White adoptive mothers of Black children reckon with the horrific Hart family tragedy, white supremacy, and white saviorism.
Deborah Hill is a white mother of two Black children, now 14 and 12, who she and her husband adopted when they were babies. Her daughter, Lizelle, is South African and Levi, was born in the U.S. to Haitian and Kenyan birth parents. When Hill read reports about how Jennifer and Sarah Hart had beaten and starved their six adopted Black kids and then murdered them in a Thelma-and-Louise–style flight off a scenic cliff in California, she was horrified. And then she started hearing the negative comments from Black people about transracial adoptions.
“Naturally I find myself wanting to defend my life and choice,” Hill says. But she also has empathy for all the sentiments and anger expressed by Black folks. “There’s pain, anger, and historical trauma in the dissent. I see it, I understand their feelings about it being wrong. And yet I live it.”
Jordan Lindvall, an adoptive mother of Black twin 2-year-old sons had a similar response. She didn’t initially assume that the Hart case had anything to do with race.
“I saw [the Hart parents] as predators and monsters,” says Lindvall. “While I know how problematic it is, of course my heart cries ‘Not all white women’ when suspicion is raised about white women raising Black children. I don’t know how to appropriately negotiate validating the pain of the Black community and living my truth as a white woman with two Black sons whom I love, not in spite of their race, but for who they fully are.”
Hill and Lindvall were not alone in their feelings. I interviewed nearly a dozen white adoptive mothers of Black children who say they felt immense grief knowing that fellow parents could do such horrific things to children. And at the same time, they felt fear that other people would think they were capable of doing the same thing. These mothers wanted to scream: “I would never do that to my child! I’m not like Sarah and Jennifer Hart.”
Despite the overwhelming desire to distance themselves from abusive parents like the Harts, who would appear to have had a God complex and treated their kids not like family but like chattel, these mothers were able to move away from their defensive feelings and having the uncomfortable conversations about the role that race and white saviorism plays in transracial adoptions—and reckoning with their biases and their white privilege.
Bridget Adams-Brewer from Toledo, Ohio, whose adopted Black children are 2 and 4 says, “I was particularly upset to hear that these women hurt their adopted children, since the majority of adoptive parents travel a long and rough road to have the privilege of adopting.”
When she and her husband began the adoption process, they learned there were more children of color than white children waiting for permanent homes. They had always been open to the idea of adopting transracially because they live in a diverse neighborhood and have relatives from diverse backgrounds.
“I know it’s not ideal for Black children to be adopted by white parents,” says Adams-Brewer. “My kids need role models and racial mirrors more than Black children being raised by Black parents. There is a lot of extra work for multiracial families to do, and to deny or downplay that is dangerous,” she says.
For Adams-Brewer and her family, “extra work” means learning the basics on how to care for her children’s hair and skin and “doing everything we can to give our kids a better idea of who they are. We enjoy all of these things, so I hesitate to call it ‘work,’” says Adams-Brewer. “But we have relationships with birth families, we have friends of different races and are always looking to diversify our lives more. We make sure our kids’ books and media represent them. We attend cultural events, we join groups and organizations we are able to, we follow Black news and entertainment.”
Sarah Ryan, who resides in Chicago with her 11-year-old adopted Black daughter, says she was sure from the start that the Harts had intentionally driven their children off the cliff. “When I see white parents who appear to be serial adopters of kids of color homeschool and live in remote areas my antennae go up.”
Unlike some press reports that seemed to give the Hart couple the benefit of the doubt, there were white adoptive mothers who recognized red flags. They didn’t like the way the couple bandied their children about, had them dressing in T-shirts that read “free hugs,” and had them photographed hugging abusive cops. They saw the couple’s virtue signaling not as acts of love, but of narcissism.
Some white mothers told me that there’s an assumption made when white families adopt Black children that they’re offering them something better, opportunities that the children ordinarily wouldn’t have, or that white people are inherently better parents. One white adoptive mother said to me that so many white people said to her when she and her wife adopted their Black son, “Oh, your baby is so lucky,” a fact that infuriated them.
