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Building Black Families : Nonprofit Group Helps Make Dreams of Adopting a Reality


WEST LOS ANGELES — By most measures, Doris J. Sims has made it in life. A professor at Cal State Los Angeles, Sims lives in a comfortable neighborhood in West Los Angeles. A single woman in her 40s, she had already received her Ph.D. and thought she had reached the apex of her career.

But something was missing, Sims said. She kept feeling there should be more to life.

For her, there was more: 3-year-old Andrew Mark Sims, whom she adopted as her son in May.

"I was transformed into a mother overnight," said Sims, who still seems delighted and amazed by her new status.

The journey toward motherhood began about 2 1/2 years ago when Sims attended an orientation by the Institute for Black Parenting. The private, nonprofit group in Inglewood recruits black families for foster care and adoption in Los Angeles County.

Sims said she went along with her sister to the meeting only because her sister was interested in working with children. But it was she who ended up filling out an adoption application.

The meeting affirmed for her that "I may not be a wife, but I can be a mother," she said.

In May, two days before Mother's Day, she welcomed Andrew into her home.

Since opening its doors in 1988, the institute has placed hundreds of African-American children with single parents and couples, thanks to its aggressive recruiting and publicity from entertainers and social service groups.

The institute seeks to chip away at the backlog of African-American children in Los Angeles County awaiting adoption. Though blacks account for only 10% of the county's population, more than 60% of the 140 youngsters now awaiting adoption through the Department of Children's Services are African-American, county officials say.

Zena Oglesby, the institute's founder, said his organization proves every day that this problem can be solved. "We've been exploding the myth that black families do not adopt," Oglesby said.

He acknowledges that the institute's challenge is huge.

In many cases, myths about adoption have created an imaginary wall separating potential parents from black children who are available for adoption.

A common misperception is that black children in the foster care system are either emotionally disturbed or addicted to crack, Oglesby said. He estimates that only a third of the black children in foster care have such troubles.

"Another third of the children are normal, but they've moved around too many times," Oglesby said. "Because they've been in 12 to 15 foster homes, they look really crazy. . . . They don't trust you. And the other third are normal and healthy, doing well in school, and have had only one foster home placement."

Oglesby added: "Their only crime is being black and over the age of 3."

For Sims, the only special needs Andrew had were for a stable home and a mother's love.

Andrew, who will be 4 in September, had been in foster care for the first three years of his life when an emergency in his foster family forced him to be relocated to a temporary foster home.

Sims said that when she first met her son, he was very withdrawn and quiet. He was missing his foster mother terribly, he was surrounded by a roomful of new faces, and he was under medication for hyperactivity.

But in the four months since they became a family, the boy with the "huge, beautiful eyes" has blossomed. "Everyone adores him," she said, and he has turned out to be a real people person.

Sims, a professor of child and family studies, has since taken Andrew off of Ritalin, a medication for attention-deficit disorders, because much of his behavior was normal for his age, she said.

"He's active but he's a typical little boy. His behavior is developmentally appropriate," she said.

The institute took great care to disclose every bit of information they could about the child's background, Sims said.

A caseworker "gave me everything she had on him," including the drugs Andrew was exposed to prenatally, information on his biological mother and father and siblings, and the child's medical and psychological profile.

A serious barrier to exploring adoption for some blacks is the fees charged by private adoption agencies, which in some cases amount to $20,000. Many think the prerequisites for adoption include marriage, high income and home ownership.

For blacks who choose to adopt through the county, the cost is significantly lower--about $500--but the process can be daunting. For example, frequent treks to the Department of Children's Services in the mid-Wilshire area are not easy for people who work 9 to 5.

And the bureaucracy, some say, can be off-putting to black adoptive parents.

In 1986, actor Taurean Blacque, who was a cast member on "Hill Street Blues," attended an adoption fair sponsored by the county.

"I talked to a social worker and told her I was interested in adopting a child," said Blacque, who had already raised two sons. "She told me that (adopting) was impossible, because 'You're a male, you're single, and you're black.' "

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