United States Commission on Civil Rights

September 21, 2007

Briefing The Multiethnic Placement Act: Minority Children in State Foster Care and Adoption

The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), representing public and private nonprofit, child-serving member agencies across the country, is pleased to participate in the briefing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

CWLA is an association with approximately 700 public and private nonprofit agencies drawn from all fifty states. These agencies assist more than 3.5 million abused, neglected, and vulnerable children and their families each year with a range of services. Our highest mission is to ensure the safety and well-being of children and families. We advocate for the advancement of public policy, we set and promote the standards for best practice, and we deliver superior membership services.

The CWLA vision is that every child will grow up in a safe, loving, and stable family. CWLA will lead the nation in building public will to realize this vision. We are committed to excellence in all we undertake, with an emphasis on providing services that are highly valued and that enhance the capacity and promote the success of those we serve.

As part of our mission we have developed a series of standards for the range of services and programs that make up our nation’s child welfare system. It is our goal that these standards along with our other work and services will help to improve the practice in the child welfare field and ultimately will improve the lives of the millions of children and families that are touched by the child welfare system.

Challenge for the Multiethnic Placement Act

The Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) was enacted in 1994 with a goal to promote the best interests of children by ensuring that they have permanent, safe and stable families and homes. This has been a great challenge in a system that includes more than 509,662 1 children in foster care on a given day and when approximately 117,436 2 are awaiting adoption.Of particular concern are the African American and other minority children who are dramatically over-represented at all stages of this system. The debate and concern in 1994 was that children were being denied placements due to an over reliance on policies that emphasized placements that take into account the racial and ethnic makeup of the prospective adoptive family. MEPA prohibited the use of a child’s or a prospective parent’s race, color, or national origin to delay or deny the child’s placement and required diligent efforts to expand the number of racially and ethnically diverse foster and adoptive parents. MEPA was signed into law in 1994 and later amended to clarify its intent.As summarized by the American Bar Association 3 MEPA requires three basic actions by states:
  1. It prohibits states and other entities that are involved in foster care or adoption placements, and that receive federal financial assistance under title IV-E, title IV-B, or any other federal program, from delaying or denying a child’s foster care or adoptive placement on the basis of the child’s or the prospective parent’s race, color, or national origin;
  2. It prohibits these states and entities from denying to any individual the opportunity to become a foster or adoptive parent on the basis of the prospective parent’s or the child’s race, color, or national origin; and
  3. It requires that, to remain eligible for federal assistance for their child welfare programs, states must diligently recruit foster and adoptive parents who reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the children in the state who need foster and adoptive homes.

Since the 1970s, the number of Caucasian infants available for adoption has sharply declined in the U.S. Although U.S. agencies continue to provide adoption services for infants generally, this group now constitutes but a small part of the population of children in need of adoption planning and services. By contrast, the number of children in the nation’s out-of-home care who need adoption has grown tremendously. As a result of a range of social conditions and policy changes, an increasing proportion of children in care have the goal of adoption. At the same time, these children typically have a range of challenging needs, including prenatal exposure to alcohol and other drugs, medical fragility, a history of physical or sexual abuse, or membership in a sibling group. Thousands of older children, for whom agencies traditionally have had difficulty finding placements, also await adoptive families. Children of color continue to be disproportionately represented in out-of-home care as well as among the children waiting for adoptive families.

You have asked us here today to address a number of important issues in regard to the multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA). Specifically you have asked:

  1. Whether the enactment of MEPA has removed barriers to permanency facing children involved in the child protective system;
  2. Whether transracial adoption serves the children’s best interest or does it have negative consequences for minority children, families, and communities;
  3. How effectively the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is enforcing MEPA;
  4. The impact HHS’ enforcement of MEPA has had on the efforts of prospective foster care or adoptive parents to adopt or provide foster care for minority children; and
  5. Whether the enactment of MEPA has reduced the amount of time minority children spend in foster care or wait to be adopted.

