At least once a day, Joe and Becky Ketarkus hear a familiar comment from a stranger: “Whoa, you’ve really got your hands full.”
The Madison couple’s nine-member family — seven children, all under age 9 — draws attention simply by showing up. Some people have asked whether they’re on a field trip from a child-care center.
The family’s racial makeup adds another level of curiosity. The parents are white; all seven children are black.
“Being in public can go both ways,” said Becky Ketarkus, 32, a nurse. “There are days when I’d like to forget that we’re unusual, when I’d like to not have to answer all the questions from people. Other days, I feel really blessed to be able to answer those questions, because I want to be a spokesperson for adoption.”
She and Joe, 33, a Spanish-language interpreter, married in 2000 and adopted their first child, Cam, now 8, three years later. The most recent additions to the family, Ally, 8, and AJ, 6, arrived in March. (The two are the only biological siblings of the seven.)
The Ketarkuses are negotiating complex terrain, but it is terrain that is no longer quite so unusual. In 2000, 24 percent of the 2 million adopted children in the country were in transracial families, the term for ones in which a parent is of a different race or ethnicity than a child. (Adoption numbers from the 2010 Census are not yet available.)
“The trend line has been going up for a good 15 years or longer,” said Adam Pertman, author of “Adoption Nation” and executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City. “It started at zero, because it used to be that people simply didn’t adopt across racial lines.”
The Ketarkuses learned soon after marrying that having biological children would be unlikely without the aid of fertility drugs, a step they did not want to take. They told social workers they were open to adopting an infant of any race.
As Madison natives — they both graduated from West High School — the couple said they grew up attending racially diverse schools and felt the community would be welcoming to a transracial family. From 2003 to 2008, they adopted four children domestically through private adoption agencies.
In each case, the child’s birth mother chose to give up the child at birth or shortly thereafter, and the biological father was no longer in the picture. Although race initially did not matter to the couple, their decisions became more deliberate as they factored in the dynamics of their evolving family, they said.
After adopting Cam, they knew they wanted him to have a sibling of the same race so that “any concerns or questions that arose in the future, he’d have someone to share those issues with,” Becky Ketarkus said. By the time they adopted Jaxen, their third child, it had become apparent to them that the country critically needed adoptive families for black children.
“We felt God had phenomenally blessed us with three terrific children, so we wanted to add to our family in a manner where the children needed us as much as we needed them,” she said.
An overseas trip
Last year, through an adoptive parents support group, Becky Ketarkus learned of a badly burned boy in need of medical care at an orphanage in Ghana, a country in West Africa. She volunteered her nursing skills for two weeks.
While there, she met a man whose daughter, Juliana, 2, lived at the orphanage because he could not care for her. He asked Becky to consider adopting her. Joe flew to Ghana to join his wife in the decision.
“Look at that smile,” Joe said recently in the family’s living room, gesturing toward Juliana. “How could I not fall in love with her?”
On the trip to bring Juliana home, Becky Ketarkus met siblings Ally and AJ, whose birth mother was in a similar situation as Juliana’s birth father. That’s how the family became nine.
Transracial adoption remains controversial in some circles, but research shows it “does not produce psychological or social maladjustment problems in children,” said Susan Smith, program director for the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Still, transracially adopted children face a range of challenges, and how parents handle them can aid or hinder development, she said.
Parents must understand that race matters, because people who live in racial isolation tend not to thrive, said Beth Hall, co-author of “Inside Transracial Adoption” and director of Pact, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, Calif., that supports adopted children of color.
White parents with children of color “need to have connections in their children’s communities,” she said. “If children see that they are the only people of color in their lives, they will interpret that as ‘white is better,’ instead of being comfortable in their own skin.”
Becky Ketarkus said she and her husband try neither to downplay nor overemphasize race.
“We try to be very matter of fact about it,” she said. “We never accredit any problem or issue to their skin color, but if one of the children brings it up, we explore it.”
The couple have tried to surround their children with role models of all races, Joe Ketarkus said.
Race surfaces in interesting ways with young children, he said. When Cam was small, he thought he would turn white when he became an adult. One recent day, Ally announced that she planned to have biological children when she grew up, while Cam said he planned to adopt and was considering white children.
“Race comes up in some way every day,” Becky Ketarkus said.
Strangers also bring it up, usually in a well-meaning way. Often people ask, “How many of the children are related?”
Becky Ketarkus makes a point to say, “They are all brothers and sisters.”