Adoptions in B.C.: A Changing Landscape

Many Vulnerable Children Still Need Homes.

The Province is Trying to Reduce Their Wait.

 

BY LORI CULBERT AND TRACY SHERLOCK, VANCOUVER SUN JULY 4, 2015

 

There are more than 1,100 families in B.C. waiting to adopt, and about 1,300 children in government care who hope to find a permanent home.

The solution might appear obvious, but the reality is complicated, emotionally charged and often tediously slow.

While these families desperately want a child, the majority — more than 800 of them — are registered for international adoptions, not to adopt a child in foster care. The reasons for that are complex, often linked to worries about special needs, the age of the children and ongoing contact with birth parents.

The state of adoption in B.C. today is in flux. It is no longer the experience of the 1950s and ’60s when there were many babies to adopt: the stigmas around abortion and single motherhood pressured women to give up their newborns, and many native children were apprehended from reserves and handed to white families as part of the failed effort at assimilation.

Nor is it like the mid-2000s, when couples had a relatively easy time adopting children from abroad.

There are more than 1,100 families in B.C. waiting to adopt, and about 1,300 children in government care who hope to find a permanent home.

The solution might appear obvious, but the reality is complicated, emotionally charged and often tediously slow.

While these families desperately want a child, the majority — more than 800 of them — are registered for international adoptions, not to adopt a child in foster care. The reasons for that are complex, often linked to worries about special needs, the age of the children and ongoing contact with birth parents.

The state of adoption in B.C. today is in flux. It is no longer the experience of the 1950s and ’60s when there were many babies to adopt: the stigmas around abortion and single motherhood pressured women to give up their newborns, and many native children were apprehended from reserves and handed to white families as part of the failed effort at assimilation.

Nor is it like the mid-2000s, when couples had a relatively easy time adopting children from abroad.

Today, both foreign countries and B.C. First Nations are increasingly uncomfortable having their children adopted by people from different cultures, and are trying to keep their kids closer to home.

Adoption is a dirty word in many native communities, too closely aligned with the horrific memories of residential schools stealing their children.

“The biggest tragedy when we look at the number of aboriginal kids in care, that’s a really close comparison to the number of kids in the care of residential schools at the height of the residential school system,” said Lise Haddock, an aboriginal consultant overseeing a government project to improve adoption rates for native foster children.

“We replaced one system with another system.”

Aboriginal children make up half the kids in government care, and there is a desperate need to find them homes. They have become “stuck” in the foster system because of a disconnect between government and First Nations, who must have a “more honest, trusting” relationship to find solutions, says a new report by children’s representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

There has been an emphasis in recent years to find culturally appropriate adoptive homes. That often requires approval from the child’s First Nation, so it takes on average nearly three years to get aboriginal children adopted, much longer than their non-native peers.

And because children are now typically older than two before being approved for adoption (to allow time for birth parents to get healthier or to look for relatives who can raise them), that often means native kids are five or older before the process is complete.

This lag time is not ideal. Experts agree that children adjust better to new homes the younger they are adopted.

Prospective parents are also frustrated by a process that takes much longer than in the past. Foreign countries, like First Nations, now typically delay the release of children until all options to keep infants closer to their home communities have been exhausted.

“What used to take one year now can take five to six years,” said Karen Madeiros, executive director of the Adoptive Families Association of B.C. “For adoptive parents, adoption has radically shifted and it’s very, very sad. It is incredibly sad because options are just not available.”

There is no shortage of people wanting to adopt, in part fuelled by couples waiting longer to have children and by more same-sex unions.

Under B.C. law, there are two main routes to adoption: Applying for a government ward through the Ministry of Children and Family Development, or going to one of four government-licensed agencies that mainly focus on babies from another country or children who are not in the care of the province. The ministry completed about 270 adoptions last year, while about 140 were done by the non-profit agencies based in Vancouver, North Vancouver, Victoria and Kelowna.

Ministry kids represent an increasing proportion of the adoptions in B.C. each year — not because their numbers are rising, but because the other options are on the decline.

The government-licensed agencies:

• Have more than 800 applications from people waiting to adopt a child from another country.

Between 2006 and 2010, about 200 children from other countries were adopted each year in B.C., but that was nearly cut in half by 2014 to just 117. This is mainly due to countries like China, Russia and Ethiopia changing rules and priorities for their orphaned children, according to a March 2015 article in Focus on Adoption magazine.

• Have even more registered families, beyond those 800, looking for infants willingly placed for adoption by birth parents, although these numbers are small. In recent years, fewer than 40 of these adoptions have been arranged annually.

