Since Negro family applications to adopt are as rare as rain in the Mojave desert, the backlog of interracial babies threatens the structure of Keebler's department and her mental health. When Paul and Anne Barlin, a white family, say they will adopt a child "of any color, any national origin," Keebler believes she may have found a way to resolve this backlog of babies.
To make this unusual adoption a reality, she must have the courage to flaunt the law or stand up to the state legislature and ask them to repeal the law. Her actions will determine if one at-risk child will be placed in a loving home. This one case has the potential to change the landscape of adoption forever.
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In White AmericaInterracial Children and Adoption
By Paul Barlin
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Paul Barlin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLos Angeles, California, 1955
Jessica Keebler came out of her bathroom wrapped in her late husband's white terrycloth robe. She lay back against the pillows on her bed and held cucumber slices over her eyes and the puffy dark circles that had formed beneath them. She hoped that this treatment, together with the facial scrub and the cold body rinse in the shower, would help her weary, worried face recover from another sleepless night. The director of the Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoptions had suffered another nightmare because her overload of seventy-six interracial, "unadoptable" babies was to be increased by eight more from County General Hospital, and there were no more acceptable foster homes.
Though desperate for the peace that sleep could bring, Jessica had instead dreamed of a rushing stream of interracial babies tumbling toward her—babies with light skin and Asian eyes, babies with dark skin, babies with broad noses on unexpectedly White faces ... all bumped against her, repeatedly knocking her down. Drenched, sobbing for their hopeless souls, she struggled up, only to be battered down by another jumble of brown bodies and white bodies with a mix of ethnic faces and features that cried, threw up, and howled. Their flailing hands reached to touch her, grab her, hold on to her to be held and loved. Her Quaker-like devotion to helping helpless children was overwhelmed, and it defeated her. Tormented in her dream because she couldn't place these unadoptable babies in permanent homes, she had lain there and flung her shouts for help onto the sky in gigantic letters for her late husband to read, wherever he was. Lenny, Lenny, I need you!
In their twenty-eight years of marriage, Lenny, a staff supervisor in Los Angeles child care, had been her always-available sounding board. Lenny, how does this sound? Do you think they'll take my advice? Five years ago, he had been scheduled for promotion to director of childcare. One month later, his cancer had been discovered.
The cause of Jessica's watershed night was a phone call she had received the day before from County General Hospital that had added eight more to her overload of interracial babies, twelve of whom were already in substandard foster homes. And the situation could only get worse, because a statute in the adoption law classified an interracial baby as a "non-White" who could only be adopted by a Negro family. And, in 1955, an adoption application from a Negro family was as rare as rain in the Mojave Desert.
In Los Angeles' post World War II population boom, teenage girls were delivering interracial babies to the county faster than Jessica could find foster homes for them. Two weeks earlier, Jeff Hinkley, investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, had spread the alarm countywide, illuminating photos included, that the taxpayers were not getting the loving foster homes for babies that they were paying for. Jessica's caseworkers who continually checked on the treatment of the babies in foster homes, were strained to the breaking point by their at-max number of caseloads.
Yesterday's call from Beth Washington, County General's head maternity nurse, had shaken Jessica. The addition of eight babies onto the adoption scene threatened to be the final straw that would collapse her department's work structure. This morning, with her agency under overload attack, Jessica lay against her pillows with cucumber slices on eyes that were closed to shut out the impending chaos at the agency. In her solitary darkness, she ached to forget it all, to relax for the few minutes she had until it was time for her to dress and leave for work. But the memory of Beth's unbalancing phone call intruded, and, as Jessica remembered the dialogue, she became inflamed again ...
After nominal hellos, Jessica had anticipated the worst and had spoken first. "I hoped I wouldn't hear from you this month, Beth."
"Eleven! You've got to be kidding."
"This is spring, Jessica. Teenagers like to cuddle in the winter."
"Are they all mixed?"
"No, three are Whites, eight—"
"I don't have homes for eight more!"
"I know I'm passing the buck, honey, but, until the county gives me more space, I've got to make room for the next ones coming in. I don't have options, Jessica. They're lined up—"
"I don't have options, either, Beth. I ran out of foster homes twelve babies ago ..."
The call had ended.
Jessica took the slices from her eyes, sprang up, and threw them in the trash. "Enough wallowing in disasters," she mumbled. She felt she had to talk to her staff before they went on their rounds.
Chapter TwoHank interrupted his explanation of the blueprints. "Paul, before we add 4,000 pounds of new bedrooms to your house, let's go down and check the foundation."