Framework for Addressing Placement Issues

A recent analysis by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that while African American children made up less than 15 percent of the overall child population based on 2000 census data, they represented 27 percent of the children who entered foster care in 2004. The GAO also found that in that same year African American children represented 34 percent of the children remaining in care at year’s end. 4Perhaps more startling is the GAO finding that African American children not only were more likely to be placed in out of home care but that each decision point in the child welfare process this disproportionality or over representation grew. In some areas of the country this overrepresentation could also be found among Native American children and Hispanic populations, depending on the county or state. 5In this light it is important to review not just that part of the child welfare system that deals with placements but to examine the entire child welfare system and services from the initial assessment provided through the protective services process, the provision of prevention services, intervention services, the placement process as well as the follow up and provision of post placement services.

Has the MEPA removed barriers to permanency? Has MEPA reduced the time minority children spend in foster care or wait to be adopted?

In recent years we have made progress in reducing the number of children in out of home care. Nationally the number of children in care has been reduced from 562,712 in 1999 to 509,662 in 2004. 6 Despite this decline, barriers to permanency remain and can be quite extensive. This is true for African American children and in particular parts of the country or parts of a state this barrier to permanency extends to some Hispanic and tribal populations.

An examination of the data shows that on September 30, 2004 there were 509,662 children in out-of-home care. Of these children approximately 34 percent were African American and 40 percent were white. 7 Overall, children were in care for an average of 30 months with a median of 17 months. 8 African American children were in foster care significantly longer than all children of other races. Specifically, African American children spent on average, about three years in foster care, while white children spent, on average about two years in foster care (Table 1)

 Table 1

Due transracial adoptions serve the children’s best interest, or does it have negative consequences?

The Child Welfare League of America firmly believes that the best interest of the child must be paramount in any decisions that surround placement and the provision of services. The CWLA Standards of Excellence for Adoption Services in section 5.2 Role of Ethnicity and Culture in Selecting an Adoptive Family for a Child states, 9

“When consistent with the child’s best interest, the agency providing adoption services should honor the birth parents’ request that a family of the same race or ethnic background adopt the child. The child’s adoption, however, should not be denied or delayed if the agency is unable to recruit adoptive parents of the child’s race or culture and adoptive parents of other cultural or racial groups are available.

All children deserve to be raised in a family that respects their cultural heritage.


In any adoption plan, the best interests of the child should be paramount. All decisions should be based on the needs of the individual child. [1.11]

If aggressive, ongoing recruitment efforts are unsuccessful in finding families of the same race or culture as the child, other families should be considered to ensure that the child’s adoptive placement is not delayed.

Assessment and preparation of a child for a transracial/ transcultural adoption should recognize the importance of culture and race to the child and his or her experiences and identifications. The adoptive family selected should demonstrate an awareness of and sensitivity to the cultural resources that may be needed after placement.”

We cannot make a general judgment that applies to all families and to all children. Determining what is in the best interest of an individual child and matching those needs with the capacities of prospective families involves a complex array of factors which are best guided by what we know through research and outcome evaluation. Since MEPA legislation was adopted limited research has been published on the outcomes of transracial adoptions. Within this limited body, the findings have been mixed and sometimes contradictory. In addition, the research focuses on children and young adults; thus little can be concluded about the long term effects of transracial adoption. Overall, the studies have failed to yield significant differences in the short-term outcomes for transracial versus in racial adoptees.

