When The Doctor Misidentified My Husband As My Kids' Foster Parent Because Of Race

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
A white dad and an interracial mom with their adopted four black kids
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

My husband took our children to the pediatrician’s office to be tested for COVID after one of our kids was exposed to a positive student on the bus. After asking the kids a series of questions, the doctor who was assigned to our children that day paused, looked up, and assumed my husband was the kids’ foster dad.

This isn’t the first time the foster-parent assumption has come up, nor will it be the last. We’ve been a multiracial, adoptive family for well over a decade. We (the parents) are white, and our kids are Black. It hasn’t mattered if we had one kid with us or all of them. Medical professionals often proclaim that we are the foster parents.

First, there’s nothing wrong with foster parenting. I’m not here to diss foster families, because we need them, desperately. There are 400,000 children in foster care in the United States, and 120,000 foster waiting to be adopted into a forever family. Stepping up to foster is hard work. Children often come into care due to neglect or abuse. It can be assumed that no matter why a child comes into care, they have or will face trauma due to separation from their biological family and being put into a system. Every year, 20,000 children age out of the system without the permanence of a safe, forever family. Yes, the statistics are staggering.

However, just because the parents and the children with them are two different races (or more) doesn’t mean the children are in foster care. In fact, most children in foster care are white, not children of color. So to look at two white parents and assume that they are fostering their children is solely based on race and foster care stereotypes.

Years ago, I took my oldest to the hospital for her scheduled tonsillectomy. The person registering my daughter for surgery asked me some basic questions, including our insurance card. Printed on the card were all of our family members’ names. We all have the same last name and the same insurance policy. She frowned at the card and then asked me for my daughter’s “papers.” I asked her what papers she was referring to, as we were only told to bring my child’s insurance card. Meanwhile, my daughter, who was only five at the time, was growing more and more anxious about her pending surgery. She kept piping up, “Mommy?” while I was trying to get her registered.

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The woman asked me for my daughter’s “papers” again—something that proved that she belonged to me. I almost laughed. Then I tried to keep a straight face and said, “Well, she’s calling me mommy, we have the same last name, and we have the same insurance. She’s my daughter.” The lady continued to prompt me, and I told her, “We don’t carry around our daughter’s birth certificate or court documents.” I then added, “Her doctor is well aware that she’s our daughter, and today we will be proceeding with her surgery.”

Meanwhile, a white couple with a white child were in the registration process a few feet from us. Not once did the registration person they were working with ask if the child with them was theirs. She didn’t ask for any proof that the child was, in fact, their child. I wasn’t surprised, but it was infuriating. Here I was trying to tend to my very-nervous daughter before a medical procedure, and Miss Registration was trying to be a self-appointed detective.

I also thought later, why in the world would an adult take a random stranger-child in for a scheduled surgery? This just doesn’t make any sense. It’s not like when parents lie about their kids ages to get them a free meal or a cheaper theme park ticket. Sneaking into a surgery with a kid who isn’t mine is the most bizarre cover-up.

We are very open about being an adoptive, multiracial family. I’ve written dozens of articles about race and adoption. However, when an adult who is supposed to be professional grills us about our authenticity in front of our kids, it’s othering, it can be embarrassing, and it’s solely based on race.

When we were seeking a new pediatrician for our children a few years ago, our intake nurse did the same thing. She said, “And you are…?” to which I replied, “Their mother.” She frowned and said, “Well, um, I have to put down who you are on this form. So you are their foster mother?” Again, I pointed out we have the same last name, we’re on the insurance card, the kids are calling me Mom, and I am just “Mom” — not “foster mom” or even “adoptive mom.” Again, it’s not secret my kids were adopted, but my identity is “Mom” and my kids are my “kids” not my “adopted kids.”

The professionals are the ones making it weird—in a situation in which there’s already some anxiety. No one goes to a medical appointment because things are fine. We’re there to have a medical situation addressed. To get the third degree is unnecessary. It’s not that hard to Google adoption, foster care, multiracial families, or anything else. I don’t mind offering a little education, but never at the expense of my family’s privacy or well-being. We aren’t fragile, but my kids aren’t adoption’s poster children, and they certainly aren’t foster care’s poster kids (since they weren’t ever in foster care). No child, even if they are in foster care, should be expected to endure an adult who can’t seem to figure out how to be professional and have decent manners.

Now before you angry-message me, I recognize that medical professionals need to know the identity of the adult bring the child to the appointment. That’s not in question. But when they interrogate us or make false assumptions, the focus shifts from why we are at the appointment in the first place to an Adoption, Foster Care, or Multiracial 101 class. I imagine lots of families face the same issue we do, including same-sex couples, kids being raised by someone other than their biological parent, step-families, and others.

You might be wondering if there’s a more appropriate way for the medical professional to identify the adult present with the child. The answer is yes. First, it needs to be asked tactfully. We can go ahead and drop the frowns real fast. The medical professional can ask the child, gesturing toward the adult, “Who brought you to the appointment today?” This is a great idea. One, it encourages the child to establish a connection to the medical professional. Two, it prompts the child to speak for themselves—an important skill they should have in almost any situation.

The other option is for the medical professional to ask the adult, “What is your relationship to the child?” This is perfectly reasonable. We can never assume that the adult bringing the kid is or isn’t the child’s parent–and certainly not based on if they racially match. The adult could be a grandparent, a step-parent, a child care provider, or someone else. Of course, the adult could be a foster parent, a biological parent, or a parent (like us) who adopted the child. This question should be asked of every single adult and child who comes into the office, not solely the interracial families. In our case, we aren’t a foster family, where a same-race family could be. A foster family doesn’t look a certain way. In fact, there are a growing number of foster families where there is a parent of color and a child who is white.

The point is, you can’t identify foster families based on race. Furthermore, all the foster families I know are well-educated on how the system works and what is expected of them. They don’t go to appointments trying to conceal the fact that they are foster family. There’s full and up-front disclosure.

As a multiracial and adoptive family, we face plenty of weird questions from the general public. I’ve been asked if I run a daycare or preschool, if I’m my kids’ nanny, or if I’m babysitting. I always have the same reply. “Nope! I’m their mom.” Sometimes people have asked us where our kids “real parents” are, to which I say, “I’m right here. I’m not their fake mom.” I don’t go into open adoption, the fact that my kids have two moms and two dads (all of whom are “real”), or other personal adoption information. Often, people just want “the scoop,” the intimate details of my kids’ adoptions, which we never offer. That’s none of their business. This includes medical appointments.

If medical professionals—or any other people in children’s lives, such as teachers, coaches, neighbors—could recognize that children and their parents (foster or otherwise) don’t have to “match” to be a family, that would be helpful in making sure that children aren’t othered. If they truly need to know the identity of the adult who is present with the child, there are ways they can ask—tactfully and respectfully.

As for our recent situation, my husband promptly corrected the doctor. “I’m their dad,” he said. When the kids got back home, they told me what happened, finding it a bit bizarre and somewhat amusing. We joked that they should have told the doctor he’s their “white dad.” Within our own home, we’re just a normal family. It’s when we step out that some people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the fact that families don’t have to be the same race and can be just as “real” as the next family.

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