Ethel E. Branham, The Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoptions Reflects on Its Transracial Adoption Program, 1964

Source: Viola W. Bernard Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Augustus C. Long Library, Columbia University

This photo was included in a brochure produced by the Children's Home Society of California in the mid-1970s. Like the Los Angeles Bureau of Adoptions, its efforts to provide adoption services to African-American children were chiefly devoted to locating black parents for black children.

The Los Angeles Bureau of Adoptions, founded in 1949, actively recruited African-American and Mexican adoptive parents, believing that matching was as important for minority as for white children. This large public agency also began experimenting with transracial adoptions during the 1950s. In this excerpt, Ethel Branham described that program. She clarified that the most sensitive (but not most numerous) cases involved “Negro” children requested by white couples, reported that her agency gradually moved toward greater acceptance of these adoptions, and presented their demographic characteristics in some detail. Although the long-term outcomes of transracial adoptions were unknown at the time, Branham agreed with well-known psychoanalyst Judd Marmor that “non-ethnocentric” couples and families had distinct advantages when it came to transracial family-making. Its own outcome study showed that the black children it had placed with white parents were adjusting well, but the Los Angeles agency acknowledged that transracial adoptions were, at best, only a partial solution for African-American and mixed-race children. In 1966, the Bureau became the first agency in the country to openly recruit single parents. The effort was designed largely to find permanent adoptive homes for African-American children.

The Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoptions’ experience in transracial placements substantiates the conclusion reached by Dr. Marmor that “non-ethnocentric families” are the ones which have the added ingredient that makes a “good family” better. The white family that can accept and love a Negro child is more inner-directed and emotionally independent, and for this reason, is considered, by our agency, as one of our best families. . . .

The Bureau of Adoptions has had considerable experience in transracial placements—at least a decade—which may be surprising, when one considers that we have not yet reached our fifteenth birthday. . . .

Prior to April, 1952, when Walter A. Heath became the Director of the Bureau of Adoptions, we had made very few transracial placements. Eleven Mexican-American and six American Indian children has [sic] been placed with Anglo families. Since 1953, we have not counted these types of adoptions as transracial; however, technically, they could be so considered. Neither have we included Oriental-Caucasian child placed with an Oriental family, in spite of the fact that, generally speaking, Orientals were not tolerant of non-Oriental mixtures. We made our first such placement in 1956, the next in 1957, and it was two more years before the third placement could be effected. However, in this area also, the pattern is changing.

The Bureau’s willingness to participate in this meeting comes from its experience in having made over 204 transracial placements. It should be remembered that this figure excludes the Mexican-American and American Indian children placed after 1953. The 204 placements does [sic] include: Twelve non-Caucasian but not Negro children placed with white families; 118 children—at least one-half Oriental, Malayan, Polynesian, or East Indian—who were also given new white parents; 17 other racially mixed children placed with couples who had married across racial lines, and who accepted children with an additional racial component; 4 non-Negro children placed with Negro families; 2 part-Negro children placed with couples who married across racial lines, but non-Negro; and 34 Negro children placed with 28 white families. These latter 34 placements we wish to consider today, in relation to Dr. Marmor’s paper.

The Bureau realizes that this is not a large number of placements. However, it does represent a growing maturity on the Bureau’s part. We have had other families which might have been used for some of the Negro children, but we have used them for other children who were also waiting for homes. The Bureau’s attitude has changed. We no longer think that a white family who specifically ask for a part Negro child is neurotic and, for this reason, deny their request. Now we take a more selective position of attracting these non-ethnocentric couples. . . .

The 28 families who accepted Negro children have the characteristics Dr. Marmor has described as “encompassing non ethnocentricity”. For the most part, their level of maturity has been high, as has been their capacity for frustration tolerance. However, this capacity for frustration, in several of the placements did not need to be tested in terms of the child’s racial difference, because the Negro strain was not discernible.

A close look at these families reveals a high level of intelligence; 16 fathers are college graduates; five of these have Doctorate degrees, and three Masters’ degrees. In addition, 9 have had from one to three years of college training, while only 3 have not graduated from high school. One mother is a Master of Arts; 6 others are college graduates, and 11 more have some college training; only 2 have not completed high school.

The occupations, for the most part involve working with people rather than things. They are, for example, college professors, teachers, managers, supervisors, foremen, businessmen, entertainers and a writer. The women, at the time of placement and post placement, were unemployed.

Interestingly enough, to substantiate Dr. Marmor’s theory regarding relatively non-authoritarian attitudes toward religion, eleven families were Jewish, and 8 were either Unitarian or non-denominational, 6 were Catholic, and the rest non-authoritarian Protestant.

There were 8 families which could not be considered as “room for one more”. These families had resolved their feelings around infertility and, in addition, felt that adoption was acceptance of difference, even though an adopted child might be of their own ethnic origin. The room-for-one-more families included those with from 2 to 6 natural children. Out of 10 one-child families, there was just one natural child.

Four of the families, three of whom had natural children, were foster parents for the Negro children before adopting them. . . .

These 28 families certainly are not the ones Dr. Marmor describes as being of marginal eligibility; that is, falling within the group of families that agencies at one time would not accept. Those were the days when we had arbitrary policies around age, citizenship, number of children, etc., in order to screen families out, rather than in.

The workers’ need to thoroughly face and resolve their own inter-racial ambivalence and unconscious prejudices was borne out by the fact that one adoption worker made 27.27% of these transracial placements; the next highest was 9.09%. The majority of the adoption workers have not developed the capacity or courage to operate in this controversial area, even though they may have developed skills in other types of transracial placements.

Since 1950, the Bureau has placed 1150 Negro children. Although this may sound like a very impressive number, we presently need to plan for 225 additional children, with no diminution expected in the future. . . .

At this point in the Bureau of Adoptions’ history, we desperately need to evaluate the pros and cons of these transracial adoptions. . . .

The findings presented today are relevant to current and future concerns of those in the field of adoption. Every community, every agency, may not be ready to enter into this relatively untested dimension of transracial placements. Those who feel, the test of the pie is in the tasting, will need to wait many years before these adoptions can be thoroughly evaluated. Others who are keenly sensitive to the barometric changes toward “equality for all” in the broader social area, will muster up the courage to plan creatively for all children who need adoptive placement. . . .

 

Source: Ethel E. Branham, “Transracial Adoptions: When a Good Family Is Not Good Enough,” pp. 1-4 (paper presented at the National Confernece of Social Work, May 1964), Viola Bernard Papers, Box 162, Folder 7, Archives and Special Collections, Augustus C. Long Library, Columbia University.

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
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