Oglesby, Zena 1947—
Zena Oglesby 1947—
Adoption rights activist
In Losing Isaiah, the 1995 film about transracial adoption starring Jessica Lange and Halle Berry, a key courtroom scene zeroes in on the legal question to be decided—Who will have custody, the black biological mother or the white adoptive mother? But also at issue is the deep abiding anger many African Americans feel toward this controversial issue. “Wouldn’t you say,” a lawyer for the white adoptive mother notes, [questioning a black social worker on the stand], “that you’re putting political policy above the emotional health of these children?”
“No,” the social worker replies. “All things being equal, the black child is better off with black parents.” The lawyer: “’All things being equal.’ What if all things are not equal?” The social worker: “Ms. Jones, I am sick and tired of the attitude that says that taking poor black children out of their environment and placing them in an affluent household is better for the child. What kind of values does that suggest?”
Zena Oglesby, a Los Angeles-based adoption rights activist for the African American community, would second that notion. As the founder and executive director of the Institute for Black Parenting, Oglesby has dedicated his career to ending what he characterizes as the nationwide buying and selling of black and interracial babies and the frequent preference adoption agencies give white couples because they have ready cash and affluent homes and because adoption workers simply assume black adoptive parents can not be found.
“Go to any white adoption agency and ask them how many black people do they have who will pay $25,000 for a baby,” Oglesby said in a telephone interview with CBB. “What you will get is ’virtually none,’ and that’s why they place them transracially with anyone who has the money. That has always been the practice in America, and nobody is challenging that practice. “But if you’re talking about a baby, there is no shortage of black families to adopt a baby. Period. Exclamation point. I’ve got 50 [black] families right now waiting for an infant. And I can give you the names of ten other adoption agencies that have way too many people waiting for babies.”
“The problem,” said the 49-year-old Oglesby, “is assumptions manipulated by ill-informed media. The problem is untrained black parents who often lose out to white parents for just that reason. The problem is the failure by the white community to consider that stiff adoption “fees” to acquire a baby feel an awful lot like slavery transactions to even high-income black couples. The problem is legislation like the 1994 Multiethnic Placement Act, the first of several legislative efforts to remove traditional barriers for whites to adopt transracially. And the result? Black and transracial children who could have gone to African American families going,
At a Glance…
Born Zena Oglesby on May 2, 1947, in Milwau kee, Wis.; son of Zena Sr. (a steelworker) and Eddie Mae (Owens) Oglesby (a county employee); married three times, to: Carolyn Tuggle, Mae Harris, and (since 1988) Renee Dixon. Children: Lisa (by Carolyn Tuggle), Jamal (by Renee Dixon) and (her two children from an earlier union), Christien and Brandon. Education: attended University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, B.A. 1973, M.A. 1975, incomplete work for Ph.D., University of Texas-Austin, 1980-83.
Career: Activist for African American adoption. Social worker for Milwaukee schools; social worker in adoptions for San Bernadino County; training administrator for federal Adoption Resource Center, Region Nine; supervisor for Child Protective Services, Riverside County; case manager for South Central Regional Center for disabled children, Los Angeles; founder/exec. dir., Institute for Black Parenting, 1988—.
Addresses: Office —c/o The Institute for Black Parenting, 9920 La Cienga Blvd., Suite 806, Inglewood, CA 90301.
instead, to white families. There, they will almost certainly be loved, but they also almost certainly will struggle with questions of identity for the rest of their lives.”
“The real issue is the American conscience,” Oglesby said. “Is America interested in fairness or not? The law that was just passed demonstrates that they are not. The African American community in this country does not know what has happened. When they find out, they’re going to be very, very upset.”
Oglesby himself, fortunately, did not suffer the kinds of identity trauma he speaks of among black adoptive children. Instead, he was born on May 2,1947, into an intact household headed by his father, Zena Sr., and his mother, Eddie Mae. His father was a steelworker, his mother a county employee in corrections and mental health. There were two younger brothers and a sister in the household, and home was north Milwaukee, the inner city. Was the youthful Oglesby surrounded by the drugs and crime that this scenario suggests? Yes, he can say now, but he considered his childhood normal and calm. “Most people living in the inner city don’t notice they have problems.”
