Transracial Adoption

Transracial adoption refers to the placement of children with parents who are racially and ethnically different from the children. The practice of transracial adoption has a long and complex history. Throughout the history of transracial adoption, it has been referred to as interracial adoption or cross-cultural adoption. Traditionally, the term transracial adoption referred to the adoption of Black children by White parents in the United States. However, over time, all transracial placements where the adoptive parents and children were racially different were included in this terminology. Thus, various forms of domestic and international adoption (also referred to as intercountry adoption) can result in transracial adoption when the children and parents differ racially and ethnically (e.g., Korean children adopted by White parents). Transracial adoption is the most visible form of adoption due to the phenotypic or visible differences between the adoptive parents and children. In the United States and abroad, the vast majority of transracial adoptions have consisted of White parents adopting children of color or children who are racial/ethnic minorities in the United States. Some estimates suggest that approximately 8% of all adoptions are trans-racial in nature.


Transracial adoption has a long and complex history. Poverty, war, oppression, cultural practices, and social taboos have frequently been core explanations for the rise of both domestic and international adoptions. Although world history may have a sparse sprinkling of stories of transracial placements, transracial adoption was not formally practiced on a large scale until after World War II, and those transracial adoptions were primarily international in nature. Despite the common adoption strategy of matching (e.g., religion, race, appearance) used in adoption practice at that time, domestic transracial adoption began to serve as an option for couples looking to adopt during the 1960s.

Domestic Transracial Adoption

The earliest recorded transracial adoption took place in 1948 in Minnesota. Transracial adoptions on a larger scale took place later; some of the earliest cases of domestic transracial adoption placed American Indian children into White families as a result of the Indian Adoption Project that took place between 1958 and 1967. This project was intended to place these children with families from the dominant culture and away from Indian reservations, and it led to 395 American Indian children being placed in what were both domestic and international transracial placements. Criticisms of this practice ensued, resulting in the 1978 passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which made adoption by non-native Americans very difficult.

To begin to move the large numbers of orphaned African American children out of institutional settings (i.e., orphanages), domestic transracial adoption was instituted, challenging a widespread belief that race-matching was vital to the formation of family bonds. However, the extreme difficulty in placing African American children in adoptive homes prior to transracial adoption led to the designation of African American children available for adoption as meeting the criteria for “special needs” at that time. The Open Door Society, “Operation Brown Baby” in Oregon, Minnesota’s Parents to Adopt Minority Children, and the Council on Adoptable Children advocated for transracial placements, and more than 2,500 domestic transracial placements of African American children with Caucasian families took place in 1970. Within a few years, however, criticisms of transracial adoption  were  levied by  prominent adoption advocates. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers predicted poor psychological adjustment and problematic racial identity for transracially adopted children as results of this practice that opponents referred to as “cultural genocide.” In response to their criticisms, the Child Welfare League of America reversed the changes it had made to the adoption standards and supported the perspective that same-race placements were preferable for orphaned children.

To attend to the concerns of opponents to transracial adoption, empirical research studies were conducted to assess the psychological adjustment and racial identity development of the children who had been transracially adopted. Using Black, transracially adopted children and comparing them to their non-adopted peers, the first studies (as well as many subsequent studies) used combinations of measures, interviews, parent reports, and teacher reports to conclude that the transracially adopted children were generally adjusting as well as their nonadopted peers. Estimates suggest that 70% to 80% of transracial adoptees were adjusting as well as their nonadopted peers. These findings were complicated by reports of increased referral rates and disproportionate ratios of adopted persons in psychiatric treatment. More recent research explains the higher rates of psychological problems among adoptees in comparison with their nonadopted peers as due to a skewed distribution where the majority of adoptees were adjusting well and in the middle of the distribution, but at the extremes, there were substantially higher rates of adoptees than nonadoptees.

After a series of studies was conducted to disprove the criticisms of transracial adoptions, legislation was passed that allowed resurgence in transracial adoption placements (e.g., the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994). Subsequent research has worked to clarify these concerns, and legislation (e.g., Interethnic Placement Act of 1996) has prevented restrictions in adoptive placements based on these concerns. The Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994, sponsored by Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), banned agencies that received federal funding from denying or delaying transracial placements of orphans on the basis of race alone. However, this act did allow the use of race as one of several factors that could be considered in foster and adoptive placements. In 1996, this law was revised in the Interethnic Placement Act. This law prohibited the consideration of race in any way when federally funded agencies made placement decisions.

