• May 2002
  • Vol. 3, No. 4

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Video Explores Transracial Adoption in America


(K. Milford, Big Mouth Productions, Inc.)
Phil Bertselsen with his parents Agnes and Roy Bertelsen

Just as immigration has made America a melting pot, transracial adoption has blended many American families together. A new video by Phil Bertelsen takes a closer look at how these families are faring from a personal point of view—his own adoption as a black child into a white family.

The one-hour film, which aired on public television stations nationwide in February 2002, is directed and narrated by Bertelsen. It tells the story of his adoption as a 4-year-old boy in the 1970s by a New Jersey couple who had already adopted children from other races and had biological children. A movement to end transracial adoption marked the period. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers declared that placing a black child in a white home was "cultural genocide" and a "diabolical trick." In 1994, Congress passed the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA), which prohibits an agency that receives Federal assistance from delaying or denying the placement of a child on the basis of the race, color, or national origin of the adoptive or foster parent, or the child involved. Recent research suggests that transracial adoption is a viable means of providing stable homes for waiting children and is not detrimental for the adoptee.

Bertelsen's parents did not discuss racial differences with their children growing up, but they could not insulate them from the prejudices of the outside world. They relate one story of being refused entry into a private campground because of their "rainbow coalition of children." Bertelsen learned that race matters. In a parallel story, Bertelsen introduces his sister Aline's two transracially adopted sons and finds history repeating itself. They are growing up in a predominantly white, middle class community in Arizona. He takes his 11-year-old nephew on a trip to his home in Harlem, New York, to help him develop his African American identity but finds him disinterested. "There I was force feeding my nephew tidbits of what I've come to know black culture to be but, like him, I was outside looking in on what I considered to be my own culture and community," states Bertelsen.

The film also chronicles the adoption in 2001 of a two-month-old African American infant named David by a white Chicago-area couple. It takes the viewer through the open adoption process, including interviews with Margaret Fleming, the Executive Director of Adoption-Link, who facilitated the adoption. The majority of adoptions in her agency are by white parents in an area where black children available for adoption outnumber white children by 4 to 1. According to Fleming, in the "adoption hierarchy" or demand by adoptive parents, the blond, blue-eyed healthy baby girl is at the top and the black male is at the very bottom. She believes that parents adopting transracially should go into it with their eyes wide open, so she requires enrollment in formal training to work through the issues involved. "There is a beginning of the process, when they say to me, 'Color doesn't matter.'…but it should matter…It's got to matter so that you can do a good job of helping your child learn to feel good about himself or herself," says Fleming. The vignette concludes with an emotional exchange between the adoptive parents and biological mother at the point of legal surrender, a time Fleming describes as "very painful" and a "holy moment."

Bertelsen's reunion with his foster mother and brother is also featured. It brings back memories of his toddler years, which had been erased by his closed adoption. Bertelsen hopes that newly adopted children like baby David in the film can learn from experiences like his. While he is encouraged by the trend towards cultural awareness and open adoptions, he feels there is much farther to go in order to meet the needs of transracially adopted children.

To order a copy of the video, contact Big Mouth Productions at 646-230-6228 or visit: http://www.bigmouthproductions.com

Related Items

Read "Study Considers Role of Birth Culture in Adjustment of Transracial Adoptees" in the November/December 2001 issue of the Children's Bureau Express.

Visit the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse for the following related items (http://naic.acf.hhs.gov):

  • Transracial and Transcultural Adoption factsheet
  • Transracial Adoption Statistics (Note: this is no longer available)

Search the NAIC bibliographic database for other items related to transracial adoption (http://basis1.calib.com/BASIS/chdocs/docs/naicweb/SF).

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