Tennessee Settles Adoption Case, Agrees to End Race Matching in Infant Adoptions

John Kramer
John Kramer · February 3, 1998

Washington, D.C.-In a settlement released today by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, the State of Tennessee settled a long-standing lawsuit on the issue of interracial adoption agreeing to strictly limit the use of race in most adoption placements in the state while discontinuing altogether the practice of “race matching” when it comes to the adoption of infants.

In April 1995, the Institute for Justice filed suit in Texas and joined an existing suit in Tennessee as part of its challenge to race matching by state agencies-a practice whereby social workers delayed or denied adoptions when a child’s race did not match that of the adoptive parents. The Institute sought to establish a rule of law that racial discrimination in adoptions is unconstitutional. The State of Texas settled its case in November 1996 when it agreed to halt race matching and allowed the Institute for Justice to monitor its adoption records for two years to ensure the practice was discontinued.

“Most, if not all, child welfare experts agree that the most important factor in a child’s well-being is an ongoing, stable relationship with a parent figure,” said Donna Matias, a staff attorney who headed up the case for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice. “Adoption unquestionably is preferable to foster care or other temporary arrangements. Moreover, a study comparing interracial adoptees to white children adopted by white families concludes that the most important factor in a child’s well-being is the age at which he or she was adopted.”

In Reisman v. Tennessee Dept. of Human Services, a class action case filed in Memphis, Tennessee, the plaintiff class of minority children in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS) challenged the use of racial classifications in the adoptive placement process. Ben and Laurel Reisman are a Caucasian couple who successfully challenged DHS’s practice of considering only non-white applicants for its mixed race children, even if the child was part Caucasian. As a result, the Reismans were able to adopt their biracial daughter, Cady. In the lawsuit just settled, brought on behalf of all children in DHS custody, the Reismans alleged that the state created separate pools of prospective adoptive families and children in need of homes by impermissibly using race as a criterion. Moreover, by creating separate pools, the state and its agents used different standards to determine the fitness of a family for an adoptive placement.

The Reismans challenged DHS action under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In addition, because DHS argued that the federal Multiethnic Placement Act permits it to use race in adoption decisions, the Reismans challenged the constitutionality of the Act (which was subsequently repealed) under the equal protection guarantee of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“The Institute for Justice’s mission in this case was to free kids from a foster-care system that would delay or deny their adoption into loving homes because the child’s race differs from that of the adoptive parents,” said Matias. “This settlement makes it mission accomplished.”

“Black children are the main victims of barriers to interracial adoption, languishing for years in foster care while families who would adopt them wait,” said Clint Bolick, the Institute’s litigation director. “The abuses are so great that the only way to cure the problem is to deny social workers the power to use race as a factor in adoptive decisions.”

In Tennessee, the Institute joined as co-counsel with attorney Hayden Lait of Byrd & Cobb in Memphis, Tennessee, who successfully conducted the earlier Reisman litigation and filed the present lawsuit in December 1993.

From a national perspective, of the half-million children waiting in foster care, more than 30 percent are black, 14 percent are Hispanic, and roughly five percent are of other, non-white background, according to a 1993 American Public Welfare Association report. Further, the same report shows that black children awaiting adoption constitute approximately 40 percent of all children awaiting adoptive homes, although blacks represent only about 12.3 percent of the general population. Statistics from the National Adoption Center, which maintains a register of “hard-to-place” children and waiting families, reveal that approximately 67 percent of such children are black and 26 percent are white. Yet 67 percent of the waiting families are white and 31 percent are black. One study of children awaiting adoption revealed that minority children wait twice as long for an adoptive home as their white peers, and minority placement rates are 20 percent lower than non-minority placement rates.

The Institute for Justice is a libertarian public interest law firm. Through strategic litigation, training, communications, and outreach, the Institute for Justice advances a rule of law under which individuals can control their own destinies as free and responsible members of society. We litigate to secure economic liberty, school choice, private property rights, freedom of speech, and other vital individual liberties, and to restore constitutional limits on the power of government. Through these activities we challenge the ideology of the welfare state and illustrate and extend the benefits of freedom to those whose full enjoyment of liberty is denied by government. The Institute was founded in September 1991 by William Mellor and Clint Bolick.