Inside transracial adoption: Stories of adversity, acceptance, and intentional love

Transracial and international adoption can be as daunting as they are inspiring, and transracial and transcultural families face a unique set of challenges even after the children settle in at home. Michigan Nightlight explores three of these family's stories.
Not many couples would, a month and a half after their wedding, open their home to two teenage foster boys. But that’s what Julian and Stacey Goodson wanted. They both worked in social services and knew that finding places for African-American teenage boys is difficult. They also knew that these were the ones they most wanted to help. In the past five years, the Goodsons have fostered 13 young people and have adopted four, the latest (and only girl)  just after Christmas.

Stacey says, “When we met and started dating, we were already talking about fostering children. We knew the need was enormous. From the very beginning, we knew fostering would be part of our life together.”

The Goodson family.Stacey is Caucasian, and Julian is African-American.

She continues, “By the time foster children reach their teens, it’s unlikely they will be adopted. Only about five percent of those teens find permanent homes.”

Obviously, it is difficult to parent teens, but guiding teens who have been in the foster care system has its own unique set of challenges.

Stacey says, “Trust is a big issue. Their lives had been overturned many times, and they were never sure what was coming next. And because they had been in different home situations, they had to test their boundaries and figure out what we expected of them and how to live in our family.”

About their choice of neighborhood, Stacey says, “Our living here is very intentional. [Our neighborhood] is culturally and racially diverse. It is a community which accepts and embraces diversity. Our kids go to school with others of many races and ethnicities. That has helped them feel welcomed and accepted. All of our kids have been active in sports, and this has helped them find their place as well.

“Of course, we have had ‘the talk’ about how, as Black teenagers, to be safe in today’s society. Since my husband is African-American, he can speak to them with real authority about the challenges they face and the reality of being a Black man in today’s America.”

The Goodson family on the basketball court.Stacey says that their foster license is still open, and they certainly don’t rule out fostering other children. Their oldest son is now out of the home, working and living on his own, and another son is currently attending college.

Julian has written a book about their experiences, “Thoughts of a Foster Dad” and they maintain a blog of the same name. Stacey hopes to also write a book, looking at her experiences as a foster and adoptive mom.

Transracial adoption in America

Transracial adoption is defined by the National Institutes of Health as “the joining of racially different parents and children in adoptive families.” Once rare, the US Department of Health and Human Services now reports that among all non-Caucasian children adopted in the United States, 73 percent are adopted into Caucasian families, and 84 percent of international adoptions are transracial. African-American and Latino families are more apt to raise the children of members of their family or the larger community in informal “adoptions” or guardianship arrangements, and these are not reflected in overall statistics.

Creating a Family, the national infertility and adoption education non-profit, says that finding statistics about Black families adopting Caucasian children are difficult to come by, but suggests that some eight percent of Caucasians in foster care are adopted by Black or interracial couples and two percent of adoptions in general were of Black parents adopting white children.

Bethany Christian Services, with offices throughout the United States and the world, has long been serving children and families in West Michigan with its services, one of the largest of which is their adoption program.

Quinne Boersma works on a puzzle with her brother Curran.

According to Cheri Williams, Grand Rapids Regional Director, “Adopting transracially can be challenging. Parenting any child is challenging; add to that the layer of parenting an adopted child, and then the next layer of parenting a child of another race. That’s why we provide training before the adoption, transition counseling during the process, and support afterwards.”

Another agency, D. A. Blodgett-St. John’s, has offered services to children since 1887. They offer counseling, foster care, domestic adoption, and residential care at their St. John’s facility. Joy Engelsman, Program Manager in the Adoption Department, confirms that local and regional figures mirror those that the government reports.

Engelsman says, “At least 50 percent of our adoptions are transracial. All of our families go through training on adoption, but for our families that are becoming multiracial, we require special training, educating them on the challenges and rewards of this particular type of adoption. We focus on how the parents, any children already in the family, and the adoptive child or children can come together to form a happy and healthy family. In the training, we talk about everything the family might encounter, all the way from cultural differences to skin and hair care.”

Engelsman adds, “Unfortunately, we also have to talk with our adoptive families about dealing with racism and bias in our communities. We use various strategies to acquaint our families who will be adopting children of another race with the challenges they and their children will face.