Hill remembers that when she and her husband first decided to adopt they received packets of information from various agencies. “There was one that I immediately threw out because their logo was an image of the map of Africa with an eye and tears positioned over the map. I knew their attitude had to be one of ‘let’s save the African babies’ and it turned me off,” she says.
For Ryan, the most glaring examples of white saviors are Evangelical Christians who began adopting Black children in increasing numbers over the past decade. “These parents literally spoke of rescuing children from the bowels of Africa and saving them by bringing them into their homes. They feel that God has called upon them to adopt and they must do that in order to be his true followers. You can find these parents in every adoption Facebook group and their language describing their child is that of someone who just found a kitten being chased by a pack of wolves. In their mind, they are the hero of the story and the child should be grateful for the rest of their lives.”
Sarah Holt, is a lesbian adoptive mother of a 5-year-old daughter from Longmont, Colorado, and a firm supporter of transracial adoption. She’s been disturbed by the media coverage of the Hart tragedy. “I think the conversations and media coverage are lacking in depth and understanding of the issues here. It isn’t just race, it isn’t just the system, it isn’t just about the tropes, it isn’t just about white fragility, or Black suspicion. It is all that and more.”
At least some white parents seem to wear their transracial adoption as a status symbol, kind of like saying, “I’m above racism because I adopted Black children.” Of course not all examples of white saviorism have tragic outcomes. But it still plays a role in transracial adoption and we can’t ignore that these adoptions are a humanitarian necessity because this society has structured Black people out of our own adoption systems.
The presumption is that more Black people need to become foster and adoptive parents. What is rarely acknowledged is that Black people do foster and adopt Black children. We’ve been taking in and loving other people’s children since slavery. People fail to recognize and respect that Black people have long benefited from informal foster care via family, friends, church members and the like—set up specifically to keep Black children out of the racist system and at risk for white abuse. People on both sides of the color line often believe that Black children in foster care are there because their families abuse or neglect them, leaving them in need of rescue from white families. But the majority of Black children who end up in foster care are not victims of physical or sexual abuse, but of neglect due to poverty or drug abuse, or having an incarcerated parent. Poor Black children are more susceptible to state intrusion because they are frequently forced to interact with government agencies—e.g., if a family is receiving public assistance, they must allow state social workers to enter the home; families are more likely to visit public clinics and E.R.s instead of private doctors, if a parent is incarcerated, that parent risks having their parental rights terminated—so they’re more exposed to law enforcement and other agencies, which results in Black children being placed in the foster-care system more frequently. And because cost and long waiting times are a barrier, today’s formalized system is set up to make adopting damn near impossible, but it happens. On any given day, there are close to a half-million children in the foster care system. Only around 100,000 of these kids have a case plan for adoption, while the others are slated for reunification, emancipation, institutionalization, long-term foster care, or incarceration. Adoptive parents tend to want kids who uare under 10, with one sibling at the most, and with no or only minor special needs, among the 100,000 foster children available for adoption.
We cannot separate the dynamics of the Hart family tragedy from the realities of racism in this country. While transracial adoption always comes with certain considerations and risks, it’s not realistic to say that it doesn’t have the potential for value. White parents need to be vetted, and those who qualify and are adopting for the right reasons must do the work of learning cultural humility so that their child or children have the best chance of growing up healthy.
Sara Holt and other white mothers say they are committed to doing the extra work. “I have chosen to surround myself with people who understand or at least acknowledge the issues my child will face as she grows up in America. We do our best to constantly educate ourselves and make sure that my daughter is surrounded by people that, in her words, ‘look like her.’ Black people have a right to be suspicious. White people haven’t really done much to prove our trustworthiness historically or in the present.”
Adopting parents must acknowledge the truth of their whiteness and the complex realities of their child’s blackness, in the context of the ways these intertwine in our society. There are no easy answers and no shortcuts to solutions. But we must start by recognizing Black children as fully human and believing that their lives matter. There is no other way to save them.
“There is a way through this. I’m just not sure where it is,” Hill says. “I am so connected and in love with my children and I hope I am giving them the tools and skills to be able to discern how it is to be Black and proud of being Black in the world, and how to understand that not only are we together because of love … we are together because of imbalances in the world and the root evil of institutional racism which creates poverty and struggle.”
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