Sisterhood

Sofia Happonen always wanted a sister. Through adoption, she got two—and a life-changing experience.

 HEATHER WESTON

Twelve-year-old Sofia, 7-year-old Raya, and 5-year-old Zariyah are like many sisters. They give each other makeovers, play games together, and occasionally argue.

Sofia, however, does not look like her sisters. She is Caucasian; Raya and Zariyah are African-American. Sofia’s biological parents, Robin and Miku Happonen, adopted Raya and Zariyah, who are half­sisters (the girls share the same birth mother but have different fathers).

The difference in physical appearance has led to questions. “Sometimes kids ask me, ‘Why are your sisters a different race than you?’” Sofia tells Choices.

Transracial Adoption

But families like the Happonens, who live in Montclair, New Jersey, are becoming more common. Raya and Zariyah’s adoption was transracial. In a transracial adoption, a child who is of one race or ethnic group is placed with adoptive parents of another race or ethnic group.

The 2000 Census reported that about 17 percent of households in the United States with at least one adopted child under the age of 18 were interracial. That means that at least one family member was of a different race. Since then, that percent is estimated to have more than doubled.

According to the 2007 National Survey of Adoptive Parents, 40 percent of adopted children in the U.S. are of a different race or culture than their adoptive parents. The survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the most recent study on adoption.

Reaching Out

Parents choose to adopt transracially for various reasons. One common reason is that most children available for adoption in the U.S. are not Caucasian. And for many parents like the Happonens, the adoption is about reaching out to children in need, no matter what their race is.

“We knew that a lot of kids needed a home,” Robin says. “We didn’t care about the race or sex of the child.”

After Sofia was born, Robin and Miku found out they no longer would be able to have children biologically. Knowing they wanted more kids, the Happonens decided to become foster parents. Foster care is when a family temporarily takes in a child who doesn’t have parents, or whose parents can’t take care of him or her.

Foster Mom and Dad

In 2005, the Happonens became part of a foster-­adoptive program through New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). The program works with parents whose intent is to adopt the children they take in.

Two days after becoming certified foster parents, DYFS officials asked the Happonens to take in Zariyah for a few days. They also asked the family if they could take in Zariyah’s half sister, Raya, but the Happonens were not able to care for two foster children at the same time. In fact, they couldn’t take in Zariyah just yet, either, because they were leaving on a trip to Europe. When they returned, the Happonens found out that DYFS had found a foster home for Raya but not for Zariyah. The Happonens jumped at the opportunity to take in Zariyah.

New Arrival

Sofia, who was 6 at the time, still remembers the day Zariyah arrived. “I was excited,” she says. “I had been pretending that I had a sister for so many years, and I was so happy to finally be getting one.”

Not only did Sofia get a sister, but it wasn’t long before she got another sibling. Eighteen months after Zariyah arrived, the family took in Raya, who could no longer stay with the other foster family. The Happonens legally adopted the girls on December 20, 2007.

The family has worked hard to provide a comfortable home for Raya and Zariyah. The Happonens joined Multiracial Adoptive Families, a group of more than 60 families with diverse members. “It’s nice for the kids to see that there are other families like theirs,” Robin says. “And it helps parents to be able to talk to other parents who may be going through similar situations with fostering and adoption.”

Sofia is proud of the diversity in her family. “I always knew there was nothing wrong with having sisters, family members, or friends who are a different race than you, and that there was nothing wrong with having adopted sisters,” she says. “I’ve learned that there is nothing really different about them, and they’re just like us.”

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