Bureaucracy is a poor parent but thousands of Canadian children are raised by no other. They're lost in a forest of faulty agencies and government neglect, like modern versions of Hansel and Gretel, desperately needing a home and finding none. Also lost are thousands of couples eager to adopt. Many search the far side of the world, spending up to $35,000, while kids wanting parents wait in their own home town.
Torn from their original families by neglect, drug- or alcohol-fuelled violence, mental illness or sexual abuse, these youngsters badly need stability provided by new parents. Adoption would be "like a gift from heaven," says one social worker. But most never receive that gift. They remain almost invisible to policy makers and the public.
Eight-year-old Daniel has wanted a home since 1997, when his mother gave him up but kept his infant sister. Wounded by that abandonment, Daniel aches for a new family. "Are you here to adopt me?" he beseeches visitors. But Daniel is considered old for adoption. His mother has a history of mental problems, and he bears deep emotional scars. Daniel remains nobody's child. And he's not alone.
"People assume there are no kids needing adoption – in fact, there are thousands," says Judy Grove, executive director at the Adoption Council of Canada. "Nobody pays much attention to them.
`The truth is that we, as a society – all of us – simply don't consider children very important. We talk a good game but we don't think kids are as important as other things, like fixing the roads.' — Jim Paul Nevins, Ontario Court judge
It's estimated that more than 20,000 children across Canada are permanent wards of the state, meaning a bureaucracy is their legal guardian. But each year only about 1,200 become adopted, giving them homes. Meanwhile, Canadians adopt about 2,000 children yearly from outside the country. They go overseas for many reasons. Some crave babies, and infants are rare among wards of the state. Others assume Third World kids will have fewer problems than crown wards, since most children adopted through a CAS have ``special needs''.
But simply being 7 or 8 years old can be enough to warrant a special needs label. So can being of mixed race, or having a brother or sister also up for adoption, since a sibling group is harder to place than a single child. Instead of making that clear and aggressively recruiting families for Canadian kids, most governments and child protection agencies stand silently aside as people yearning to be parents leave the country.
``It's the failure of our child welfare system, more than any other, that drives them away,'' says Grove.
Canada's provinces and territories all run adoption differently. Some jurisdictions use a network of local children's aid societies while others rely on a central government department. Sometimes there's a confusing mix: Adoption in Halifax is the responsibility of a CAS but, in Truro, 90 kilometres away, it's done by the province.
No jurisdiction is more fragmented than Ontario, where adoptions are splintered between 52 children's aid societies and a host of private agencies. The result is a helter skelter system with huge differences in service, depending on where you live. Some cash-strapped CASs have literally closed their doors to prospective parents. Others warn of waits lasting three years, or more, before a social worker will check a family to see if it's even suitable to adopt.
No wonder prospective parents are discouraged, Grove says, adding that agency chaos is just one barrier to adoption. Its opposite – rigid regulation – poses another.
About 6,100 Ontario children are crown wards, meaning they've been permanently taken from their birth parents. But most of these families still have court-ordered access to their kids. And that access – by law – blocks any chance of a child's adoption.
In Ontario, adoption and access simply can't go together, even when families don't use their right to visit a youngster. According to provincial statistics, parents don't bother seeing their child in about a third of cases.
Rather than allowing adoption, plus contact with birth parents, Ontario's rigid law keeps thousands of crown wards off the waiting list for a new family. On arriving into care they're shunted into foster homes where most stay until they ``age out'' of the system on their 18th birthday. It can make for a rootless childhood, spent drifting through various foster placements, supervised by shifting social workers. And many continue drifting long after leaving the child protection system.
Covenant House staff in Toronto, who run a homeless shelter and drop-in centre for street kids, estimate that about half the 5,000 young people going through their doors every year have been in foster care.
Government cutbacks aren't to blame, since the province spends heavily on child protection. It must. Ontario has never had so many children cared for by the state. More than 14,200 kids were in the care of a children's aid society, as of April 1 last year. That's up from about 10,200 in 1996 – a 40 per cent increase in four years. (Most of these children eventually go home, with the rest becoming crown wards.)
