A mixed family heritage

When Rose and Tom Hesselbrock looked into the tiny face of their adopted daughter Caley for the first time in 1991, the Bainbridge couple, like new parents everywhere, fell in love.

Caley’s mixed heritage from an African American birth father and Caucasian birth mother in no way lessened the Hesselbrocks’ regard for their daughter – but her background would present ethical dilemmas as they considered raising a child of color on predominantly white Bainbridge.

When Caley was in kindergarten, the family decided to leave the island for Mount Baker.

“We loved Bainbridge,” Tom Hesselbrock said. “We were very involved with church, the community and our friends.

“But Caley was paramount.”

Certainly, not all interracial adoptive families leave the island. But those who live here must find ways to address their children’s racial and ethnic identities, parents say.

Washington State adoption law specifies that families can’t ignore a child’s background. In notarized pre- and post-placement adoption reports, adoption workers must swear that they have informed parents about the need to teach their children about their heritage.

“The most important thing is, you have to be sure the family knows that they have to develop an appreciation for the child’s culture themselves,” said Anne Moody, a Bainbridge adoption professional and parent of an adopted Korean daughter. “They have to learn enough – and care enough – to internalize it.

“And ‘heritage’ means more than ethnic foods. When parents adopt a child of a different race or ethnicity, they adopt the politics and the history of that racial or ethnic group. They inherit the history of slavery and the civil rights movement. They inherit the Korean War.”

How to interpret and carry out the mandate is left to the parents.

There are two adoption agencies located on Bainbridge that do interracial adoptions. At “A Center for Adoption Services,” Drew Martin Groves places mostly bi-racial and special needs babies; and Ann Moody and Patty Beasely run Adoption Connections, an agency that places children of all races born in the U.S.

Today, Bainbridge families are raising African American, Pakistani, Guatemalan, Peruvian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Korean, Russian and Thai children.

The number of interracial families-through-adoption who call the island home is estimated at 30-40, but no agency has attempted a formal count.

Like other interracial adoptive families, Bainbridge parents’ choices in how to teach children their roots are shaped by the heritage, age and temperament of the child, the culture of the family and the available options.

A pale island

Interracial mingling is limited on Bainbridge, where, according to the latest census figures, 93 percent of the population is white.

Agencies may refer families to off-island support groups for parents with children of like heritage. Some adoptive families try to number people of diverse ethnicities among their friends.

A few adoptive families have interracial extended or nuclear families.

Before Ellen Shiff and Caspar Lane adopted their daughter Renee from Korea in 1987, they spent five years as foster parents to two Korean-American boys.

Marilyn Wistrand, who runs a Kitsap adoption support group, had a built-in comfort zone for adopted 14-year-old Korean daughter Amy.

“We have six or seven relatives who represent different races or ethnicities,” Wistrand said. “We have African American, Alaskan Native, Mexican, Filipino and Korean relatives.”

But having a friend of the same heritage is also important. The friendship between Amy and Renee has helped both girls, parents say.

“Amy needed at have least one friend who looks like her,” Wistrand said. “If a racial remark gets passed, they can bounce off each other.”

Renee, a freshman at Bainbridge High School, right now finds being a teen more to the point than being Asian.

“I don’t think of myself all the time as being of a different color,” Lane said. “I have white friends and I have a lot of Asian friends, too.

“In Bainbridge High School, kids pick their friends for their personality, not for their race.”

Lane says it’s when she steps out into a larger social context that the subject comes up.

“Sometimes I talk with my Korean friends about being Asian,” Lane said. “We talk about how, when we meet people, they think we’re Japanese or Chinese.

“When we say we’re Korean, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow,’ like they never heard of it.”

Lane says she and her friends are not harassed for being Asian, now, but she remembers being teased in grade school.

“It was partly because I looked different,” Lane said, “but also because I was so quiet and never said anything.”

At every developmental stage, adoption professionals say, children revisit identity issues with increasing sophistication and depth.

Chris Henry, mother of an adopted Korean teen, agrees.

“The question of identity is more complex when children get older,” Henry said. “It’s more complex than I imagined.

“And it’s complicated by the fact that when they get to be teens and preteens, part of their mission in life is to fit in. It’s important to lay the foundation when they are younger, and not just your own child’s racial heritage but to nurture an openness towards other backgrounds in general.”

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