B.C. infants available from these agencies are thought to be at lower risk of prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol, compared to foster children. Typically, birth parents choose from a list of prospective adoptive parents who will raise their baby, and continue to have some contact with the family and child.

• Facilitate direct-placement adoptions, when birth parents choose a non-relative they already know to raise their child. These are rare, with just 13 completed in B.C. in 2012/2013.

(Adoptions by relatives are handled by the courts, and are not tracked by the government.)

These four agencies are working with the ministry in its high-profile pledge to do a better job of finding adoptive homes for more of the government’s waiting foster kids.

In B.C., 284 homes approved by the ministry are waiting to adopt a foster child, a slightly higher number than in the previous two years.

There are 941 children in B.C. who are now eligible to be adopted after being seized by the ministry, usually because their birth families are unable to provide a safe and nurturing home. An additional 350 kids are poised to be added to that list as soon as their cases clear final legal and bureaucratic hurtles.

The number of foster kids adopted each year had been falling for a decade — from a high of 338 in the fiscal year 2002-03 to a low of 213 in recent years. A scathing 2014 report by Turpel-Lafond said the decline in adoptions was mainly due to a lack of resources and to a lack of government urgency.

In response, the ministry vowed last year to increase annual adoptions to 300 by the end of the government’s fiscal year in March 2015. It fell short of its goal, completing just 270.

It is important to meet this new target to reduce the number of children waiting for homes because, over the last five years, roughly the same number of kids has entered the adoption system as the number adopted out.

Children’s Minister Stephanie Cadieux, who acknowledged her ministry failed in recent years to emphasize adoption, has pledged to complete 330 adoptions by March 2016 — 300 from this fiscal year and the 30 that weren’t done last year.

“When we set the target last year, we were being ambitious. I don’t regret that — I would have even liked to be more ambitious because ultimately what we want to see is kids moved into forever homes as soon as possible,” said Cadieux.

“I think, over time, the work around adoption had been kind of put a little bit on the side to other work in the ministry and it’s very important to me … that we bring it back up to the front because ultimately, what’s most important is the well-being of kids. There’s no better place for kids to be than in a permanent home.”

With 284 adoptive families approved to take children right now in B.C., the ministry technically has enough available homes to meet that goal (should some families take more than one child, since there is an emphasis on trying to keep siblings together).

So what is the hold up?

It is partly because more aboriginal adoptive parents are needed, as well as more homes that can be matched to the specific special needs of some of the waiting kids.

It is partly because the number of adoption-specific social workers in the province once numbered more than 100, and is now half that.

It is mainly because the process is slow. It takes an average of 26 months for a child to go from being approved for adoption (after any number of years in foster care) to being adopted. It was slower for aboriginal children (32.5 months) and faster for non-aboriginal children (23 months).

Native people make up only five per cent of B.C.’s population, so the disparity of aboriginal kids representing half the children in care is a focus for leaders in this field.

Of the 284 families in B.C. waiting to adopt ministry children, only 43 are aboriginal. Cadieux said the government is working with friendship centres and native agencies to find more aboriginal homes.

The government had some success last year, placing 99 aboriginal youth for adoption compared to 75 in the two previous years; roughly half of the native kids in each of those years went to aboriginal homes.

The answer may also be a shift away from adoption and toward some innovative approaches.

One alternative, Cadieux said, is transfers of guardianship within native communities — arrangements made through provincial court, which are less binding than adoptions — for someone other than the parents to raise a child. These are at an all-time high, with 403 approved last year in B.C.

There are, however, still non-aboriginal families adopting aboriginal children, a practicality given the tiny number of available native homes.

And for some aboriginal kids, like Dominique Ward and her four brothers, this has been a good outcome because her white adoptive parents ensure she is exposed to her First Nations culture.

When she was 11, Dominique wrote a letter in her childish scrawl to tell social workers the five of them wanted to be adopted by their foster parents, Cheryl and Allan Ward.

She and her brothers, then aged four to nine, had lived a tumultuous life, seized at early ages from their birth parents who battled addictions. They were in and out of foster care, back and forth to their well-meaning but struggling biological family, before moving into the Ward house in Chilliwack.

Dominique loved her biological parents but feared they would never be healthy enough to raise her and knew she was in a safe home. The Wards take her to visit her birth family, both sides of which were torn apart by residential schools, and promote her culture by participating in cedar brushing, cultural camps, sweat lodges, drum making, powwows and canoeing.

So, she wrote the letter asking if they could stay.

“I did feel responsible because they were my little brothers and I didn’t want them to have the life that we already started to have,” she said in an interview.

In April, Dominique, now 16, and her four brothers were officially adopted by the Wards.