"One exercise asks them to imagine their everyday life and add marbles of various colors to a container representing the people with whom they interact as friends, family members, acquaintances, and community members. It can sometimes become clear to them that their lives are mostly spent with people just like them. It’s important for families who are adopting children of color to widen their lives to include a diverse group of people. We also talk with them about what kinds of experiences their children may face as people of color; this is something that many of us don’t understand as it has not been our experience.”

While these facts and statistics are interesting (and perhaps surprising), each child, each family, and each adoption is unique. A child is not a statistic. A family cannot be reduced to numbers. And adoption is a journey with twists and turns, challenges and joys, setbacks and victories.

The Boersma family

Anne and Bill Boersma knew they wanted to adopt children and decided to do so before they had biological children. At the time, Bill’s parents were missionaries in China; his mother was volunteering in a local orphanage. When Anne and Bill went to visit, they spent a day with the children.

Anne says, “At first the children were afraid of Bill; he’s very tall, and they weren’t used to men either. We ended up having a wonderful day with them, and it was hard when we left after seeing all those children who needed families. Once we got home, we put things in motion to adopt from China.”

The Boersmas

Their daughter Quinne was born in 1998 and came home to the United States in 1999. She is now a sophomore at Western Michigan University, studying occupational therapy. Their biological son Curran, now 17, was born about two years later. They adopted Liana, who is now a freshman at Forest Hills, when she was 16 months old. Since they hadn’t met her before, she was more tentative about becoming part of the family.

Anne says, “She took to Quinne right from the start but wasn’t sure about Bill and Curran. One day she seemed to decide she was home. Within about an hour, her whole demeanor changed, and she seemed to understand that she was part of the family.”

During the girls’ childhoods, the family was involved in various groups which kept the girls in touch with their Asian heritage. The groups met often for various activities, and the girls were able to meet other children from China and other places around the world. In the summers, they attended camps with other children from China.

The family returned to China for a visit a couple of summers ago. They traveled to the orphanages where the girls had stayed and, as Anne says, “This seemed to fill in the missing puzzle pieces for the girls, and they enjoyed the trip.”

Quinne says, “I have always had opportunities to learn more about my culture. My grandparents spent time living in China, and they talk to us about the experiences they had there.”

She continues, “Being adopted hasn’t always been easy, but I wouldn’t change anything. I love my family more than anything else.”

Liana has this to say, “People don’t often ask me about being adopted, but if they do, I don’t mind explaining. Visiting China was an eye-opening experience, and I liked learning about a different way of living.”

She continues, “We always celebrate the lunar New Year and visit the Chinese supermarket to buy ingredients to cook authentic Chinese food at home throughout the year.”

The Hulsman family

Amy Hulsman says, “Ryan and I have been married for 17 years and have always intended to adopt children at some point. We have two biological sons, Caleb who is 16 and Luke who is 13, but we knew there was a child out there who would become part of our family. We knew that the child we would adopt might not have the loving and stable background that our boys had, but we, naively perhaps, thought we could ‘love them through it.’”

After completing the application process at Bethany Christian Services, the Hulsman’s were placed on the waiting lists for both China and Ethiopia. Eight years ago, their daughter, Darvi, 10, joined their family from Ethiopia, and two years later, Jamilia, nine, became their second daughter from that country.

The Hulsman family.

“Darvi had been in the orphanage since she was only four months old,” says Amy. "Ethiopia is a very poor country and, at that time, they were going through a horrible drought, and people were starving.”

She continues, “Once we saw her picture, we knew this little love was our daughter, and we all bonded quickly. She was a tiny thing, but she grew eight inches in the first year she was with us. The first week she was home, we followed her with a video camera as she walked around the house whispering her name, ‘Darvi Jo Hulsman, Darvi Jo Hulsman.’”

Jamilia’s experience was quite unique. Since she was almost four when she was adopted, she had been in the orphanage for almost two years, and it was more difficult for her to leave her friends and her familiar environment. Amy says, “She had to learn how to be part of a family.”

The family lives in Hudsonville, a city that is largely Caucasian, as are Amy and Ryan. However, Amy says that the girls have been accepted and embraced by the community and at school. They have also had regular contact with other families who have adopted from Ethiopia, and the children love getting together.

In addition, Amy says, “We have learned to love Ethiopian food and often cook it at home. There’s a Ethiopian restaurant in Grand Rapids, and we really enjoy going there. The owners are Ethiopian and always make a big fuss over the girls and talk to them in their native language.”

