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Fight over mixed-race adoptions

A Rhode Island case shows how changes in attitude don't always follow

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Sandra Lapierre says her foster son has grown three inches since a judge ruled in December that she and her husband could adopt the boy. As she sees it, the decision freed the kindergartner from a stultifying uncertainty about his future, and he is suddenly outgrowing his Levis.

But there is one more hurdle before the adoption is final. The Rhode Island Supreme Court must yet sign off on letting the Lapierres, who are white, adopt Justin, who is black and Hispanic - over the objections of a relative who has argued all along that she can provide the boy with biological and racial ties.

Justin's case is the latest to plumb the deep emotions that often accompany a mixed-race adoption. Like other recent trans-racial custody dramas from Illinois to Maryland, it also serves as a test of a five-year-old federal law intended to make the adoption process "colorblind."

The long fight in Rhode Island's courts may portend that, US directives notwithstanding, changes in individuals' hearts and minds often lag behind changes in the law.

The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (MEPA), enacted by Congress in 1994, prohibits denying or delaying the adoption of a ward of the state because of race. Supporters say it is intended to redress the problem of too many minority children languishing in foster care. Critics, however, say that placing a minority child with white parents can be threatening to the racial identity of the youth, and that the law doesn't do enough to recruit adoptive parents of color.

A new survey shows the 1994 law has apparently had little effect on the number of transracial adoptions. On the other hand, lawyers who handle such cases reported that none of these adoptions was denied in the past 1-1/2 years, says Rita Simon, a professor at American University in Washington whose study on MEPA will be published this fall.

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