“It was a long wait but it was definitely worth it because we are part of this family now,” she said. “It was important because it meant finding permanency and finding our ground.”

It took five years for Dominique’s adoption to be completed because her birth parents’ First Nations weren’t keen about a white family adopting five kids from their communities. Cheryl Ward understood that apprehension, but lobbied social workers and met native elders to seek their approval.

On the day of the official adoption, the Ward family, members of Dominique’s biological family and band members participated in a traditional native ceremony with blankets, head pieces and drums so that the adoptions were culturally acknowledged.

Turpel-Lafond, who is a member of the Muskeg Cree Nation, argued placing aboriginal kids in good-quality, non-aboriginal homes is much better than them having no permanent home at all.

“When I see children who have been languishing in care for multiple years without even a single effort at family-finding, and sometimes foster home to foster home — especially when they get to their middle years and teen years — that is a source of incredible frustration to me,” she said. “Those kids, they certainly ask me straight up, ‘What is it about me, that nobody wants me?’”

Haddock, the consultant leading the project by the ministry and the children’s representative to improve adoption rates for aboriginal kids, would like to have native children raised in their own communities. But she also recognizes there is a lot of work to do before that can happen.

“The recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (are valid) — we need to put resources back into nations and start creating stronger supports for families. The child welfare system is broken and we need to mend it,” she said.

The first recommendation in Justice Murray Sinclair’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, released last month, was for all governments to reduce the number of aboriginal children in care by providing resources to keep native families together, when it is safe to do so, or to keep children in culturally appropriate environments.

Another of Sinclair’s recommendations was for governments to work with aboriginal people to create programs to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Most of the children in ministry care have some variation of special needs.

More than 35 per cent have a confirmed or suspected case of being exposed to alcohol or addictive drugs in the womb. Thirty-two per cent have medical issues (such as AIDS, autism, ADHD, anxiety, etc.) and/or emotional issues which are often linked to the trauma of being taken from their birth parents. Twelve per cent have genetic risks of developing a mental disability, such as mood disorders or schizophrenia.

Twenty per cent are listed as having no special needs, but that number is misleading because they include children who are expected to be adopted by their foster parents and therefore their details are not tracked as carefully by social workers, the ministry said.

Turpel-Lafond is concerned social workers sometimes “scare” prospective parents by asking if they are prepared to take a child with special needs, presumably to ensure the adults are equipped to handle the extra challenges.

But she, and many adoptive parents who spoke with The Sun for this series, argue that while children with special needs may require additional attention, they can be loving and rewarding family members.

“The children in care are not really any different than other children. A label is a label. Many children have special needs but that does not define who they are,” said Turpel-Lafond, who is on leave from her job as a provincial court judge in Saskatchewan.

Nearly 200 of the 284 waiting adoptive families have agreed to take “high” special needs children, those with quite serious challenges.

Cadieux, who has used a wheelchair since a car accident at age 18, said there is no guarantee in life about any child — biological or adopted — developing a mental or physical disability.

“Every family goes through challenges. Adopting a child who uses a wheelchair may require some modifications to your home, but it doesn’t mean you can’t love that child and you’d be a great parent for that child,” she said.

Adoptions, though, may not be a top funding priority for the fiscally-conservative Liberal government. Revamping adoption was listed 11th out of 12 goals for the ministry in a recent mandate letter sent by Premier Christy Clark to Cadieux.

Last year and this year, the ministry committed one-time funding of $2 million on top of its $27-million annual adoption budget in an effort to reach its goal of finding more adoptive homes. That crucial money is not guaranteed next year.

The ministry, though, is starting a project to study how to speed up the time between prospective parents being approved for adoption and being linked with a child.

For example, it could streamline the process first for foster parents who want to adopt, because they already have an established relationship with the ministry, said Anne Clayton, ministry executive director of guardianship, adoption and permanency. After that, the focus could be on general applications, as the ministry knows it could lose parents willing to adopt if the wait is too long.

The ministry will also consider ways to reduce administrative tasks required of its adoption social workers so they can spend more time on finding placements for children.

The government has achieved 300 annual adoptions only five times in the past quarter century. In those years, the ministry operated a focused program backed by money — similar to today’s effort.

Typically, the adoption numbers peaked one or two years after those programs were launched, which makes Clayton cautiously optimistic B.C. will meet its 330 goal by March 2016.

There are many waiting children and prospective parents who hope that comes true.

lculbert@vancouversun.com, tsherlock@vancouversun.com

 

Please visit http://www.vancouversun.com/health/Adoptions+Changing+Landscape/11186762/story.html for more information on this article.

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