Iowa City adoptive parents experience prejudice


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Megan Schwalm-Bell loves her son's hair.

It's thick, black, and curly.

But the white mother — who adopted her 15-month-old black son, Maddox, soon after he was born — promptly discovered not everyone is as attached to his coiled locks as she is.

"A waitress once said, 'I'm so glad my daughter has white-people hair and not gross black-people hair,' " Schwalm-Bell recalled.


She said her son's hair has also been described as nappy.

"The odd thing is that the negative interactions that we've had about his hair have been from moms with biracial children," Schwalm-Bell said.

But the issues Schwalm-Bell faces are not uncommon among families who adopt children from a different ethnicity. And yet, as challenges exist, numbers of adoptive families are on the rise.

When Schwalm-Bell attempted to start a support group for parents of children from a different ethnicity this fall, she received a number of emails from interested adopters.

Even though the group was never able to meet in person, she found a way to connect with parents in a similar situation.

Now, Schwalm-Bell and the parents in the would-be group are celebrating National Adoption Awareness Month.

More than 133,000 domestic adoptions occur each year in the United States and almost 40 percent of all adoptions cross ethnic lines.

Chuck Johnson, the president of the National Council for Adoption, said the United States has a culture of adoption.

"The rate of adoption outside of race and culture has increased in years," said Johnson, "There are challenges, and challenges aren't bad, really. I see it as additional responsibility. There is an extra responsibility to help their child to develop a sense of identity."

National recognition of adoption-awareness efforts began in 1984, when President Reagan announced the first National Adoption Week. Later, it was expanded the celebration to a month in 1995.

Jan Warren, an administrator at the University of Iowa's Belin-Blank Center, is an example of a parent who participated in an international adoption, which is expected to decrease in the next year. In 2010, U.S. parents adopted 11,000 international babies. This year, that number is expected to decrease to roughly 9,000.

"It's incredibly gut-wrenching," she said about the adoption of her daughter from Guatemala. "It's very hard. It takes a lot of soul-searching."

For Warren, identity is one issue she faces.

"I think that it's difficult to ask any human being to put themselves in a box," she said. "In our particular situation, [my daughter] doesn't fit in the box."

In spite of the issues, adoption has presented Warren with the greatest experience of her life.

"This summer, when I was taking Maya to camp, she asked me, 'Mom, did you adopt me so I could have a better life?' " Warren said. "I said, 'No, I adopted you so I could have a better life.' "

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