A review of the research does find positive outcomes for transracial adoptees. Transracial adoptees of color were no more likely to engage in negative social behaviors than white in racial adoptees. For example, they are no more likely to run away or use drugs. Studies also show that transracial adoptees have exhibited academic competence, another sign of positive well-being. Attributes other than race of the adoptive parents need to be examined as well. For example, when African American transracial adoptees live in integrated neighborhoods, attend integrated schools, and have parents who accept and address the race of their child, they have stronger racial identity than adoptees that live in predominately white neighborhoods and attend primarily white schools. Finally adoptive families who encourage and support the culture and heritage of the child as well as that of the adoptive family, and the child feels part of both cultures and heritages, show no significant differences compared to their white, in racial adopted peers. 10,11,12,13,14

Having cited these studies there is also some evidence of negative outcomes. Studies have shown that transracial adoptees developed their racial identity differently from in-racial adoptees. When transracial adoptees fail to identify with the culture of their adoptive parents, they experience greater psychological distress. Transracial adoptees, particularly African American adoptees, developed adjustment problems when they experienced discrimination and discomfort with their appearance. Finally if the adoptive parents fail to address the issues regarding the differences in race and culture of the adoptee and the adoptive family, the adoptee experienced appearance anxiety lasting through adulthood. 15,16,17,18

How effective is HHS in enforcing MEPA?

We understand that HHS is responding to reports of MEPA violations, and that it is working with the National Child Welfare Resource Center on Adoption to prepare additional training for States regarding MEPA. It’s also our understanding that violations in MEPA policy and practice are noted during their reviews of State programs through the Child and Family Service Reviews (CFSR’s) and Title IV-E reviews.

What is the impact HHS’ enforcement on the efforts of foster and adoptive parents to adopt or provide care for minority children? 

It is difficult to ascertain the impact of the HHS role in the enforcement of MEPA and in turn that laws impact on children and families in the child welfare system. In large part that is because the challenges are much greater than the policies around adoption and placement.

In seeking to address this issue several elements are involved. A recent analysis by the Congressional Research Services (CRS) found that overrepresentation of children of color was found at several points of the child welfare system from entry to exit. 19 As CRS noted:

“Research and other data suggest that investigations of alleged child maltreatment are more likely to involve Black children as potential maltreatment victims and that, compared to their presence in the general population, black children are disproportionately represented among the children who are found to be victims of child maltreatment. The rate of White victims of child abuse or neglect was 11.0 per 1,000 White children in the general population while the comparable rate for Black children (as well as American Indian/Alaska Native children) were significantly more likely to be among the foster care cases reviewed than to be among the in-home cases reviewed. In sum, the disproportionate representation of Black children at several entry decision points is consistent with their disproportionate representation among the population entering foster care.

At the same time, at least one large five-state study has shown that the race/ethnicity of victims is largely in proportion to the population of children investigated. This suggests that the community of reporters, ( e.g., family, friends, and neighbors, and social service, medical and school personnel) tends to over-report Black children but that once the decision to investigate is made, race/ethnicity is not an important factor in the determination of maltreatment. Nonetheless, because Black children are over-represented in the population of children investigated, a proportionate victim determination means Black children will make up a larger share of child maltreatment victims than their share of the general child population.”

The Congressional study also found that decisions to provide services in the home as opposed to out of home care was also disproportionate. The CRS found: 20

“Separate analysis of NCANDS data that looked at race/ethnicity, area poverty rate, and age in relation to removals, found that the risk of removal was highest for all income groups and race/ethnicities for children under age one. At the same time, Black infants living in counties with high poverty rates had a removal rate of 50 per 1000 black children in the population. This appears to leave them extraordinarily vulnerable compared to their Hispanic and White counterparts who had removal rates of 13 and 10 per 1000 children of their respective race/ethnic groups. Finally, race/ethnicity was found to vary significantly as a function of the type of case (in-home versus foster care) included in the aggregate sample of cases drawn for the initial round of Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs). Black children (as well as American Indian/Alaska Native children) were significantly more likely to be among the foster care cases reviewed than to be among the in-home cases reviewed. In sum, the disproportionate representation of Black children at several entry decision points is consistent with their disproportionate representation among the population entering foster care.”

The CRS has also determined that some of the same barriers and problems exist at the exit point as well as the entry point as outlined here. In short the challenge of improving permanency rates cannot be address with a change in law but requires a comprehensive effort at reform of the system. That reform must examine access to services at every step of the way.