While Jamilia and Darvi were settling in at home, the Hulsmans couldn’t help but recall an experience they had while picking up Jamilia in Ethiopia. Unfortunately they saw, at the goodbye ceremony, older children who had been in the orphanage who had little hope of being adopted. Considering these older children, the family started talking about adopting an older child, maybe eight or nine.

The eldest sons Caleb and Luke then began looking through the pictures of children who were eligible for adoption, and stopped at the picture of a fifteen-year-old girl who had been in the orphanage for five years. With some trepidation, they began looking into adopting Salam.

Amy says, “Obviously, this was a whole different experience. We arranged for her to have language instruction before we picked her up, but she didn’t speak much English when she came to us. She’s still a quiet girl, but she’s been with us for almost three years, and, all things considered, she is doing very well. She is on the high school soccer team, and she’s a good player so that helps. In Ethiopia, there are few options, especially for girls. Now Salam has a future to plan for a future in which she can do whatever she wants. For Salam, the future is a whole new concept.”

She continues, “We are happy we have been in a position to adopt these girls—it has been a wonderful experience for all of us. We have taught our boys to open their hearts to others; we have brought these girls into a community that has welcomed them; and we have enriched our lives.”

The Fritz family

Tracey Fritz and her husband have 11 children….yes, 11.

They started with three biological children and went from there. Knowing the desperate need for foster families, they began by fostering and received a placement almost immediately. Their second foster placement was a newborn boy, and he never left. Their son Michael is now 11. Their next placement was the same story. Very soon after Michael’s placement, they took in a two-and-a-half-year-old girl who ultimately became their daughter. The Fritzs are Caucasian, as are their first five children.

Tracey says, “At this point, we thought we were done,” says Tracey, but when the family received a call about an eight-month-old African American girl whose mother was pregnant again and was struggling to care for her first child, they jumped at the opportunity. And they were not alone. “Our community, church, and friends stepped in to help. I took a leave of absence from work, and we brought home the baby.”

But after about a year, both girls were returned to their mother, a difficult experience for the entire family. “They were my babies, and if the time came that they were returned to the foster system, I wanted them home with us,” says Tracey.

Hurting from this experience but still seeking to grow their family through adoption, the Fritzs explored the international route and soon found themselves in Ghana. Soon after meeting their new daughter there and returning home, they received a phone call that their daughter, along with two other children, had been abducted.

They were never able to find out what ultimately happened to her.

Despite this tragedy, the Fritz were committed to continue the adoption process. They were soon sent a picture of a little girl in that country who needed a family; she was four. At first, they said no, but, as Tracey says, “It just kept coming up in our hearts.”

Ultimately, they said yes.

Tracey moved to Ghana for a couple of months to get to know their new daughter and finally brought her home.

As soon as she returned stateside, they received a call from the foster agency about an African-American little girl who was almost two and who had already been in five placements. The Fritzs said they would do the best we could with her. Again, that child never left and is now their daughter.

Finally, the family received the call they had hoped for—the two little girls who had been returned to their mother were once again in the system after three years. Despite being placed with another foster family, the Fritzs found out they were available for adoption. Due to their tumultuous experience with their birth parents, they had since been labeled “special needs.”

Tracey said, “These were our children, and we wanted them back. We had to fight for them, and we did, even going to court. Finally, the judge ordered that the girls be returned to us.”

She continues, “It was amazing and beautiful. Despite being gone for three years and going through so much, the first night home, Nya said to me, ‘Mom, sing to me the way you always did.’ They were home.”

Though the Fritzs were already parents to nine children, their work was not yet over. About a year ago, they were asked to help another young mother of 19 who already had five children, including newborn twins. The Fritzs stepped by fostering the twins, who are now 18-months-old and under their guardianship, awaiting adoption.

Now the Frtiz family includes 11 children, a highly diverse—both culturally and racially—group. But years of struggling through various adoption and foster processes, as well as assisting her many children in adapting to their new environment, has taught the Fritzs to navigate each challenge with hope and care.

Tracey says, “I know the kind of racism that is inherent in our culture. We have witnessed it first hand, and it can be hard to face. The schools the children attend are predominately white, but there are some African-Americans in the classrooms, and our children have been accepted. I think it is important for all of us, no matter what race we are, to work against racism and make our communities better places for everyone.”

Personal decision, community impact

Jimmy Carter has said, “We have become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.”

While adoption is a personal decision, it has impact far beyond the family. Bringing diversity to a family brings that diversity also to the extended family, and their communities, schools, and churches. Through that diversity, we come to know, value, and understand others and make a better life for us all.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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