BATON ROUGE, La. — After becoming certified adoptive parents, Sonja and Keith Patton of Baker waited almost a year to receive their first child.
They were living in Hawaii, and the state adoption agency there wasn’t sure if two mixed-race parents would want a child who didn’t look like them. “I told them I didn’t care if the child was blue, green, yellow, red or from Mars,” Sonja said.
A few weeks later, a “very Asian-looking” Zoe came into their lives. The Pattons adopted her and moved to Baton Rouge. They later adopted Zoe’s sister, Angelina, and recently finalized the adoption of a 10-month-old boy, who is black.
State and nonprofit agencies are encouraging minority families to consider adoption, as more black and mixed race children are in need of homes.
November is National Adoption Month, designed to draw attention to children who are awaiting adoption after their parents either gave up or lost parental rights.
In fiscal year 2008, 582 Louisiana children were adopted from foster care — 63 percent of them white and 37 percent black. As of June, about 300 children in state custody were available for adoption — 40 percent are white and 60 percent are black.
The state Department of Social Services takes children into custody because of abuse or neglect. They are kept in foster care, a temporary home, until the state can decide whether the child can be returned to their home.
If the child cannot return home, the state seeks the termination of parental rights and the child is available for adoption.
Federal law now let’s the state place children with relatives without terminating rights, said Kaaren Hebert, DSS’s assistant secretary of the Office of Community Services.
“We know that kids placed with family members do better than if they have to be placed with strangers,” she said.
Hebert’s office oversees the state’s foster care and adoption programs.
Adoption officials say that a disproportionate number of children up for adoption are black males.
In Louisiana, statistics show that black males generally are more susceptible to negative outcomes, such as dropping out of high school and incarceration.
Michelle and Aristead Clayton, of Zachary, said they are set on improving the outcomes for their two adopted sons, who are black. Their son Caleb went through nine other foster placements before getting to the Claytons at age 5. The couple, who have three daughters of their own, adopted him and are fostering a 14-month-old.
Aristead Clayton, a former professional boxer, said children who don’t have a family to guide them are at a disadvantage.
“I look at the boys and am so thankful God gave them to us instead of the path they could have been on,” Michelle Clayton said.
Kathleen Ledesma, national project director for AdoptUsKids, a federally administered database of children up for adoption nationwide, said more than 30 percent of all children up for adoption are black. That’s double the percentage in the general population.
Of the 4,000 children listed on the AdoptUsKids Web site, 47 percent are black, Ledesma said. But only 12 percent of the families who are licensed for adoptions and registered on the site are black, she said.
Louisiana’s social service agency is looking at several uses, including recruitment, for about $1.2 million it received from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for exceeding past years’ adoption numbers.
Hebert said that instead of a statewide push for families of a certain race or demographic, the agency is asking its regional offices to look at its adoption population and target their recruitment efforts on that need.
“We want them to look at who are the children they have and recruit for those specific children,” she said.
Federal data shows that in some states, including Louisiana, the number of black children adopted from foster care is on a steady decline.
Ledesma said there have not been scientific studies on the change but there are some theories, such as the hurdle of encouraging white families to adopt children of another race, she said.
But Ledesma and Janice Allen with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge said the people’s ideas of a “traditional” family are changing and more families are looking beyond race.
“We have a mixed race president,” Allen said. “People are moving forward and more global thinking.”
Changing the mindset and culture of black families can be equally challenging, parents and officials said.
Sonja Patton said black communities have an unofficial version of foster care, with people caring for relatives or other people’s children like their own without state support.
“But they don’t give the child that sense of permanency,” Patton said.
Allen said informal placements like that could face legal complications if something goes wrong with the child or family.
“A formalized adoption is a much safer, more stable plan for the child,” Allen said.