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Five questions with Commencement Speaker, Honorary Degree Recipient Toni Oliver

On Thursday, May 10, President of the National Association of Black Social Workers Toni Oliver will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the College of Public Health. A graduate of the master of social work program, Oliver has spent more than 30 years working to improve foster care, kinship care services, and adoption opportunities, particularly for children of color. Her career has taken her from the National Adoption Center in Philadelphia to her own agency, Roots, in Atlanta, where she placed more than 700 children in permanent families and facilitated kinship placements for a further 300 children.

Of all the areas of social work, why did you choose to focus on adoption? What has motivated you throughout your career?

I started finding something very interesting about the outcomes and problems and resolutions [in foster care], depending on what the population was. One of the things that kept surfacing for me was that something different was happening for children of color, particularly black children. I asked myself, what is it and why is it? And so it was fascinating for me to go into the history of child welfare services, back to the orphan trains and seeing how we as a society began to provide services for children? What have we identified as successes, what have we identified as barriers?

And the thing that kept coming to the surface was that there was either a confusion or a reluctance or a resistance to look at the population of black children in foster care and determine what was best for them. Historically, after World War II, children who were coming into the system who were of African ancestry were thought to be able to benefit from foster care services but not adoption services. Then all of a sudden, there were agencies that began to say, “why are these children in foster care when they can be adopted?” And that was kind of a light bulb for me. Who is taking this route for that population of children?

Your career has taken you from adoption centers in Philadelphia to a firm in Georgia to the founding of your own agency, and working on programs across the country and around the world. What were some of the most meaningful moments to you?

I remember a child being registered with the adoption exchange, and the child had a brain stem and no brain. And it scared me, because how do you then live that motto that “no child is unadoptable?” How could I find someone to adopt a child with these kinds of needs?

When we get the information [about potential adoptions], we ask what you consider a child with special needs. And what does “special needs” mean? Is it physical, is it intellectual disability, is it mobility, is it a child who has been born with addiction or exposure to drugs So, we force families to really think through what they feel their capabilities are. So you begin to make matches, and you see what families say “I could consider this;” then, it’s up to the workers and their agencies to work with the family so that they understand what it's going to take to be able to parent this child, what the life expectancy is, and the kinds of resources and support you’ll need. And through this process, that child was placed.

How has the field changed since you first began working in it?

When I started, it was believed at the time that black families don't adopt. But I later realized that black families do adopt; it’s just informal. A man named Robert HIll wrote a book, Informal Adoption Among Black Families, and one of the things that jumps out to me is that he was able to document that black families adopted at a rate 3-4 times greater than any other ethnic group--but it was informally.

Now, fast forward today, we have services called 'kinship care." We didn't have them in the beginning, not in the ’80s, because kin were not thought to be resources for children.

What are some of the challenges you have faced?

At Roots, we always had a waiting list of African-American families who were looking for black kids. That's supposed to be unheard of! So what was happening there? The attitude from others, initially, was that we lowered our standards for adoption. Why would there even be a concept that Roots lowers its standards, because we have a waiting list of black families. And we all “know” that black families “don't adopt”. So if this agency has a waiting list of families, they must lower their standards because what we're going through is that we're looking for a different type of family. Dealing with that misconception really bothered me.

How do you see your work fitting into the larger public health landscape?

As in other fields in public health, I'm looking at outcomes for the population that I'm focused on. In any field where African American families are being served, you can identify disparities. We want to say we treat all things the same; we want to say that whatever interventions we're using should work the same way on all populations, but the reality is that they don’t. Until we begin to really look at those populations that don't have the kinds of outcomes that we want, and determine what one population needs differently from another, we will continue to have these disparities.

Posted:  May 8, 2018