It's part of a nationwide trend as agencies put new stress on child protection. There's less emphasis on keeping families together and more on whisking kids out of troubled homes. Costs have risen even faster, with Ontario CASs spending $772 million last year – a 75 per cent increase since 1997. But barely $7 million of that is earmarked for adoption. While the province spends freely on bringing kids into state care, it ignores the other side of the equation: getting them back out into adoptive homes, says Mark Ewer, executive director of the Catholic Children's Aid Society of Hamilton-Wentworth.
`There's a public policy vacuum. The light has not gone on. It's crying for a response.' — Mark Ewer, Catholic Children's Aid Society of Hamilton-Wentworth
It wasn't always this way. In the 1970s, Ontario stood at the forefront of adoption in North America. Ontario had a good, creative system. Then adoption seemed to go into the Dark Ages,'' says Sandra Scarth. She was the province's adoption co-ordinator in the 1980s and describes her stint as a desperate rearguard action. ``It was very frustrating,'' says Scarth, now a consultant on the West Coast. ``The system itself has set up barriers.''
As co-ordinator, she tried lifting the barrier posed by access orders – and failed. ``I fought really hard to get that removed,'' she says, shaking her head. ``It's sad.'' Scarth can't suppress a peal of laughter when asked if she'd like to return to supervising Ontario's system.
``Oh no,'' Scarth says. She pauses to gaze out the window of a waterside restaurant as a seaplane takes off from Victoria's inner harbour. With a steady drone it plows across the water, kicking up plumes of spray, before gently rising into a clear sky. ``I've been there,'' Scarth smiles. ``Life is much nicer now.''
With more children in care than ever before, adoption has never been so needed, but it doesn't happen as often as in earlier decades.
Thousands of Ontario kids were adopted through children's aid societies, each year in the 1960s and '70s. That dwindled to about 500 last year. And the kids, too, are different. Virtually all have been removed from troubled homes and have suffered family breakdown and other trauma. In contrast, decades ago, most adopted children were newborns given up by unwed mothers. That changed with widespread birth control, legalized abortion, and society's growing acceptance of young single moms. Now infant adoption is relatively unusual. And it's rarely done by a CAS. Private agencies entered the field in 1980, and the few infant adoptions that do take place are generally handled by these services, for a fee. Last year, they accounted for another 187 adoptions, almost all newborns.
Lots of children still need adoption, but they're older, and virtually all are labelled ``special needs''. To many adoptive parents going overseas, that designation sounds suspiciously like ``damaged goods,'' says Michael Grand, a University of Guelph psychologist studying adoption issues.
They don't understand that some reasons for a special needs designation are ``quite minor,'' he says, adding that each child is unique.
At 17 months, blue-eyed Brian is too young to worry about his future. But anyone planning to adopt him must consider that his mother was a teenage drug addict who fed her habit while pregnant. Raised in a Milton foster home since he was 3 weeks old, Brian has shown no sign of damage from drug exposure – so far. While playing with oversized building blocks, in the living room of his temporary home, he playfully clambers into a green storage tub. Foster parent Debbie Krantz chuckles, describing him as ``perfect'' and ``gorgeous.'' For parents adopting Brian ``it will be like winning the lottery,'' she says.
But until willing parents come forward, Brian remains nobody's child.
Many kids in CAS care do present a major challenge. Some have fetal alcohol syndrome, or a physical disability, or difficulty forming an attachment. Almost all crown wards have suffered the stress of seeing their family shatter, and many come from backgrounds involving drug or alcohol abuse by a parent. They can be difficult to raise. But so can children adopted from abroad.
Dr. Dana Johnson runs the University of Minnesota's international adoption clinic and is blunt on what to expect from a foreign orphanage: ``The chance of an institutionalized child being completely normal on arrival in your home is essentially zero. ``These kids don't come from loving, intact families with a good standard of living.''
