Adopting a Child From a Different Culture, Ethnicity, or Race

Transracial adoption is where a child of color (Asian, Black, Native American, Latino) is placed with a white family.

Decades ago, child welfare professionals believed it best to place children in same-race families. In their view, this was best for the adopted child's identity development and self-esteem.

One example is the Indian Child Welfare Act. Under this Act, there is a preference for placing Native American children into adopted families with the same racial background. This Act has the best interests of American Indian (Native American) children in mind. One goal is to promote the stability and security of Native American tribes and families.

Despite this effort to care for children's cultural identities, the outcomes were severe for children of color. Children of color waited longer for adoption out of the foster care system than other children. This was especially true for African American children.

Congress attempted to fix this with the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) in 1994 (amended by the Interethnic Adoption Provisions of 1996). This child welfare legislation aimed to reduce the number of children in the foster-care system waiting for adoption.

This article will explore the legal issues that surround adopting a child of a different race, ethnicity, or cultural background.

Multiethnic Placement Act

Adoptive parents have many choices when they decide to expand their families. One option is adopting a child of another race or ethnic background. Some prospective adoptive parents are confident they want to adopt a child who looks like them. Others are open to creating a multiracial, multiethnic, or multicultural family.


Discrimination with the child welfare system, including adoption, is illegal. It is unlikely that any racial classification would survive the strict scrutiny of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

Despite this, however, child welfare professionals once preferred to place children into adoptive families of the same race. Interracial adoptions were not always pursued. This meant that adoption professionals put white children with white families; Black children with Black families; and Hispanic children with Hispanic families.

These policies reflected a few core beliefs, including:

  • Children's needs were related to their racial identity or cultural background
  • Children would be more comfortable in families with the same ethnic or cultural background
  • Children raised in families resembling them would have better self-esteem and be better prepared for racism
  • Children had a right to have these needs met


The Multiethnic Placement Act helped change these policies. Under this Act, public adoption agencies could not use race, color, or natural origin in placement. The Act also required public agencies to expand diversity among adoptive and foster parents.

Today, it is common for adoptive families to represent the overall diversity of the United States. This doesn't eliminate the needs of transracial families or transracially adopted children. It means these families and family members need more support.

Multicultural Adoptions

There are many paths to adopting a child of a different race into an adoptive home.

International Adoptions

One way is through international adoptions. In international or intercountry adoptions, parents based in the U.S. adopt children from other countries. Intercountry adoptions are a complex process that involves the U.S. Department of State. It also involves the Department of Immigration.

Domestic Adoptions

One way of expanding a family culturally is through domestic adoption. Domestic adoption is a different type of adoption, with different sub-types.

One sub-type is open adoption. In an open adoption, all parties, including the birth parents, know each other. Sometimes, the birth parents, or birth mothers, selected the adoptive parents. In open adoptions, the parents can decide on the level of contact they want in the future. This can range from email updates to periodic visits.

This is not the case in closed adoptions. In closed adoptions, the parents rarely meet. The birth records are sealed, and there is no contact after placement.

Domestic adoptions also include children in the foster care system. Some foster parents decide to adopt a child they are fostering. Other parents choose to adopt a foster child they do not know. In either case, the adoptive parents must work with social workers throughout the process.

Multicultural Families

Transracial adoptees face unique challenges. Here are a few potential scenarios:

  • A Salvadorean boy adopted into a home with white parents in New England is his school's only child of color. He is taunted for being different.
  • An African girl in an African American family feels her heritage and culture are overlooked so she would fit in.
  • The biracial Korean adoptee in the Jewish home felt uncomfortable at religious gatherings and struggled with her faith.

Adjusting as a Family

Adoptive parents who adopt a child from a different culture, race, or ethnic background should work to make the child's birth culture a part of their family life. This can mean:

  • Joining multicultural support groups
  • Attending religious services
  • Incorporating food and festivals into family life
  • Taking lessons in the child's birth language
  • Enrolling the child in a diverse school
  • Finding transcultural role models for the child
  • Discussing racial issues as a family

Get Help

Adoption is complex, but all children benefit from being in a stable family. Racial discrimination in adoption is against the law. For more legal information on adopting a child of a different race, culture, or ethnic background, speak to a local family law attorney.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • It is a good idea to have an attorney for complex adoptions
  • An attorney can ensure you meet all legal requirements and that your adoption is finalized appropriately
  • An attorney can help protect the best interests of adoptive children, adoptive families, and birth parents
  • For simple adoptions, you may be able to do the paperwork on your own or by using an agency

Get tailored advice at any point in the adoption process. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

 Find a local attorney

Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Adopting a child is an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and make sure your children are provided for. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

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