For nearly 20 years, Pact Family Camp has brought adopted children of color together to revel in community.
“The camp starts where we ask everybody in the room who’s adopted to stand up and suddenly you watch these kids look around the room,” Pact Executive Director Beth Hall explained. “You see kids who are often experiencing [adoption] as something to be ashamed of standing up, and they can’t wait to connect.”
An institution in need of change
Pact, the nonprofit organization, was founded in 1991, filling a void for an organization that served adopted children of color. The adoption world needed something broader that also offered ongoing education.
In 2017, a study by the Institute for Family Studies found transracial adoptions rose 50 percent between 1999 and 2011. It saw that adoptive parents are mostly white and though white children made up a large portion of adoptees, they did not constitute a majority. Only three percent of white adoptees were adopted by a mother of a different race.
Furthermore, a 2009 survey under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found adopted children are more likely to be Black. Children adopted from foster care are also more likely to be Black. In addition, a 2013 report by NPR uncovered that Black babies cost less to adopt. Non-white children, but especially Black children, are harder to place with adoptees.
“I believe we still have a ton of work to do and until it’s done, we can’t become complacent,” Hall said.
Bridging the gap
Pact is a multicultural anti-racist adoption organization dedicated to addressing essential issues affecting adopting children of color. Hall herself is the white adoptive mom of a Guatemalan daughter and African American son. She is also the sister of an adopted sibling.
The nonprofit believes that same-race adoption is easier for children, but that transracial adoption can work beautifully if the parents are serious about helping their child build a positive racial identity. For all adopted children, Pact holds that everyone deserves to know their full heritage and birth history and should be able to explore all aspects of their identity.
“We live in a racialized world,” Hall said. “For those of us who are white, like myself, we often minimize the impact of race because we’ve lived with a lot of privilege… The reality is our children are not going to experience the world in the same way we do.”
Authentic relationships require work
In transracial adoptions, Hall stressed the importance of doing the proper internal work to acknowledge and unlearn racist biases, providing role models of the same race and engaging with their heritage. For parents, there is a fine line between engagement and appropriation.
“There’s a difference between owning that culture and being outside of it and an ally to it, and I think that’s where we parents have to sit,” Hall said. “Respecting a culture includes certainly recognizing when you’re not part of it.”
The Pact Family Camp (which did not happen this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic) is a weeklong summer retreat for adopted children of color and their families. Hall explained that the goal of camp is to center the children; it’s often the first place they feel fully accepted. At camp, children learn to discuss race, adoption and identity, but while having fun.
“Part of strength comes from creating community,” Hall said. “Talking about the hard things and showing the children and the parents that when we lean into that, we actually get stronger.”
Parents have their own education curriculum. The camp has two tracks for parents, as white parents require additional lessons. At least a third of the families in attendance are headed by people of color who have adopted children of the same race. Across the program, parents learn about trauma-informed care and how to engage in complex conversations. The end of the camp culminates in a performance by the kids.
A journey in motherhood
Sandi Tamkin, who is white, and her adopted son, who is African American, are one of many families who have attended the camp. It’s part of Tamkin’s efforts to strengthen his identity and their relationship.
“[Adoption] is part of who he is,” Tamkin said in a phone interview, explaining the importance of transparency in adoption. “We’ve learned from history that you don’t raise your child to not know things like that. That is very traumatic for a child to learn when they’re older that they haven’t been told the truth.”
Tamkin has long worked in nonprofit marketing and events, but has also held roles as art gallery manager and broadcast reporter. Recently, she created a documentary short called “Iric”, which follows a young man who is homeless as he makes sense of his place in the world. Tamkin never really focused on marriage or having kids. However, as she approached her 40s, she started considering adoption more and more. After much research, she decided to pursue domestic private adoption.
“It’s basically a complete emotional roller coaster,” Tamkin said of the adoption process.
The entire process, from signing with an attorney to her son’s birth, took about a year. In that time, she completed the necessary courses and discussions (including a transracial adoption workshop) and spoke with about 10 pregnant women who were considering an adoption plan. Her son’s adoption was finalized 10 months after he was born.
“Without a doubt, best decision I ever made. I can’t imagine my life without this kid right here,” Tamkin said. In the background, the voice of a child can be heard: “Me?”
“Yeah, you know how much I love you,” Tamkin said to her son.
The voices of adopted children must be centered
Tamkin is part of a group of a Los Angeles single adoptive moms who get together four times a year. Their gatherings allow kids to play with kids like them who also come from foster care backgrounds, multicultural families and adoptive families. Ensuring her son has “windows and mirrors,” Tamkin makes sure her son has African American role models in the form of family friends, teachers, coaches, professionals and famous figures.
Because her son is young, Tamkin engages in conversations that lean into race in a natural way. For example, after watching a movie, she’ll ask, “Wow, this movie is amazing. There’s so many people of different skin colors in it. What do you think about that?”
There are also conversations that can’t always be planned for. Among many microaggressions, Tamkin recalled the time she was at the market with her son and an older man reached out and touched his hair. “Excuse me, please don’t touch my son,” she said to the man, who was white.
“Part of me wanted to explain why it wasn’t OK for him to touch my child’s hair. And also touching a Black child is really inappropriate,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared to let it escalate, so I just let it be.”
Instead, the focus was on her son. After the two left the store, she checked in with him, asking, “What did you think about what just happened there?” She also explained to him that no one has the right to touch him, especially without asking. Moments like these lay a foundation for her son to be comfortable talking about his identity.
“Racial profiling exists. My son’s going to experience it and he needs to be prepared,” Tamkin said. But the complexity of race and identity is balanced by the joys of parenthood.
“Introducing him to the world and building him to be a kind person and a caring person and a happy person and just having fun… My favorite thing about my life is being a mom.”