We stood on the uneven dirt floor of the cellar to check what I had thought was the pier-and-post foundation of the small hillside house that I lived in with Anne and her twelve-year-old daughter Leanne. But, to our dismay, there were no concrete piers under the vertical posts. Some carpenter had bypassed the permit laws and bootlegged ten-foot lengths of two-by-six wood on the sandstone—the outlawed mudsill construction—and to them nailed the posts that supported the house.
Hank slid a large screwdriver out of his tool belt and pushed it into the mudsill. The surface crumbled like a cracker, and the driver would have gone through except for a quarter-inch layer of sound wood at the bottom.
"Termites," Hank said.
"Damn!" I responded. The job of building the two bedrooms had just quadrupled.
Hank jabbed the screwdriver into the mudsill at different points with the same result. "They've been feasting," Hank added.
"No wonder our living room floor is slanted."
"Yup." Hank's brown eyes above his high, thin-boned nose looked at me sympathetically as he told me the bad news softly. "Code today won't allow mudsills. The cheapest route within code is grouted cinder blocks." That was as far as his desire to be helpful could go. He knew that Anne and I didn't have the money to pay him to work on the foundation as well as to build the bedrooms. We went upstairs.
Anne and I had put in our application for a baby with the Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoptions, and I was using our waiting time to develop remodeling plans with friend and building contractor, Hank Schier. Adequate bedroom space was a must in order to be given a baby. I figured that we could afford Hank's expertise to build two bedrooms, one for the expected baby and a new one of proper size and comfort for Leanne.
Leanne did her homework and slept in an eight-by-ten, swept-out chicken coop that some previous owner had attached to the uphill side of the fifty-year-old box of a house. It was attached to our main living space, which was a forty-by-twenty-five-foot studio apartment rectangle. Anne and I slept at the front end of the room. On the opposite twenty-five-foot-long wall, adjacent to each other, were the bathroom, dining area, and a bit of a kitchen, through which we could exit to the backyard.
The house was of ancient construction. The lath-and-plaster ceiling had sagged noticeably ... frighteningly. I had built a wooden frame with a hydraulic jack under it, and lifted the ceiling back up to level. I climbed into the attic, cleared thick layers of spider webs, and nailed struts to hold the ceiling joists firmly in place. I felt confident it could no longer threaten to come down on our heads.
I sat at the table with Hank and waited while he wrote out the sand and cement formulas for the mortar I would have to use to lay the foundation blocks, and for grout to fill them. He also wrote down the name and phone number of the sand and gravel company.
After he left, I called the company and ordered the quantities of cinder blocks, sand, gravel, and cement that Hank had suggested. The bill came to $71.20. "Yes," I affirmed, "I'll pay on delivery." I double-checked my memory. We still had $211 in our checking account.
While I was still on the phone, Anne walked in from teaching her morning adult dance class. I waved to her with my free hand. Talking into the phone, I settled on the day and time of delivery—when I would not be teaching. "Monday, nine a.m." Anne was talking. "Hold on," I said into the phone, and turned to Anne, who was still talking as she hurried toward the bathroom. "I don't have to go until I get home. As soon as I get in the house—" The door closed.
On the phone, I repeated the day and time of delivery to confirm. I had to be sure to be home when the truck came so I could get the driver to drop the stuff as close to the house as possible.
With a rented bulldozer, I had dug out the hillside to the approximate curve and elevation of the road we eventually wanted to have paved. For the first time, it would be possible to drive up alongside the house instead of parking seventy feet below in the short cul-de-sac of Ewing Street, which I'd been doing since I moved in with Anne seven years ago. For all those years, we had hauled our groceries and all else up the concrete steps the city had built from the Ewing Street dead end to Alvarado Street that ran along the upper ridge above us. Our house was a third of the way up the hill. At the dirt path leading to our patio, the city interrupted the metal pipe banister that accompanied the steps, creating an eight-foot space that allowed us access to our home.
I had told Anne that the roadway was not usable yet, so we had still been parking down below and hauling things up the steps. But we happily anticipated the big change. When we had the money, we'd have the road graded and paved.
Anne came out of the bathroom as I hung up the phone. "Did you call the adoption agency?" she asked.
"Agency? No, I was ordering stuff to put a foundation under the house."
"Foundation? I thought we were just going to build two bedrooms."
"Hank was here, and he said that the city wouldn't grant us a building permit when the inspector saw the foundation."
"What's wrong with it?"
"Can't we just spray them?"
"It's the wrong kind of structure. It is no longer acceptable for wood to be in direct contact with the ground. Not in this climate. Winters aren't cold enough to kill termites."
"We don't have the money to hire Hank to do the foundation, too."
"No, we don't. I'm going to do it, solo."
"When will you have time?"
"When I'm not teaching—like this morning, which I spent with Hank."
