CROSSING THE COLOR BARRIER
By Cynthia M. Jeffries
Betty Tommie had been on a waiting list for more than two years to adopt a son.
During that time, three different social workers were assigned to her case, all of whom assured her they were working hard to find her a child and all of whom repeatedly told her it takes time.
After she and her then husband, Bob Wood, did some legwork themselves and contacted a private agency, they realized their wait wouldn't be too much longer.
Within three months, she had a child - a mixed-race child of both white and black heritage.
Tommie had not thought before about adopting a black child. But when it was posed to her as an option by the director of a home for unwed mothers, she didn't balk.
"He asked if it would be a problem adopting a child of a different race or ethnic background and we told him É it would be OK if the baby was purple," Tommie said.
Thanksgiving 1985, Tommie got more to be thankful for than just a big dinner. She got her son, Robby.
"What a Thanksgiving that was," she said. "It ranks (at the) top of any that I've lived so far."
Robby was 2 1/2 months old when he joined Tommie's family. The Shannon youth is now 10 and an A-B honor roll fourth-grader.
Robby's adoption occurred when his mother lived out west. Tommie moved her family to the Tupelo area six years ago. She divorced Robby's adoptive father and is now married to Rick Tommie, with whom she owns and operates Pleasant Valley Kennels.
In black and white
The Tommie family is among a number of white families across the nation who have or are seeking to adopt a child of another race. Though interracial adoption takes place more frequently now, it is still sometimes met with baffled looks and is considered unacceptable by some.
In the 1970s, the National Association of Black Social Workers condemned interracial adoptions, eventually branding such placements as cultural genocide. The organization has since softened its stance, making interracial adoptions a third option behind the preservation of biological African-American families and placement of black children in black homes.
A federal bill introduced in 1995 was designed to make the adoption process colorblind.
The law could impose fines on any state that delays or denies an adoption solely on the basis of race - a practice that occasionally occurs in some states, including Mississippi. Prior to this law, Mississippi Department of Human Services officials, who were against the bill, strongly practiced same race placements for adoptions and foster care.
Rarely does a white family in Mississippi apply to adopt a black child from the state agency, said Ann Pullum, director of placement for the state's Department of Human Services. And when they did they were turned down because case workers believed a black child needed to be with a black family to get the survival skills needed to make it in a racist society, a social worker said.
The Multiethnic Placement Act, which went into effect July 1, 1995, used now by social agencies allows case workers to consider race when making placement, but it cannot be the only and/or major criterion.
In Mississippi, more than 3,000 children are in foster care. The racial breakdown is about half and half - 50 percent of the children are white and 50 percent are black. In foster care, a black child can be - and often is - placed with a white family.
"(But) that's a temporary situation. They are not going to grow up in that environment," Pullum said.
Often, black children, once in the system, tend to stay longer, sometimes twice as long. For one thing, white foster parents are more apt to adopt their white foster child after the child has been in the home for a while but that's not always true for a black child in a black foster home.
But the state agency has been trying to turn those figures around in the 1990s.
In 1995, more black children, 47, were adopted by their foster parents than white. There were 45 white children adopted by their white foster parents in 1995. In 1994, 45 white children were adopted by their foster parents while 32 black children were adopted.
The Tommie family
Tommie said she has tried not to make race a prevalent issue in her family. But when she is forced to classify Robby by race for school records or the like, she said she checks the white race box because he is being raised in a white household.
"When I see Robby, I see a little boy that I love dearly," she said.
Robby said he is a composite of a lot of cultures - French, German, Indian, Mexican and African-American. His biological mother is white and his biological father is black.
"I'm tan," Robby said when asked which race he considers himself.
Occasionally, when Robby's blonde-haired mother goes to his school, a classmate might ask if she's his mother. Robby usually gives the classmate an annoyed look and responds, "Yes." To that, the classmate will usually reply, "Oh," and continue with whatever he or she was doing.
Tommie said she doesn't get too many stares when she and her family go out. If she does, she said she just assumes they are looking at the gray roots in her hair, not her son.
"I am the type of person who does not worry about other people's concerns where my private life is concerned," Tommie said. "If you are the least bit concerned about how some outsider will feel and what they will think, then forget about it."
Tommie has three other children, Debra Baucom, Paula Smith and Diann Wood, who attends the University of Southern Mississippi. Baucom, a school teacher who lives in Columbus, has four children, two of whom are adopted.
Thirty years ago, Tommie lost her 7-year-old son, Dewayne "Sonny" Perkins, to a brain tumor. He's one of the reasons she wanted to have another son.
At her Shannon home, photos of her four children and all six of her grandchildren cover the walls and sit atop entertainment centers and tables. One family album contains almost nothing but photos of Robby, including newborn pictures his foster mother took when he was born.
Over the years, Robby has picked up his mother's dialect, mannerisms, tastes in food and other habits. He also smiles a lot like one of his older sisters.
Tommie offers this advice to anyone seeking to adopt a child of a different skin color: "Be sure that you can give the child the love he deserves. Forget your needs. His come first.
"When I adopted Robby, I promised him and myself that I would do everything possible to make his life a joyful one. I pray that I've kept that promise."