CWLA has cited on many occasions a statistic drawn from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data Systems (NCANS) that has been consistent for several years. Of the children substantiated as abused or neglected nearly 40 percent to not receive post-investigative services. 12. There are several factors that have an impact on this figure but it is clear, far too many children and the families they are a part of are not receiving the help that might prevent a future removal.


The challenges that the Multiethnic Placement Act seeks to address cannot be met without a comprehensive approach to the challenges we face in the child welfare system. The issues laid bare by MEPA really reflect a broader concern about disproportionality across the child welfare system, and the issue of disproportionality is really the issue of a lack of national priority for the children in the child welfare system. The problems we face in our nation’s child welfare system will not be solved merely with the change of a single law or a new edict. The Child Welfare League of America may be accused again of repeating what we have said in settings similar to this. So be it.

We once again argue for a more comprehensive approach to reforming and addressing the problems found in our nation’s child welfare system. That must involve a greater partnership between the federal, state and local governments. That involves more federal dollars not simply the same dollars spent differently. It means an investment from the front end of prevention services when a family comes into contact with protective or other services; it means an investment in treatment services including greater access to Medicaid, substance abuse services and mental health services; it means greater investment in out of home care for more foster, adoptive and kinship families; and it means greater financial and technical support for these families before and after permanency is obtained. It also means investing in the development of a stronger knowledge base that guides practice and policy, and that is applied through a skilled and well-supported workforce. It means making children a national priority.


  1. Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). (2006). Special tabulation of the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS). Washington, DC: Author.
  2. Ibid.
  3. A Guide to The Muliethnic Placement Act of 1994 as amended by the Interethnic Placement Act of 1996.
  4. Government Accountability Office (GAO). (2007) African American Children in Foster Care. Washinton, DC, 20007 Author.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). (2006). Special tabulation of the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS). Washington, DC: Author.
  7. Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). (2006). Special tabulation of the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS). Washington, DC: Author.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). (2000). CWLA Standards of Excellence for Adoption Services Washington, DC: Author.
  10. McRoy, R.G. Zurcher, La.A., Lauderdale, M.L., & Anderson, R.E. (1982). Self-esteem and racial identity Model. Journal of Social Distress & the Homeless, 11 (2) 167-191.
  11. Shireman, J.F., & Johnson, P.R. (1986) A longitudinal study of Black adoptions: single parent, transracial, and traditional. Social Work, 31 172-176.
  12. Baden, A.L. (2002). The psychological adjustments of transracial adoptees: An application of the Cultural-Racial Identity Model. Journal of SocialDdistress & the Homeless, 11 (2) 167-191.
  13. Feigelman, W (2002). Adjustments of tranracially and interracially adopted young adults. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal. 17(3), 165-183.
  14. Simon, R.J., & Alstien, H. (1996) The case for transracial adoption. Children and Youth Services Review: Special Issue: Children and Youth Services Review. 18 (1-2). 5-22.
  15. DeBerry, K.M., Scarr, S., & Weinberg. (1996) Family racial socialization and ecological competence: Longitudinal assessments of African-American transracuial adoptees. Child Development, 67 (5) 2375-2399
  16. Johnson, P.R. Shireman, J.F., & Watson, K.W. (1978) Transracial adoption and the development of black identity at the age of eight. Child Welfare, 66, 45-55.
  17. Huh, N.S., Reid, W.J. (200). Intercountry, transracial and inracial adoption and ethnic identity: a Korean example. International Social Work. 43 (1) 75-87.
  18. McRoy, R.G., & Grape, H. (1999) Skin color in transracial and adoptive placements: Implications for special needs adoptions. Child Welfare, 78 (5) 673-692.
  19. Congressional Research Service (CRS). (2005). Congressional Research Service Memo to Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY), Washington, DC (2006).
  20. Ibid.