Why Are American Babies Being Adopted Abroad?

updated 06/06/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/2005 01:00AM

Nadine and Christoph Priebe longed for a family. So, after a year of trying for a baby, they decided to adopt. In June 2004 the Priebes contacted Adoption-Link, a private Oak Park, Ill., agency, met with a social worker and were deemed suitable parents. This spring they got a life-changing phone call: A little boy was available. On April 1 the Priebes met the 2-week-old baby boy they named Noel Pascal. "The first time I held him, I thought, 'You did it. This is your baby,' " says Christoph, 27, a fitness club manager. "This is your family."

It's the happy ending would-be parents hope for. What makes it different is that the fair-skinned Priebes are from Germany and Noel is African-American. Instead of growing up in the Midwest, he'll adopt his parents' nationality and live in Neu Ulm, (pop. 160,000), a virtually all-white Bavarian town. Nadine, 27, a secretary, plans to join a support group for biracial families and introduce herself to a local African hairdresser to get advice about how to look after Noel's curly hair. "We don't know how to care for it," she says. "Maybe we can become friends."

Americans have long been used to couples in the U.S. adopting children from overseas. But few realize that each year hundreds of children—nearly all African-American or biracial—leave this country to be raised by foreign parents. Although some other wealthy Western nations permit their children to be adopted abroad, in practice it rarely happens. In the U.S., though, looser federal regulations allow even newborns to leave its borders. That may soon change: The federal government is expected to ratify an international treaty that would require adoption agencies to make every effort to place children in their birth countries before allowing them to go abroad. But hoping to get in before "the gates shut," as one adoption agency director puts it, more and more would-be parents from Europe and Canada are rushing to take home African-American babies. "It's happening without people really noticing," says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a think tank devoted to adoption issues. "As a country, we should examine if we're doing everything we can to find homes for these children here."

At the very least, the tiny exodus raises provocative questions in a nation used to seeing itself as a haven for international adoptees. "Americans adopt children from other countries because of war, famine or because they are boarded in orphanages," says Toni Oliver, CEO of Roots Adoption Agency in Atlanta, which places black children with African-American families. "Why would we be exporting our kids?"

The answers lie partly in this country's tortured racial politics. Among many blacks and whites, a powerful stigma against interracial adoption remains. And while more African-American children are getting adopted, they remain difficult to place. "The adoption hierarchy reflects our society," says Margaret Fleming, the director of Adoption-Link, which has sent 74 black and biracial kids abroad. "At the top are blond, blue-eyed girls. At the bottom are black boys." At adoption conferences, Fleming says, "white families look at our babies, smile, then make a beeline for the agency that places Russian, Chinese or Guatemalan children." In contrast, would-be parents from Canada and Europe—where racial baggage is different and adoption can be more difficult than in the United States—are often eager to parent black children.

The Priebes of Germany would have faced a long wait to adopt in their own country, where a low birthrate and generous government support for single mothers leave few children wanting for homes. "We didn't care about the color of skin," says Christoph. "We just wanted a child from a first-world country because of its health-care system." The couple have few illusions about what lies ahead. "Noel is a baby now, and everyone will say, 'Oh, he is so cute,' " says Christoph. "But when he goes to school, I can see somebody saying, 'Hey, why do you have black skin?' " Nadine believes they're ready for it: "If we give him a good home and are good parents, he'll know he can come to us," she says. "We can handle it."

Still, Oliver, who calls international adoption "covert racism," and some others in the black community say the emphasis should be in finding children good homes here, not shipping them out of the country. "There are African-American families interested and willing to adopt," she says. "But they are ignored. Agencies [that arrange international adoptions] look for families that can pay their fees."

Not so, says Adoption-Link's Fleming. "We fall over ourselves for black parents," she says. While it's true that adopting an African-American child is less expensive for foreign couples—typically half or less than the cost of adopting babies from Russia or China—the ultimate power in U.S. adoptions lies with birth mothers, who usually decide who will raise their children. At the agencies handling international placements, those mothers frequently choose foreign couples. "Other countries maybe presented to them as more tolerant," says Tara Gutterman, executive director of Philadelphia's Adoption Arc. "Or they may feel, 'Hey, anyplace is better than here.' "

Sometimes it's even simpler than that. "I liked them," says a 44-year-old Chicago teacher who considered 20 couples, some of them black, before choosing Glenn and Laura Perrin from Penticton, B.C., to raise her daughter Macy, now 4. "Being Canadian was never a factor." The Perrins also have two other African-American children—Hannah, 6, and Charlie, 17 months, and say they never hear racist comments about their family. "The only time was in Chicago," says Laura, 38, who works part-time as an accountant for Glenn's orthodontics practice. "This Caucasian man walked by and said, 'You should stick to your own kind.' "

To keep their children connected to their roots, the Perrins decorate their house with African art and seek out African-American role models in popular culture. They also keep in touch with two of the three birth mothers (one has not been responsive). "Hannah just discovered that she's different," says Laura. "She said, 'Hey, my skin's a different color.' But not 'why?' She knows why. We tell them about their background."

For many birth moms, the willingness to maintain such links is key. Sonya Norsworthy was 21 years old, single and preparing for college in Houston when she decided to offer the baby she was carrying for adoption. "Black families were the first ones I looked at because the agency gave me those books first," says Norsworthy, 33. "But I didn't feel a connection." Then they suggested Brenda and Gary Birch, a white couple from Vancouver. "Brenda was a communications major, like me. Gary is a quadriplegic and sensitive to discrimination," she says. Eleven years later she and daughter Lillian visit and even vacation with her birth child Isaac and the Birches.

The Priebes of Germany haven't yet contacted Noel's birth parents. "We are too afraid," Christoph admits. Over the next six months, they'll meet with a social worker and send several letters with photos to Adoption-Link to show how Noel is adjusting. If all goes well, the adoption will be finalized in October. They are already saving up the $15,000 needed to adopt again. "When I look into my wife's happy face," he says, "I know that Noel isn't the last baby."

Anne-Marie O'Neill. Joanne Fowler in New York City and Ron Arias in Penticton

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