How informal adoptions became a mainstay of African American family life

“I called him Pop,” said Austin. “His mom passed [away] when he was an infant, so he was raised by his dad and his grandma.” 

On average, Black Americans are informally adopted at higher rates compared to other racial groups. Black American grandparents specifically are more likely to be primary caregivers of their grandchildren than the general population. And while many other groups have a tradition of taking care of relatives in need, sociologists and child-care advocates say informal adoption is a distinctly African American cultural phenomenon. 

This particular kind of generosity has roots that reach as far back as pre-colonial Africa. 

“I think that we attach less value on who specifically is the mother as opposed to the child belonging to the community, and that it’s the community’s responsibility to take care of those children in it,” Austin said. “And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you gave birth or I gave birth or if that’s your cousin or my cousin. We are responsible for who is in front of us.” 

As Austin read more on the topic, she found that there’s historical precedence for Black informal adoptions in the United States.

“Definitely having been … descendants of enslaved people and not having control over our family configurations, I think that Black people just double down on `we must take care of whomever’ because who we say we are as family, it’s fragile, and someone can take it from us at any point,” Austin said. “But even if someone takes you away, you always know that you are cared about, and that you can go find that someplace else. We’re less concerned about how you got here. You’re here now. So how can we support you?”

Nefertiti Austin’s maternal grandmother, Ann Hawthorne, holding her great-grandson. (Photo courtesy of Nefertiti Austin)

According to Austin, this age-old tradition of caring for relatives can make a huge difference in a person’s life trajectory. Today, almost a quarter of children in foster care are Black, yet they make up only about 14% of the U.S. population. That means there is a disproportionately higher rate of Black children being removed from their biological families. The experience of foster care for these children has been rife with trauma and loss, leading to a host of mental and behavioral health issues. But the choice to adopt, whether informally or through an agency, can be a protective barrier against this.

“And what it also does for children is it keeps them out of the foster care system and it removes the stigma around children who are not raised by their biological parents,” Austin said.

Austin didn’t always want to be a mother, but in the early 2000s she started to feel that itch, as if there was something calling her to adopt. And she knew she wanted to adopt a Black child. On average, Black children in the U.S. foster care system are adopted at lower rates than children of other races. 

“And I went the public foster care route because there weren’t any children in my immediate family or extended family who needed a home, because if they did, I definitely would have done that first,” Austin said. “There are so many children right here in Los Angeles who need homes, so private adoption or an international adoption just didn’t make a lot of sense for me.”

In 2006, Austin started the process, and her son was placed in her care the following year. 

“When I think of just how young Black men [and boys] are treated, it makes me feel good to know that I could be part of the solution,” Austin said.

And a few years after her son’s arrival, she adopted a Black baby girl.

“And then having a daughter and thinking about all of the places she can go and the amazing trajectory that she can have … to give her that opportunity to shine as bright as possible, it feels good.”

Nefertiti Austin (right) pictured with her daughter. (Photo courtesy of Nefertiti Austin)

For Austin, one of the biggest joys she experiences as a mother is when her children ask her about the prospect of adopting kids when they grow up.

“I think that’s so cool that they feel that this experience has been positive and loving and supportive enough that perhaps they will pay it forward for another child,” she said.

When Austin looks back on her call to adopt, in many ways it feels like she’s taking part in a cultural tradition that her family and her community have practiced for generations. 

And her choice to adopt makes her feel all the more close to them.

“For me, this is my giveback, this is my thank you to my grandparents, this is my giveback to society,” Austin said. “I felt my responsibility as a Black person, as a Black woman to help someone else. And for me, adoption was how it showed up for me.”

 

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