A Mississauga pediatrician with a large practice seeing children from abroad estimates that 50 per cent, or more, arrive with an unsuspected medical diagnosis. ``We've seen kids who are truly depressed – grieving. They've lost their country and their culture,'' says Dr. Angelo Simone. Yet, there's a perception that overseas adoptees are less likely to have special needs than someone stuck in foster care at a local CAS, says Grand, at the University of Guelph.
"We run off to consider international adoption when there are children, in similar circumstances, right here in our own country,'' he says. "We're turning our backs on these kids.''
The challenge is immense, and it's nation-wide. Every province and territory needs to do better on adoption, Grand says. But the system's troubles run deeper than policy gaps, a chaotic structure, poor planning and lack of money.
Attitudes on adoption need changing.
"We have belief systems that are completely out of date,'' says Robert Fulton, a Toronto social work consultant who advises children's aid societies and the province. ``Picture a kid in foster care,'' Fulton says, tracing a child's outline in the air. ``He has an access order with his mom and she uses it, maybe every six months, to see the kid. He's eight years old and has been in and out of five foster homes. The mother's a decent sort, she tries her best, but she's all screwed up. She's attached to the kid, he really likes her, but he couldn't live with her.
``That, they say, is the profile of a kid who cannot be adopted. For several reasons: Number one, the kid's seeing the mother, therefore he will never attach to an adoptive family. That is not true. Two, the kid has had five caretakers, therefore he could never bond again. Not true. The kid is eight – too old – nobody wants him. Not true, not true, not true. "I can prove it,'' Fulton says, patting a stack of scientific papers on the table in front of him. "That profile is really a typical profile of a crown ward in Ontario. And those beliefs are the major barrier to adoption.''
Traditionally, it was thought that only very young children could form a bond, or "`attach,'' to a new parent. In this view, older kids are considered virtually unadoptable, so their best option is to remain in foster care.
'The idea that only very young children can form a bond is 'a zombie' – it's dead but it lives on. It's been debunked, but it still prevents people from making the right decision. It dominates not just social workers but psychologists, judges, and – unfortunately – the community at large.' — Robert Fulton, social work consultant
As if the system weren't fragmented enough, an ideological gap yawns between the social workers who handle adoption and ``frontline'' counterparts, whose job is to enter troubled homes and take kids out. Frontline workers tend to be young, inexperienced, and indifferent to adoption, says Scarth. They only see adopted kids when a placement has broken down and the children are back in care. "They don't see adoptions that succeed.''
Harried child protection staff concentrate on getting kids into safe foster homes and often look no further, Scarth says. "It happens right across the country.''
"I remember being in child protection,'' says Cheryl Fix, manager of British Columbia's adoption department. "I never gave a thought about whether a child was adoptable, or moving them on to adoption. I just worried about making sure they didn't go back home. "You didn't really think long-term.''
Fix is trying to change that with new training for frontline workers. "In child protection, you only see one side of it – the side that's broken down. You also need to see stuff that works.'' Adoption "`works'' by giving children a secure base in life, something especially important to those in care who are "up to their neck in risk factors,'' says Fulton. "With a secure attachment you can walk through hell and back.''
Good foster care can provide a firm base, he says, but a foster child remains much more at risk of being set adrift than the same kid adopted by the same family. Adoption is a lifelong commitment while foster parenting is like a job. People retire, or leave for other employment opportunities. Marital problems and divorce can end fostering. And people quit for health reasons. Then their foster kids are scattered.
More than a third of Ontario's crown wards have been through three or more foster homes, according to a 1999 review examining a large cross-section of these children. And 43 per cent have had three or more case workers. Often they were put in foster care and then sent back home, to their birth families, only to wind up in a different foster home a few months later.
Even the best foster care ends when kids "age out'' of the system. "Then what are you?'' asks Fulton, shrugging his shoulders. "Whereas, if you're adopted, you're adopted for life.'' It isn't for everyone, he adds. Some children can't attach to a new family – those sharing a deep and secure bond with their birth mom have particular difficulty. "But the vast majority of crown wards can be successfully adopted.''
