ATLANTA (Reuters) - When Theresa Alden adopted two black boys from an agency in Philadelphia, she changed her lifestyle for them and they changed her outlook on race.
Alden, who is 50 and white, started attending a black church near her home in Lancaster, established a network of black friends and acquaintances, began listening to more black music and buying children's books by black authors.
"My boys will be in a minority here. How do you face the issues that go along with that?" she said when asked about her attempts to give them role models and points of reference.
Alden's children, Gavin and Graem, are two of around 140,000 adopted in the United States each year. Of those, around 20,000 are adopted by adults of a different race.
But black children in foster care are less likely to be adopted into a family than children from other races and U.S. laws governing adoption are failing, according to a major new report.
One of those laws requires state agencies to seek adoptive homes with people of the same ethnic background but prevent a child from not being placed in a home on the basis of race or ethnicity.
There are many reasons for the imbalance that gives a vulnerable group -- black children in foster care -- an added disadvantage, said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which published the report.
Some parents say children adopted from foster care will be harder to bring up, while others are nervous about bureaucracy surrounding the process of adopting from foster care or reluctant to deal with the complexity surrounding race when it comes to adopting black children.
The trend worries social workers, not least because black children, who represent 15 percent of all children in the country, make up 32 percent of those waiting for adoption -- more than any other group.
"The system is not getting them into the homes at the rate they are supposed to," Pertman said.
'WE'LL MISS YOU'
Transracial adoption, particularly of black children by non-black parents, raises complex issues in a country with a history of discrimination and a struggle to overcome it.
The process was illegal in many states before the 1960s because it violated laws about racial mixing.
Some people challenge whether it is appropriate for white parents to bring up a black child, fearing that the child's black cultural heritage will be lost.
In one example, Betsy Hyder, who with her husband adopted two black children in Georgia, said people regularly affirmed her decision to adopt transracially but not all.
Once at a hospital, a black man told her boy "We'll miss you, young man" as though she had stolen a child from its race, said Hyder, who now lives in California.
"What's weird is that in my (family) life we feel so normal. I can't imagine us being together any other way but I know that's not how we are perceived (by all)," she said.
Children brought up by parents of a different race can feel inferior to people from their own race but also superior or just isolated from them, said Joseph Crumbley, a consultant, family therapist and author of books on transracial adoption.
One finding of the Donaldson report said parents seeking to adopt a child from another race should get more help in dealing with the complexities of the decision.
The laws require training for parents adopting from another country but offer no similar help for parents adopting an American child transracially on the grounds it would conflict with the ideal of a "colorblind" society that does not take race into account.
But the debate over how to make transracial adoption serve a colorblind ideal, while reasonable, should be framed around the best interests of the child, according to Pertman.
Since adopting Gavin and Graem in 2002 and 2003, Alden has set up a support group for families who have adopted children of a different race.
While settled about her family and confident about her children's ability to form a positive racial identity, she said her own views on race had been altered by her experience.
"As soon as someone sees our family we look different and the questions that come up are out of ignorance. It's not that people are trying to be unkind, it's just that they are just not aware," said Alden.
"If you adopt a girl from China then you are high on the acceptance level of the population around you ... As the (child's) color gets darker, it's less accepted by your community, your church, your city, your people."
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)