Schooling was local, at Rufus King High School, followed by a year of college at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. The Vietnam war was raging at the time, and Oglesby was determined to stay out of it; the college deferment was one route, but the deferment ended; so he returned home, where he attended Milwaukee Area Technical College. Still managing to avoid the draft, Oglesby married his first wife, Carolyn Tuggle, and became a young father, to daughter Lisa, in 1970. But the marriage was short-lived. Oglesby, nevertheless, stayed in school, transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he received his undergraduate degree in criminology in 1973 and his master’s degree in social work in 1975.
Fresh out of school, he went to work for the Milwaukee school board, where he was part of the city’s desegregation team in those turbulent times. In 1976 he married again; his second wife was Mae Harris. As part of this new start, the couple relocated to San Bernadino, CA, following a vacation there. And it was in San Bernadino that Oglesby really began to feel at home and to carve out the area of social work that would be his vocation-adoption.
“I was the first black social worker ever hired in adoptions in the county,” he recalled. But he was working strictly on linking black babies to black families. “Interracial adoption was not an issue in the public sector because people adopting transracially were doing it through the private agencies and paying for them, which had nothing to do with the business I was in. There was nobody at that time interested in adopting black children, period. That adoption application at that time said ’anything but black,’ as a matter of fact.”
Oglesby worked for San Bernadino for three years before taking his next job, in a federal program, the Adoption Resource Center, for Region Nine, where he administered training resources for California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, and the Pacific Trust islands. This job was a real eye-opener, Oglesby remembered. “I was working in adoption doing recruitment because there were no African American families around, and conventional wisdom had it that African Americans ’didn’t adopt’ and that didn’t seem right to me since the black extended family seemed so incredibly strong. So I started doing recruitment, and it was obvious that [that impression] was not true ... we ended up with almost 100 families in six months.”
Why this information gap? Adoption, Oglesby said, was and is “an extremely well-kept secret” for blacks, and when African Americans did come forward they were often screened out “due to cultural incompetence.” Adoption personnel, he said, didn’t know what they were looking at,”and they were looking for Donna Reed.” To better prepare himself for dealing with this problem on an even broader basis, Oglesby enrolled as a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas in Austin in 1980. But he dropped out of the program after his second marriage broke up, and returned to California. In 1983, he went to work supervising child protective services for Riverside County. There, he saw still more evidence of the problem-kids going into the system and not coming out, no emphasis on preserving families, a singleminded emphasis on taking kids away from parents and relegating them to foster care, where caseloads have skyrocketed, along with foster-family child abuse.
A big problem, Oglesby explained, was and is “untrained” parents: “Eighty percent of the children removed are removed for neglect, not abuse, and when I say ’neglect,’ I mean very simplistic things that can be corrected very easily.” Welfare mothers are a case in point, he said. They can be taught to parent, taught not to leave their children while they run to the store—the types of things children get removed from their families for.
By the mid-1980s, Oglesby was ready to change jobs again; this time, he went to work for the quasi-public South Central Regional Center for disabled children in Los Angeles, first as a case manager, then a transportation specialist. Through a coworker at the center, he met his third wife, Renee, who he married in 1988; the couple had a biological child, Jamal, 4-years-old. Ogles-by’s wife is also the mother of Christien, 17-years-old, and Brandon, 14-years-old. With Oglesby’s own first biological child, Lisa, now 26-years-old, the household is a large one.
And it has given Oglesby plenty of practice in parenting himself. It has also strengthened the ideas he has put together over the years for a center on black parenting, which he designed while at the Los Angeles center and then left to found in Los Angeles in 1988 (the center has since relocated to nearby Inglewood). Why adoption as an issue? “Kids are trapped and I don’t know how anyone who works with them can ever move away from it, “Oglesby said in the interview. “You try, butyou can’t. I went from a paid position to always working free of charge,” to recruit black adoptive parents and to train other recruiters in the African American community. En route, “It became clear to me that no amount of work was going to change the public sector. That it was important that private agencies be created that were run by African Americans, that were going to be culturally competent in the first place, and, secondly, fully licensed by the government to do what public agencies could do.”