International Transracial Adoption

International adoption was utilized to care for orphans from war-torn Europe after World War II, but the Korean War in the 1950s led to a more widespread and visible form of international adoption. In practice, South Korean orphans were placed with White American adoptive parents, thus constituting some of the earliest transracial placements. Since that time, international adoptions have taken place from a wide array of countries. In 2005, 7,906 visas were issued to orphans adopted from China to the United States. Other countries from which children have been adopted by U.S. citizens include Guatemala, South Korea, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, India, Haiti, and Colombia. International adoption has also faced criticism and opposition with references to it serving as a clear example of American imperialism and as a result of colonialism. Despite these criticisms and changes in the availability of children and policies for international adoption, international transracial adoption continues to be an increasingly popular option for couples seeking infants for adoption. Historically, as the availability of White infants in the United States decreased due to the increased social acceptability of single-parenthood and pregnancy out of wedlock, families seeking to adopt have turned to international adoption. Poverty, wars, political crises, population control policies, and social taboos in countries around the world have continued to provide children for adoption. In 2005, 21,968 children were adopted internationally and the vast majority of those adoptions would also be considered transracial in nature.

Transracial Adoption and Counseling

Transracial adoption and counseling have a brief and inconsistent history. Recent issues of The Counseling Psychologist have given brief attention to counseling issues for transracial adoptees, but no systematic study of clinical issues, counseling skills or techniques, or counseling process has focused on transracial adoptees. Adoption advocates and more counselors and psychologists have drawn attention to the need for “adoption sensitive” or “adoption competent” counseling skills. Nationally, several U.S. states (e.g., Oregon, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and

Washington) have developed certificate programs in therapy with adoptive families. Despite the dearth of studies on the counseling process with adoptive families, research, anecdotal reports, and case studies reflect that common concerns for transracial adoptees tend to center on racial and ethnic identity.

Identity Development for Transracial Adoptees

Given that one of the chief concerns of opponents to transracial adoption is racial/ethnic identity, identity issues among transracial adoptees must be explored. The research studies that examined racial/ethnic identity for transracial adoptees have generally concluded that they identify with their racial/ethnic group differently than do nonadopted individuals from their same racial/ethnic background. However, that different identification has not been systematically or empirically demonstrated to be associated with psychological maladjustment or self-esteem difficulties.

One model to address these issues was created by Amanda L. Baden and Robbie J. Steward and is called the cultural-racial identity model. The cultural-racial identity model serves as a framework for understanding and attending to racial and cultural differences among parents and children and by considering the impact that the experiences and the attitudes of parents, peers, extended family, social support networks, and the larger community have on identity development. This model accounts for trans-racial adoptees’ shifting affiliation or connection with their adoptive parents’ culture (e.g., often White, American, middle-class culture), their birth culture (e.g., the culture into which they were born), people from their parents’ racial group (e.g., often White Americans), and people from their own racial/ethnic background. Transracial adoptees navigate the cultures and racial/ethnic groups with which they are familiar and those with which they want to become more familiar, adept, and at ease. In essence, the process of developing an identity around culture and race is often a primary task for transracial adoptees throughout their lives.


  1. Baden, A. L., & Steward, R. J. (2000). A framework for use with racially and culturally integrated families: The cultural-racial identity model as applied to transracial adoption. Journal of Social Distress & the Homeless, 9(4), 309-337.
  2. Hollingsworth, L. D. (1997). Effect of transracial/transethnic adoption on children’s racial and ethnic identity and self-esteem: A meta-analytic review. Marriage & Family Review, 25(1), 99-130.
  3. Javier, R. A., Baden, A. L., Biafora, F. A., & Camacho-Gingerich, A. (Eds.). (2007). The handbook of adoption: Implications for researchers, practitioners, and families. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Lee, R. M. (2003). The transracial adoption paradox: History, research, and counseling implications of cultural socialization. The Counseling Psychologist, 31(6), 711-744.
  5. McRoy, R. G., & Freeman, E. M. (1986). Racial-identity issues among mixed-race children. Social Work in Education, 8(3), 164-174.
  6. Miller, B. C., Fan, X., Christensen, M., Grotevant, H. D., & van Dulmen, M. (2000). Comparisons of adopted and nonadopted adolescents in a large, nationally representative sample. Child Development, 71(5), 1458-1473.

See also: