‘Nothing to fear’ say couples who’ve adopted across racial lines. ‘They’re all special kids.’
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Can a black child be happy in a white family? Ever since the first transracial adoption took place more than 60 years ago, a plethora of studies have investigated that question. And the answer has almost always been a resounding “yes.”
Yet, at every adoption agency across the country, there continues to be a great need for families who are willing to open their hearts and homes to local children of a different race.
As Jan Lewis, president of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, said, “We’re always looking for that loving family.”
Read on to meet three families from our archdiocese who chose to embrace the difference through transracial adoptions.
And are very glad they did.
Meet the Humphreys family
“At first, they didn’t seem to realize they were different,” said Dinah Humphreys, referring to her three youngest children.
“They thought they were white. I remember distinctly saying to each of them, ‘Well, look in the mirror. What color is your skin?’ Then they realized they’re black.”
When Steve and Dinah Humphreys, members of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, first started their family, they went through a local agency and adopted Caucasian twin boys: Drew and Davis, now 17.
At that time, they hadn’t considered adopting outside their race. But as the twins approached school age, the couple knew they wanted a big family, and another Caucasian child wasn’t possible without a costly private adoption.
“After two Caucasian children, you can’t do anymore through agencies like that,” said Dinah.
The couple was unsure about the option of transracial adoption. Then one day at work, Dinah, a nurse, saw a patient who cared for two biracial children.
“They were the cutest little two- and four-year-old boys. And I thought, ‘Yeah, I could love them,’” she recalled. “That was when we started thinking about it.”
The Humphreyses were present when their daughter Liz, now 11, was born. She is biracial.
“I remember holding Liz and her being against my skin and the difference,” said Dinah.
But it didn’t take long to fall in love, or to adjust to the attention a biracial baby was bound to elicit.
“I’d be at the pool and people would say, ‘Your baby’s so tan already,’” said Dinah.
When Liz was two, Steve and Dinah got another call from the agency. A black boy had been born, and his mother couldn’t keep him.
The family immediately went to the hospital where they met their third son, Will, who is now nine years old.
With three boys and one girl, they felt almost complete and decided to leave any more additions to the family to chance.
“We didn’t formally put in to adopt another one,” explained Dinah. “But we said, ‘If you get a girl, we’ll take her.’”
Mary, who is now eight, was born with neonatal hepatitis. She was in the ICU for a month. But she recovered completely and became the final addition to the family.
As transracial adoption has become more common, the Humphreyses feel they stand out less, but they still occasionally receive words of encouragement from total strangers.
‘We’ve had numerous times when people have come up to us and said, ‘God bless you for doing that,’ just out of the blue,” said Steve. “It’s always been good, positive reinforcement.”
“But I don’t think of it that way,” he added. “I think of it just as they are our children. Once they’re part of the family, then I just love them and adore them.”
As the family has grown together, they’ve found the challenges of transracial adoption to be few and mostly positive. The most difficult, said Dinah, is the girls’ hair.
“You’re very conscious of being a white mother with a black child, and you don’t want their hair to look bad,” she said. “I’ve learned to do the chemical relaxer, but I never got down the cornrows.”
The couple said an important step in transracial adoption is accepting the fact that your family is changed forever.
“You have to be open to the idea that this child may have black friends, black boyfriends, black girlfriends, may marry a black person,” said Dinah. “You just have to know that you are a mixed family.”
What’s harder to prepare for is the possibility that one of your children will be hurt by racism.
“I’ve talked to them about — you will be treated differently in certain situations,” said Dinah. “I have some concern about Will. What if he doesn’t fit in — if he isn’t black enough?”
“I think the fear for me is that maybe my feelings will be hurt when someday they are hurt with racism,” said Steve. “I fear that moment will come. So I’m still preparing myself for that, and how I’ll react.”
Caring so deeply for these black children has brought with it a deeper concern for, and awareness of, black issues in general.
“It has helped me become more accepting of black culture and more aware of black issues in our country,” said Steve. “It’s opened my eyes to the difficulties they’ve had to overcome — the pain and suffering they’ve had to endure for equal rights.”
The Humphreys family would encourage anyone thinking about adoption to consider adopting outside their race.
“I just think go with your heart. There’s nothing to fear from it,” said Steve. “They’re all special kids.”
“And if you pray, God provides what you need,” he added. “There may be difficult issues, but you find the strength to endure.”
Meet the Jackson family
“They call it the ‘triangular stare,’” said Kristi Jackson.
“It’s the lady in church that sees him and looks up at me,” she said, “then leans forward to look past me to see what my husband looks like — she’s just kind of looking and wondering what happened there.”
Church of the Ascension, Overland Park, parishioners Jay and Kristi Jackson, like other families involved in transracial adoptions, don’t mind the curious glances.
“I don’t feel uncomfortable,” said Kristi. “I feel proud to have him.”
“We love our son,” added Jay. “He’s just beautiful and one of the greatest blessings in our life.”
The Jacksons’ life together has been a series of blessings. They met when Jay, a member of the bone-marrow registry, matched a young boy in need of a life- saving transplant.
“Kristi was my nurse,” explained Jay. “She did my bone marrow collection. I asked her out the next day.”
The couple married and, because Jay is the product of an adoption, they didn’t hesitate to choose that option when they couldn’t have children of their own.
“My parents are the people who raised me,” said Jay. “From my experience, it was comfortable to consider adoption.”
They first adopted their daughter Sydney, who is Caucasian.
“And it made me feel good walking down the street, that you couldn’t tell she was adopted,” recalled Kristi.
“It made me feel normal. That’s one reason why we preferred a Caucasian child.”
Sydney’s adoption was attorney- assisted. The Jacksons went the same route when they adopted again. But this time, they were in for a little surprise.