Today, the Institute for Black Parenting is a licensed adoption and foster care agency that makes about 50 placements a year, primarily to hard-to-place children; it also has about 220 children in foster care. Celebrities like actor Blair Underwood and basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar help recruit families. The staff consists of 40 full-time and 20 part-time employees. Funding is from federal and state sources, not “adoption fees”; the Institute is one of three minority agencies in Los Angeles created out of special funding to place black children with black families.
But Oglesby said he sees the Institute in jeopardy as the result of the Democratic-sponsored Multiethnic Placement Act passed in 1994. “I’m in danger of being investigated by the [Justice Department’s] Office of Civil Rights for doing what I was created to do,” he said. Already, the law—which was aimed at blocking race from becoming a factor in public-sector adoptions—has spawned similar moves at the state level, Oglesby said. Two Hispanic adoption agencies in California have been de-funded before opening, and a law in Texas has been passed forbidding social workers there from mentioning race with clients, he said.
A second potential law has also appeared on the horizon. In May 1996, President Bill Clinton expressed “strong support” for a Republican-sponsored bill to move further to block race from being an issue in adoptions. In an interview an aide to the bill’s sponsor, U.S. Representative Susan Molinari, a Republican from New York, the aide said that Clinton’s own Health and Human Services agency had watered down the 1994 bill so much that Molinari had seen the need to file another. The Molinari measure, if passed, would fine states that delay interracial adoptions so as to await the possibility of a same-race placement.
The bill not only had Clinton’s support, but in a New York Times report, the National Association of Black Social Workers task—which is generally opposed to interracial adoptions—said that the group “could live” with the bill, because of compromise language allowing race to be considered if more than one qualified family sought to adopt the same child.
Viewing these developments, Oglesby, however, said he has to redouble his efforts to get the word out to the black community about what is happening to its parentless children. “The more infertile America becomes, the more thirsty it is for other children—just to have babies to raise them,” he said. While philosophically opposed to transracial adoption, he also opposes ripping children from families—even white families—once they have been placed. “What I am afraid of is black babies being sent to northern Idaho where they will never see another black person. It’s not enough in America just to have love; there’s still institutional racism.”
So, one of the main things Oglesby advocates is action to acculturate black children—and here he includes biracial children, as well. Another thing is keeping black families together, through adoption assistance funds (which he says the Republicans’ Contract for America is trying to eliminate) and through parental training. He also wants to end “the classical mistake media make”—assuming there are too few African American parents for African American babies. This is true for older, hard-to-place children. It is not true for infants, he insists. “The real issue is that every single transracial adoption case adjudicated in America is children under three, “he said.
Last, and perhaps most important, is the practice of buying babies in America and all the bizarre policy and practices it fosters. Oglesby likes to mention an ad he saw for a San Antonio agency which advertised African American babies at $7,500, biracial babiesat $10,000 and Hispanic babies at $12,000, “basedon the color of the baby.”
“In our profession, we are taught to go out and find children for families, not families for children, “Oglesby said. “And the government has passed a law that provides children for infertile families. My profession—what I’ve dedicated 20 years to—is finding families for children. “I don’t owe the families anything because I haven’t taken any money from them. If I can find a family that fits the children’s needs, fine. If the family doesn’t fit what that child needs, I tell the family goodbye. Because I’m not in this business to find you a baby. Private adoption agencies across this country—that’s exactly the business they’re in.”
Los Angeles Times, August 8, 1993, p. J1.
New York Times, May 7, 1996.
Telephone Interview with Zena Oglesby, April 12, 1996.
Telephone Interview with James Mazzarella, aide to U.S. Rep. Susan Molinari, May 7, 1996.
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