Daniel's case is more difficult than most. His bitterness runs deep after being abandoned in favour of a younger sibling. And there's a risk he'll lash out at smaller kids. That's why he's at Woodview Children's Centre, in Burlington, rather than in foster care. But finding the right adoptive parent could be his salvation, says Doug Jackson, a youth worker at the centre where children learn anger management. Other youngsters here are older than Daniel and he hasn't had any incidents. "He's a delightful child. Charming. Very affectionate. He wants to please,'' Jackson says.
As if to illustrate that point, the 8-year-old brags about the chores he does around the centre. "I vacuumed my room, I cleaned the stairs, I did the staff room, and I did the garbage outside,'' he beams. The ideal adoptive home would be one where Daniel is an only child, with parents able to give him a great deal of attention and set firm limits, says Jackson. Daniel has suffered a huge loss, and that can cause problems, he says. "But I've been doing this for 25 years and I feel he's got a lot of potential. He tries. I think there's hope.''
Stakes are high. Daniel remains a child at risk. "I don't think he'd survive – emotionally – an adoption breakdown,'' frowns social worker Ann Marie Keyes. Daniel is "a victim of the system,'' she says. If he had been made available for adoption sooner, at a younger age, he would have had better odds of finding the right adoptive home. "But it took too long. His case kept getting delayed and delayed,'' Keyes says. "It's sad.''
Ontario took a step toward quickening the adoption process in April, last year, when it imposed a detailed timetable on child protection cases. Meant to speed children's cases through the courts, it set a one-year limit for a child under 6 to be in temporary CAS care. It also set an even tougher deadline: once a kid is taken from home by an agency, the system has a maximum of 120 days to complete a child protection hearing. The deadlines are supposed to make kids, like Daniel, quickly available for adoption by cutting through legal tangles and forcing a rapid decision. But, even in this, the province has stumbled. Nothing happens when deadlines aren't met, and children remain in legal limbo.
"The courts are backlogged,'' says Marv Bernstein, lawyer for the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies. "There aren't enough judges, there are procedural rules, there's a plethora of paper.''
"You could convict a murderer – or two – in the length of time we spend on a crown wardship trial,'' growls Ewer, at Hamilton's Catholic CAS. His agency, for example, took a baby into care in August, 2000. A trial date had been set for next month, almost a year beyond the 120-day deadline for a completed hearing. "And I don't know if that trial will go ahead. It can adjourn for various reasons,'' Ewer says. "The longer these kids' lives are in limbo the worse it is,'' he says, leaning back and spreading his arms wide. "How long can they wait?''
Ontario Court Justice Penny Jones says meeting the deadline "is pretty impossible'' if birth parents decide to fight crown wardship. "The parents have to organize themselves, they have to organize their Legal Aid. There are many months that are lost.''
The "culture of the courts'' is slanted toward delays and compromise, says Ewer. "Some of it serves the interests of parents – maybe even lawyers, who are funded through the (Legal Aid) system – to the detriment of kids.'' Parents' and lawyers' concerns aren't supposed to matter. The legislation clearly states that the timetable can only be extended "if the best interests of the child require it.''
Despite that, judges do take into account the rights of a birth parent, says Ontario Court Justice Lloyd Budgell. "I think they have to,'' says Budgell, designated spokesperson for Chief Justice Brian Lennox, of the Ontario Court of Justice. "You don't want to run roughshod over anyone. If you just took the case and followed it through – bang, bang, bang – I suppose you could force people to do certain things. I'm not sure it would be better.'' The deadline set out in the legislation "is just not realistic,'' he says.
"I don't care where you go, Kenora or downtown Toronto – anywhere – you won't find a family court that can get all these cases through in that certain amount of time,'' agrees Ontario Court Judge Jim Paul Nevins. "You can't do it.''
The system doesn't have enough judges, and the government doesn't want to pay for more, he says. But that's just part of a bigger problem. "It's also a question of children's aid staff and other resources,'' Nevins says.
"The truth is that we, as a society – all of us – simply don't consider
children very important. "We talk a good game but we don't think kids are as
important as other things, like fixing the roads.''
By Leslie Papp, Tanya Talaga and Jim Rankin
4 October 2001
Acknowledgements: Toronto Star