American transracially adoptees sometimes do not know the cultural subtleties that allow them to feel and operate comfortably as other members of the same community does.  This is one reason why race and culture cannot be ignored (Neal, 1996).  Howe reports that “the key to successful living as a minority person in a discriminating, denigrating society is to have positive affirmation with others like oneself, from whom one can gain support and affirmation and learn coping skills” (1994).

The full thesis has not been published here as it is under revision, however if more information is desired, please e-mail me at

This is a excerpt from my masters thesis on transracial adoption. -Robert O'Connor MSW, LGSW