Anne changed the subject. "You wanna eat? I'm starved."
"Yes, I brought up some eggs from the chicken coop."
"Good," she said, and headed for the fridge.
"Hank was showing me how to do the foundation," I continued. "We're going to live on jacks for a while."
Anne stopped and turned. "Jacks?"
"Yes. I have to jack up the house while I'm putting a new foundation under it. And it will be level for the first time."
Anne looked at me. "Is it safe?"
"Hank told me how. Of course, if we had the money, you, I, and Leanne would live in a motel while Hank brought in a crew and did the job one-two-three!"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," scoffed Anne.
I got up and walked toward the kitchen. "Why don't you make us an omelet? I'll start the toast."
"Okay. Do we have cheese?"
From the fridge, Anne gathered celery, onion, and cheese and began dicing. She spoke as she chopped. "You said you were going to call the agency."
"I know, but I didn't expect to have to worry about a new foundation. I'll call after we eat." I had decided on a system of calling the agency once a month until we got results. It was time for the third call.
"Why don't you call now? It'll only take a minute."
* * *
Our request for a baby had mired us in frustration. Three years ago, a social worker friend had advised us, "Ask for a Jewish child. Agencies follow a general practice of a Jewish child for a Jewish family." Following her advice, Anne and I thought we'd speed things up by applying to the Jewish Adoption Agency. But they said there were no Jewish babies available. As we left the office, I whispered to Anne, "Nice Jewish girls don't have sex before marriage."
We waited a year and applied again. This time they said that they did have some Jewish babies, but, since Anne and I were almost forty, we were too old to be given an infant. Frustrated for having wasted a year, we applied at the Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoptions, where Director Jessica Keebler also advised us to write "Jewish child" on our application. Checking with them occasionally added up to two more years of waiting.
Anne thought about the last two years we'd wasted waiting. She whipped the omelet mercilessly. "Why is it so damned hard," she growled, "to get a baby?"
I got up to go to the phone. "Go easy on the omelet," I said softly, careful to not make it sound like a criticism.
Anne stopped, exhaled an angry breath, and poured the mix into the hot skillet, which sizzled loudly in greeting.
Anne's frustration with the agency made me wonder again at her longtime insistence on our having a baby. Why her intensity? I thought again. She had begun her drumbeat a year after we married. I had agreed, but then she experienced two tubal pregnancies in two years, which made us turn toward adopting. So far, we'd lost three more years chasing an adoption.
With the help of some couple therapy during our turbulent marriage of seven years, I had slowly come to understand that Anne was passionate to counter her negative start into life. Anne rarely talked about her beginnings. Piecing fragments together, I eventually understood why ...
Another reason I continued to be introspective about who Anne and I were, was sparked by the intent way Mrs. Keebler looked at us when we applied to adopt. Her look asked, "Are you suitable parents?"
On my way to the phone, I wondered again. Was I a suitable parent? Was Anne? Had I overcome my negative beginnings? Had Anne?
* * *
In 1914, when World War I broke out, Anne's Austrian parents were running a small café in their native country just over the border in France. Since Austria allied itself with Germany, French authority considered her parents "enemy aliens," and, as Jews, they were doubly unwelcome in Catholic France. The French incarcerated her parents for the duration of the war in a dungeon-like prison in Saint-Nazaire on the west coast. As the war ground on, food became less and less available. Anne was born in the prison in the summer of 1916. At the age of one, she became blind from malnutrition.
After war's end, when they were released from prison, and food other than white-flour baguettes and watery soup again became available, Anne slowly regained her sight, but her retinas were permanently scarred. As soon as her parents could afford them, Anne wore glasses.
On her mother's single visit to us in Los Angeles, I learned that Anne was six when her family reached Ellis Island. Her mother said that Anne smashed her doll, the only toy she'd ever owned, left it on the boat, and never spoke German again. It was as if she'd vowed, That bad stuff is not me. I'm starting all over.
Because her first years had been so painful, Anne had apparently rejected her parents and all that had happened to her before she saw the Statue of Liberty. No wonder she rarely talked about her beginnings.
She might have become another angry, embittered child and adult if she had not discovered her life's work when she was seven, in the dance classes of the Henry Street Settlement House on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Her teachers were devoted students of Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Ted Shawn, Jose Limon, and other dance icons. These American dancers had broken with the stilted formalism of imported European ballet. The frightening carnage of World War I and the powerhouse thrust of immigrants who determined to make it in America, demanded more of the dance art than the courtly posturing created by European royalty in the 1800s. Her teachers felt that dance should be expressive of the human being. Anne reveled in finally giving vent to her seething feelings.
Excerpted from In White America by Paul Barlin Copyright © 2011 by Paul Barlin. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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