“When we accepted the match with the birth mother, we were under the impression the baby was going to be Caucasian,” said Kristi. “After we accepted, we found out it could be black.”
The Jacksons had the opportunity to back out of the adoption, but chose to go through with it instead.
“We said, ‘That’s fine, we’re going to do it,’” said Kristi. “And now that we have him, I don’t know any reason why we would have been hesitant.”
More challenges were ahead, however. Their new son, Ian, had several birthmarks, which indicated a genetically inherited disorder, neurofibromatosis, in which the nerve tissue grows tumors.
“We just have to wait for another sign before they can make the diagnosis,” said Kristi. “It can show itself in different ways and different severities.”
But even this setback didn’t give the Jacksons second thoughts.
“It’s like, ‘If I did have this biological child, would I leave him at the hospital if I found out he had this condition?’ No, I wouldn’t,” explained Kristi. “Once we accepted the match, we knew we were in it to the end.”
Ian is a perfect fit for the family as far as his big sister is concerned. She clearly adores him and, until recently, didn’t notice he was a different color.
“One day a little three-year-old saw Ian and then looked at Jay and me and she just spoke up and said, ‘You can’t have a brown baby!’” recalled Kristi. “Of course, her mother was mortified.”
“I don’t think Sydney noticed the color at all until then,” she said. “After that, she started asking questions. She would see someone speaking Spanish in the grocery store and say, ‘What color is she?’”
The Jacksons’ extended family and friends were eager to welcome Ian into the fold. Even Jay’s father, who had been raised in the South when segregation was society’s rule, approved.
“My dad passed away shortly after Ian was born,” said Jay. “He mentioned before he died that he was really happy for us. And that was important to hear.”
The couple’s greatest hope is that the rest of the world will be as accepting of their son.
“You know, when you’re a teenager, you want to feel like you fit in, and I just worry about him,” confessed Kristi.
“Being adopted, that’s one thing that makes him different,” she said. “Being biracial, that will make him feel different, and having this condition will make him feel different.”
“That’s something we’ve talked about a number of times,” added Jay. “But as I look back, I think we all have the same problems. I think we all worry about whether or not we’re going to be accepted.”
The Jacksons’ advice to anyone thinking of adoption is to be prepared for an emotional roller coaster.
“You have to be very strong emotionally to go through the adoption process,” said Jay. “But now we have these two beautiful children, and we look back and know they were meant to be ours.”
And the couple has no reservations about recommending transracial adoption.
“Put your fears aside and, once you have that baby it will seem as natural as any other child,” said Kristi. “I don’t have the experience of having my own biological child, but I can’t imagine loving him any differently.”
Meet the Leis Family
“It’s a blessing to my other children,” said Katie Leis. “We try to seek stories about African-American children, and we make an effort to learn about black saints, more than we would if we didn’t have Leah. And that just makes me thankful that we do.”
When Prince of Peace, Olathe, parishioners Katie and Patrick Leis married, they knew it might be a challenge to have children. Katie has lupus, which makes it difficult for her to carry a baby to term.
After two miscarriages, the couple decided to become foster parents while they considered adoption.
Barely a month after they finished foster- parent training, Katie found out she was pregnant. Two months later, Leah, a one- year-old black girl, was placed with them as a foster child.
Eventually Leah’s mother, a teenager in foster care, also moved in with the couple while she finished high school.
“She lived with us for 13 months,” said Katie, “and for this whole time we thought the two of them would be reintegrated. We did not think we would adopt Leah.”
So the Leis house was already a busy one when Katie gave birth to their first child, Adam. But before he was a year old, an adoption agency called with the news that a birth family had chosen Patrick and Katie as adoptive parents.
“And that’s how we came to have our daughter Claire,” explained Katie.
But their story doesn’t end there. Leah’s birth mother had indeed finished school and moved out on her own, but the plans for Leah to move in with her mother didn’t materialize.
When parental rights were terminated on both Leah’s parents, in fact, the Leises began proceedings to adopt Leah.
“They think our adoption will be finalized sometime in October or the beginning of November,” said Katie.
In the meantime, this past June, the couple welcomed their fourth child when Katie gave birth to a healthy little girl they named Madeline.
The four siblings are close in more than just age. And though Leah’s skin color may be different, no one seems to care.
“In our house we don’t see a difference in our children that are adopted and that are biological,” said Katie. “We just love them all and they’re all our kids.”
Katie, who intends to home school, enjoys helping her children share in Leah’s black culture. But both she and Patrick consider Leah’s primary culture the one she shares with her siblings.
“We believe her culture is Catholic first,” said Katie. “And so we absolutely feel an obligation for her to know about her Catholic culture.”
The Leises understand transracial adoption is a difficult choice for many families.
“My husband grew up in a town of 11,000 people in southeast Kansas,” said Katie. “It was a big adjustment for his family, his town, and the people in his life, to have a black child in their lives.”
“It is a hard decision to make,” she added. “You want to say it doesn’t matter what people think, and we’ll just do what’s right.
“But it’s not really that easy, and it affects the child, too.”
Katie hopes people who are curious about transracial adoption will feel comfortable talking to her or other families who have children from a different race.
“I think a lot of times people are hesitant to ask questions,” she said. “I mean, it’s very obvious that she’s a black child and we’re white parents, and most of us want to be adoption advocates.
“We want people to feel like they can ask questions and seek out the answers they need.”
If they adopt again, Katie said they would adopt another black child. But for now, they’re keeping busy with the gifts God has given them. And they’re grateful Leah will soon be a permanent member of the family.
“People say all the time, ‘She’s so lucky to be in your family,’” said Katie.
“And I think, ‘She’s no luckier than any of our other children,’” Katie added. “And we’re just as blessed as she is.”