The U.S. is exporting more African American babies to Canada right now more than to any other country. Here in Manitoba, one adoption agency is helping these children find homes here.

USA adoption options

(Adoption Options)

But while desperate Canadians cheer it as a new opportunity to adopt a child, critics fear it's a racist form of cross-border shopping for children. And that the babies being brokered are sold for less money because they're black.

"It's almost like saying one (baby) is of a better quality, and the other is of a lesser quality," says Titi Tijani, vice president of the African Communities of Manitoba, Inc. "It is racist to have a sliding scale according to the colour of your skin."

"When you see 'biracial versus full African American differentials?' The only difference there is that child is 'whiter.'" - Beth Hall, Director of Pact

It's a trend that first emerged a few years ago and has picked up speed ever since. In fact, right now, it's estimated that each year, roughly 500 U.S. kids are adopted out internationally: most of them black, most of them to Canada.

Adoption By Shepherd Care

Many of the kids are adopted and transferred from the state of Florida through an agency called Adoption By Shepherd Care, which is legally licensed and Hague-accredited. 

But that organization is mired in controversy, because of the fees it charges its Canadian clients. According to its information package, the costs attached to adopt a white baby can be as much as US $44,000. Biracial? A bit cheaper.

But for black babies? Even less. On average, no more than $35,000 US — a discount of close to $15,000 US.

"When you see 'biracial versus full African American differentials?' The only difference there is that child is 'whiter,' quote unquote," says Beth Hall, director of Pact, a U.S. Adoption Alliance. "And therein is exactly the racial hierarchy I'm talking about. That's called racism. That is racism."

It's also, some say, a sign of the times. Specifically, a sign that times have not changed.

Susan Smith (not her real name) travelled to Florida from her home in western Canada last winter,  and returned home as a new mother to an African American baby boy.

Reduced fee for adopting black children  

Smith was told the fees were reduced as an 'incentive' for Canadian families to agree to choose a black child instead of white, because no one else will.

"They told us, 'we're still considered part of the south, and there's a lot of families who don't want to have a black child,'" Smith says. "And so, it was no question in my mind. I said, 'oh, absolutely, we'll adopt an African American child,' because we really didn't care about whether the baby was caucasian or not."

'There's no denying when you value a child lower, I mean, how could that message not be interpreted that way?' - Beth Hall

Neither, apparently, do some adoptive families here in Manitoba. Adoption Options is a private non-profit agency here that's "partnered" with Adoption By Shepherd Care to help facilitate the international adoptions, says its director Bonnie Snow.

So far, seven families have adopted through them, and "half" of the adoptees are black, Snow said. And those adoptions were approved by the province of Manitoba. But because the Florida agency is legally licensed and Hague-accredited, both Snow and a provincial spokesperson noted that they have no control over what the U.S. agency charges.

Snow's only concern was that the birth mothers in question be treated equally, regardless of the colour of their skin.

"Our concern about that was, 'please, we need to know that everyone is receiving the same service,'" she said. "It's not legal to sell a baby, I don't think that's what's going on."

Snow also said she was reassured because like Adoption Options, Adoption By Shepherd Care welcomes open adoptions, where adoptive families and birth families can learn more about each other.

"I think that's appealing to people, I think that's reassuring," she said. "And I think proximity is appealing. We're different than the U.S. but we're not that different."

The director of Adoption By Shepherd Care did not respond to repeated requests by CBC for an interview.

The literature provided to prospective Canadian parents states that the fees for full African American adoption services are lower because "most families who adopt these children reside a significant distance from ASC offices and therefore incur additional expenses from their home study agency and from travel costs."

The agency, therefore, subsidizes these costs.

Regardless, it's a sliding fee scale that critics fear treats adoption as a business, and the babies as commodities, each with their own value attached.

"They would say there's not enough families out there, so we're trying to help those children. That's why we're lowering the fees," said Beth Hall. "But there's no denying when you value a child lower, I mean, how could that message not be interpreted that way?"

For more on this story, tune into CBC Information Radio this morning at 7:45 and 8:10.