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Black kids bring instant stardom to Enterprise family


Jud Burkett/Daily News

Tyler Wood, the 19-month-old adopted son of Jana Wood, draws applause from the crowd as he dances on the Dixie State basketball court during half-time Nov. 8.

ENTERPRISE -- Tanner Cowley climbed onto the family sofa, smiled at the not-too-familiar visitor Chelsea Gardner and suddenly kissed her on the cheek. While the boy waited for another chance, Gardner, 11, cringed in her seat, igniting laughter from a roomful of people.

Cowley, 2, is one of six black babies recently adopted in this quaint, rural town off state Route 18. In a place where no blacks were reported in the 2000 U.S. Census, the kids and their four adoptive families have achieved instant stardom.

"People stop you all the time," said Tanner's father, Jamie Cowley, 39, a Polish-American.

Some asked how they got the kids. Some wanted to hold them. Several families have even "reserved" Tanner and his 1-year-old brother, Cameron, for their daughters.

Statistics on interracial adoptions are not available, but many families in predominantly white Southern Utah have recently adopted minority children, mostly black babies.

Among the 16 adoptions the LDS Family Services completes every year in the five counties of Southwest Utah, agency director Robert Heaton said, one-third of the adoptees are nonwhite, mainly black.

"To many couples, racial background doesn't make any difference," he said. "People feel the room in their heart. They see a need and want to respond."

With an emphasis on family by the area's dominant religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Heaton said, a lot of people don't feel complete until they have children. Some, like the Cowleys, want to expand their families when their biological children are grown.

While many adoptive families first focus on searching for white babies, they quickly become frustrated with the waiting list. Birth control, legalized abortions and the lessening of the stigma toward unwed mothers have prolonged the shortage of available healthy white babies for 30 years, said Gloria Hochman, director of communications for the Philadelphia-based National Adoption Center.

The normal wait at the LDS Family Services is from four to 24 months, Heaton said. But Sandee Probst, an Enterprise mother of German heritage, said she had waited for five years to adopt a baby through the agency. With two teen-age boys, she was not considered a priority. Two years ago, she turned to a private agency in Layton, which specializes in black children adoptions. Within three months, she and her husband, Mack, got Lydia, who is now 2.

The interracial adoption, however, didn't come without fear in a town where "everybody knows everybody." When the idea was first brought up, Sandee Probst said, her husband retorted, "No way." So did Jamie Cowley.

"Everybody is white here and you are going to bring the kids in?" Cowley recalled asking himself. "I was scared to death. There are no African Americans here other than these kids."

Now, he concluded, "nothing feels any different." The family still gets "a lot of looks" from curious townsfolk, said his wife, Carrie Jo, 38, but "people are really open to this." Friends of their three teen-age biological children think Tanner and Cameron are "cool."

State adoption specialist Leroy Franke, however, isn't so sure. A town "so white" as St. George or Enterprise isn't preferred for minority adoptees, he said. Many white parents are "naive" about minority culture, and he worries they tend to ignore the racial difference. Love might be enough for small children, he said, but when in high school or at dating age, they may be shocked by people using racial slurs against them.

"The children will know they are different. They'll have a horrible time," Franke said in a recent telephone interview from Salt Lake City. "They shouldn't become little white kids in black bodies. We are not raising puppies. We need to train them and help them understand."

Rachel Hillyard, 19, a Cedar City adoptee who is half black and half white, disagreed. Brought up by a mother of European heritage, she said, "I never wondered I was adopted."

"Every kid is very different, no matter what their skin color is," said Hillyard, a sophomore at Southern Utah University. "Raise them as any other kids, as they were your own. You don't need to raise them African American, because they are Americans, because their African (sides) will come out themselves, too. You don't have to teach them everything. They'll know."

The debate on black adoptions has lasted for more than three decades, Hochman said. Interracial adoptions peaked in the 1970s, when it became "politically correct" to adopt black children after the civil rights movement, she said.

The numbers soon dwindled after the National Association of Black Social Workers in 1972 protested the practice. Calling it "a cultural genocide," the association maintained only black families could prepare black children psychologically to fight racial prejudice. But black families, it said, didn't stand a chance in competing with middle-class white parents in adopting black children.

Lawsuits were soon filed by white parents who wanted to adopt. About 64 percent of children waiting in foster care in 1998 were minorities, but the majority of adoptive parents were whites, according to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The National Association of Black Social Workers hasn't changed its stand, but the number of interracial adoptions started picking up after the passage of Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994. Amended in 1996, the law forbids agencies from denying or delaying placement based solely on race or national origin.

In a long-term study on interracial adoption, Rita Simon, a sociologist at the American University in Washington, and Howard Alstein of the University of Maryland found children reacted in individual ways toward their racial identity. The 386 minority children they tracked in 200 white families showed no psychological scars.

"Kids are not born with bias and prejudice against one another," Hochman said in a recent interview from Philadelphia. "Most children need love, caring, nurturing, stability and security."

No matter what a child's race is, Carrie Jo Cowley said, they are all "God's children." Race was not so much a factor now as it was 16 to 20 years ago, Jamie Cowley said. If Tanner and Cameron were raised as "good LDS kids," he said, they would "stand up and meet the challenge."

"The key is how you raise them," he said, quoting a black friend he consulted. "Don't get caught up in their ethnic background. They are Americans."

Dayna Hunter, who has adopted seven minority children in Cedar City, said she didn't teach the children about racial differences. Besides Rachel Hillyard, she has raised two American Indian sons, now in their 20s, one from Equador, and three teen-age daughters of black heritage.

"I want us to be unified as a family," Hunter said. "I don't want to stress the difference. Besides, I don't know what it's like to be an Indian. I don't know what's like to be black."

In a small town with a predominantly white culture, she said, the children have had their share of prejudice, but more at grade school than in high school. Her grown sons, however, are harassed more often by the police than their white parents, she said.

"These kids obviously face challenges," Hunter said. "Because we don't have many (people of color) at all. But all teen-agers have challenges. You just deal with it. That's all."

Jana Wood, a Hurricane mother who has adopted a black child, agreed. Despite all the worries she and her husband, Eric, had before the adoption, Wood said she was confident that her 19-month-old son, Tyler, would fit in just fine.

"There are always kids that will be mean," said Wood, a sports technician at Dixie State College. "If we raise him in a way, he can just brush them off and tell them, 'It's their problem, not mine.'"

When raising children of another race, however, it's important to cultivate a pride in their genetic heritage, Hochman said. She recommended that adoptive families observe African American holidays, read about black heroes and cook "soul food."

"It depends a lot on the child. It depends a lot on the way he's raised. It depends a lot on the pride the family has installed in him," Hochman said. "Altogether the way the child is wired determines the way he feels as an adult."

Franke, who has worked with adoptive families around the state, mentioned a model white parent as "the nicest black person I know." The mother hung black heroes' pictures on the wall, started support groups for blacks and read her children books on Martin Luther King Jr.

"If they are adopting a minority child, they are becoming part of their racial culture. They have to get involved," he said. "We need to be who we are, honoring our culture."

Every American should learn about Martin Luther King Jr., not only blacks, said Ramona Gardner, Chelsea's mother. Without coaching, she has learned to comb and braid the dry hair of her adopted twins, Jaylon and Jaslyn, 2.

"It's funny. (People) look at the baby. They look at you. They look at the baby. They look at you," said Sandee Probst. "Their skin is darker than ours; that's the only difference."

Originally published Monday, December 23, 2002

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