MANY of the 2 million US couples who are seeking to adopt children are looking in the wrong place. The shortage of white infants available for adoption is becoming increasingly acute - due to abortion and young unmarried keeping their babies. But there is still a critical need for homes for older children, especially blacks and other minorities, and youngsters with physical and mental handicaps. Further overseas adoption by Americans is a strong potential - and is on the rise.
These options, however, are often surrounded by controversy, risks, and hurdles for prospective adoptive parents.
Organized opposition to placing minority children in white homes.
Agency regulations which tend to make many black families ineligible to adopt.
Public procedures that keep ``special needs'' children in foster care rather than facilitating permanent placement.
Problems surrounding international adoption, including foreign-government opposition and black-market baby scams.
Although statistics are hard to confirm, the National Committee for Adoption (NCFA), based in Washington, D.C., reports that there is a significant shortage of adoptive parents for black children. This umbrella group for hundreds of child-placement agencies says that black youngsters constitute 14 percent of the nation's child population, but 37 percent of children available for adoption and waiting for placement are black.
NCFA president William Pierce adds that, overall, there are ``from 30,000 to 100,000 kids who need homes. They are legally free. Parental rights are gone.''
Mr. Pierce favors legislation that would ``convert foster care to subsidized adoption.''
``The federal government would still pay ... [but] it would give the child a more stable home.''
Children's advocates, including NCFA and the Child Welfare League of America, say a first priority should be to place a youngster in need of permanent placement with adoptive parents of the same color or race.
However, this is not always possible. Further, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), among others, formally oppose transracial adoption as an affront to black pride and a threat to racial identity.
William Merritt, NABSW's former president, has called the practice a ``form of cultural and racial genocide.''
Many blacks, including Mr. Merritt, also point out that white families showed little interest in adopting black children until recent years when the serious shortage of available white youngsters occurred.
Experts are divided over how well minority children fare in white families.
One recent study, conducted over a 12-year period by Rita Simon, a sociologist and dean of the school of justice at American University in Washington, D.C., found that nonwhite children in white families tend to adjust well, succeed in school and other activities, and carry few emotional scars.
Dean Simon is a strong advocate of transracial adoption. She says, however, that ``nobody suggests that this should be a first choice.'' If black families are available for black children, she allows, this would be the top priority.
``What is important is that a family wants a child and is willing to love it,'' she stresses.
``Never adopt for a political cause - or to raise a banner,'' she cautions.
Dean Simon further points out that, although certain black-advocacy groups (including NABSW) continue to oppose transracial adoption, court are starting to say that ``while race may be a factor, it shouldn't be the determining factor'' in child placement.
However, the sociologist does see the need to help black families adopt through publicly subsidized adoption and an easing of placement regulations.
Toni Oliver, adoption specialist at the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a black self-help group centered in the nation's capital, says there is ``no reluctance'' to adopt on the part of black families. She adds, however, that social service agency regulations often hinder the process by requiring ``unreasonable'' criteria for prospective adoptive parents - such as ruling out those over 40, insisting on two-parent families, and the requirements for stable employment and a relatively high income level.
Ms. Oliver says her organization is just now forming a national foundation to facilitate adoption of black children by black families across the nation. Recruitment and placement services will be stressed.
Meanwhile, efforts to place another category of adoptive children, the handicapped, are being made with the help of adoption-assistance funds available under a section of the US Social Security Act.
Some child specialists point out that states sometimes obtain more federal money by keeping such youngsters in foster care. And they urge the federal government to provide better incentives for family placement.
Cooperative public-private adoption efforts have met with mixed successes across the nation.
One positive effort - the Chicago-based ``One Church, One Child'' program, a partnership between clergy and an Illinois state agency that seeks homes for so-called hard-to-place youngsters - has cut the number of children eligible for adoption from over 700 to less than 50 over a six-year period. Similar programs are under way in more than 20 other states.
Also adoption of foreign children by Americans has increased more than twofold within a decade - to over 9,000 by the mid-l980s. Most of the children come from South Korea and Latin America. A score of agencies facilitate these adoptions.
At $20,000 or more per adoption, ``it's more expensive,'' Simon points out. However, some of the poorer nations have resented the United States quest for their children and are setting stricter standards for such intercountry adoption.
These placements have also been attended by a few highly publicized scandals involving baby-selling, profiteering, and smuggling of children.
The United Nations has urged stronger international adoption controls, including measures aimed at eliminating the possible abuse of children in this type of transfer.