When Cynthia Hunt-Smith was growing up in Miami, Ohio, she was taunted by other children because she didn't have a father. Her mother married for the first time when Cynthia was 9. She did not meet her real father until she was 30.
Her mother worked long hours pressing clothes, Hunt-Smith said. She seemed available only in the pitch-black early morning and evening. Her stepfather abused her mother, which angered Hunt-Smith, then known as Cynthia Hunt. Because she felt uncomfortable, she moved out of the house at 15 and earned her way through high school.
That childhood turmoil, Hunt-Smith said recently, could explain why after a marriage, two children and a middle-age return to school, she became special needs recruiter for the Children's Home Society of California.
Funded by United Way, the nonprofit society is the largest private adoption agency in the state. Hunt-Smith, 45, finds homes for minority and handicapped children under 16.
Minorities are a major part of adoption work because they constitute more than 50% of the 4,400 California children who are available for adoption or who are in foster care and will be eligible, Hunt-Smith said.
Cost of Adoption
Adoption of children through agencies takes years, and costs range from several hundred dollars through public offices to several thousand dollars through private organizations, she said.
Because Hunt-Smith considers interracial adoptions "risky," she seeks parents who match the child's racial or ethnic background.
In a sitting room with a wooden bassinet at her Los Angeles office recently, Hunt-Smith said that black children adopted by white families are unprepared to face prejudice unless they meet other blacks in integrated schools or neighborhoods.
"Being able to associate with his own ethnic background, he gets the necessary essence inside himself to be able to deal with that," she said.
Halford Fairchild, a UCLA psychologist who was asked about that view, said, "In general any adoption is better than no adoption.
"But the literature does suggest that children almost universally face certain psychological conflicts concerning who I am," said Fairchild, whose specialty is race relations and the mass media but who has studied the adoption issue.
" . . . this conflict is not unresolvable. But it does have to be taken into consideration."
Hunt-Smith works long hours, holding night meetings with prospective black parents who work during the day.
"Adoption used to be a white middle-class institution," she said. "Black children came into the system and they sat there. They didn't try to recruit black parents. . . . Consequently, they became overloaded and now they have to recruit."
Hunt-Smith thinks she understands how children who remain in the system feel. She said she thought about her upbringing and set goals when she married at 18.
"I did not want my children born by two separate fathers," she said. "And I did not not want to have illegitimate children.
"I knew that I wanted a family structure, a father and a mother. . . . I knew that my mother was never there when I needed her. And I knew that was important to me so I'd always be there for my children."
When she and her husband divorced in 1968, she became a telephone installer for 16 years to raise her daughters, Tobin, 25, a Silver Lake receptionist, and Tina, 22, a former model living in Riverdale, Md.
While working, she entered night school. Between 1977 and 1984 she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in rehabilitation counseling from California State University, Los Angeles.
She found a part-time job at the Children's Home Society and it grew to a full-time position.
After a year and a half on the job, her face still changes from happy to sad as she discusses children in the adoption system. She says that like street children, youngsters who stay in adoption systems lose the chance to fully develop.
"If you look at the gangs in the street," she said, "they can survive on little or nothing. They can make a gun out of a piece of steel. . . . They know how to rap, they know how to get around the man, as they say.
" . . . Children at age 6 begin to lose interest in everything. That's when you should tap into a child and cultivate its talent.
"I don't think that the system or the race in power realizes the talent that is not being used. I think if they filtered these children and gave them a chance to be productive that we would have one hell of a society."
The children, she said, are "my heart. It's my love. And when I . . . see the pictures (of the children) that come through, and see that most of the children that sit in foster care are black males because the females go much faster, it hurts my heart.
"It seems like they're in one institutional setting and when they get finished with that, they don't find a permanent home. They'll go to another institution. Maybe the prison system. Maybe the military. They just need a chance. They need a home."