Why African American Adoption Agencies Succeed: A New Perspective on Self-Help

By Jackson-White, Geraldine; Dozier, Cheryl Davenport et al. | Child Welfare, January/February 1997 | Go to article overview

Why African American Adoption Agencies Succeed: A New Perspective on Self-Help


Jackson-White, Geraldine, Dozier, Cheryl Davenport, Oliver, J. Toni, Gardner, Lydia Barnwell, Child Welfare


This article traces the history of self-help in the African American community, with emphasis on services and programs for children. The traditions of self-help are very much alive in the African American community, and are manifest in a range of activities. The self-help activities specific to one adoption agency illustrate contemporary models of self-help in the African American community.

African American children continue to be disproportionately removed from their families by the child welfare system and placed in alternate care [Billingsley & Giovannoni 1972; Leashore et al. 1991]. "African American children are more likely than other children to be reported as neglected, to enter out-of-home care and to have a prolonged duration of care, and they are less likely to secure permanence through adoption" [Williams 1991: 276]. To say that the plight of African American children is the result of an African American community that lacks an interest in taking care of its children is a fallacy that has been dispelled by current and historical research [Billingsley & Giovannoni 1972; Gutman 1976; Hill 1977; Martin & Martin 1978; Ross 1978; Williams 1991; Wilson 1991]. For the burden of responsibility to rest with the "client" (African American children and their families) is to continue to blame the victim. The focus must be on the institutional practices of agencies and the child welfare system at large.

During the past 20 years, several initiatives were undertaken to increase the adoptive placement of African American children [Williams 1991]. These initiatives represented public and voluntary child welfare agency efforts to reduce the disproportionate number of African American children in the child welfare system. Many of these efforts have proven to be successful in facilitating permanent outcomes for African American children-some more successful than others [Williams 1991].

This article examines the use of self-help as a means to increase adoption opportunities for African American children. The history and role of traditional self-help efforts in the African American community related to caregiving of African American children are also reviewed, with particular attention to identifying the steps and the activities that occurred in the beginning stages of one agency's development, to illustrate new perspectives on self-help.

Traditions of Self-help

The use of formal adoption services are relatively recent for African Americans [Williams 1991]. This is not to suggest that adoption did not take place in the African American community. Hill's [1977] research on the adoption practices of African Americans substantiates that a system of informal adoption has been a historical part of the African American community. This informal system of adoption is consistent with cultural traditions of African Americans in which caring for and protecting children is a value held in high esteem. The strengths of the African American community in providing services and responding to the needs of the children are a consistent theme in the literature on African American adoptions [Billingsley & Giovannoni 1972; Billingsley 1992; Everett et al. 1991; Hill 1977; Ross 1978].

The literature also references self-help efforts that were developed to respond to children's needs for care, protection, and nurturing. Ross [1978] offers an overview of organized efforts of African Americans in providing social welfare services, including child welfare services. Ross' overview substantiates the presence of self-help as a continuing attribute of the African American community. While the literature indicates that the history of self-help in the African American community is ongoing, the strategies and techniques of providing permanence for children differ significantly from Hill's initial assessment [Wilson 1991]. Although challenges and difficulties continue to confront the African American community today, the cultural tradition of self-help, particularly as it relates to responding to the needs of children, also continues to exert its influence. …

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