Canada's Most Unwanted
With rising infertility rates and the availability of foreign infants declining, some 30,000 children in government care have a better shot at finding a family
When Jeff and Elizabeth Fennelly applied to adopt a child in 2010, they were young (both twenty-nine) and, as far as they knew, fertile. Elizabeth had always wanted to adopt, and she didn’t necessarily want an infant. Growing up as the third of seven siblings, she was used to babies and felt no urge to revisit diapers. In Jeff’s case, adoption ran in his family. He was adopted as an infant, as was his father. “It’s not that I felt some sort of duty or obligation to adopt because I was,” he says. “We just felt we had the skill set to be able to help a child.” This is his way of saying that they are intelligent, loving, adaptable people who would make good parents. For a thirty-one-year-old, Jeff, a clerk for Statistics Canada, speaks with the buttoned-up air of someone older: crisp and clinical, but without sounding cold. Elizabeth, a legal assistant, is small, pert, and also beyond her years. She is the emotive one in the pair. Throughout the adoption process, she blogged with stark honesty about what she and Jeff wanted in a child. “We would adopt internationally, two little boys who wouldn’t have a home without us,” she had written confidently, and now, she will admit, naively.
In adoption parlance, the Fennellys were looking for hard-to-place children—older ones, or those who came with siblings. Though there are plenty of such children in Canada, adopting overseas seemed more emotionally straightforward than going through a child welfare agency in Ottawa, where they live. Adopting locally introduced an uncomfortable proximity to a child’s past and the possibility of contact with the birth family. A foreign child would arrive with no strings attached, no birth parents who might show up one day and confuse everything. The couple first looked to Russia. Elizabeth had friends who had adopted from there, and she and Jeff liked the idea that a Russian child wouldn’t look too different from them. But because Elizabeth is a type one diabetic, they were ineligible by the country’s standards. They investigated a few other eastern European countries, but they had read that adoptees from that region suffered more from attachment disorders, an emotional deficit bred from neglect and instability, which can prevent a child from bonding. South Korea was a contender, but the waiting period was at least two years. They settled on Ethiopia, in part because Elizabeth had been moved by Melissa Fay Greene’s book There Is No Me Without You, about the nation’s AIDS orphans. Also, the idea of bringing home an orphan rested more lightly on her conscience. “I couldn’t face the guilt of delighting in my child, knowing that my joy came at the expense of another mother’s broken heart,” she wrote in a blog post.
Shortly after they registered with the Ottawa agency Children’s Bridge, another one called Imagine Adoption, in Cambridge, Ontario, filed for bankruptcy; its executives were later charged with fraud. Children’s Bridge took over most of Imagine’s pending Ethiopia files, and the Fennellys decided not to pursue adopting from there because they would have ended up at the bottom of an even bigger heap of applicants. Around the same time, Elizabeth, a voracious researcher, had been uncovering stories about suspected child trafficking and other shady dealings in Ethiopia. Their faith in the country, and international adoption in general, was shaken enough that they abandoned the process. “It freaked us out,” she says. “You don’t want it to be another Romania,” which in the mid-1990s was a staple source country, until corruption and child trafficking were uncovered and the government was pressured to halt adoptions abroad.
International adoptions have dropped steadily since 2004. Major source countries such as China and Russia have significantly reduced the number of babies they send out, a signal of rising social and economic status and, broadly, a reaction to the growing criticism of nations willing to farm out their children. According to Peter Selman, an authority on inter-country adoption based at Newcastle University in England, these arrangements will become rarer still. “There are no countries that can fill the void left by China and Russia,” he says. Worldwide adoptions from China—still the biggest source country and once the go-to place for infant girls—fell 65 percent between 2005 and 2009. Canada is the third-largest recipient of Chinese children (behind the US and Spain), but most are now older or have special needs. China’s infants are more often being adopted by its growing middle class. It is the same in other countries, such as India and Indonesia, which now keep their orphans within their borders, an outcome of a global effort to clean up an industry plagued by corruption.
Here at home, adopting a healthy newborn or infant has long been difficult—some would say near-impossible. Access to birth control and abortion and greater acceptance of single and teenage motherhood means fewer children are relinquished at birth. Meanwhile, the desire to adopt is on the rise: same-sex couples have joined the pool, as have older straight couples dealing with age-related fertility problems (Canada’s infertility rate has doubled in the past two decades). Those looking to adopt may find themselves, as the Fennellys did, nudged by circumstance into avenues they had once eschewed. The public adoption stream, despite being virtually cost-free, potentially quick, and never without kids needing homes, is often considered a last resort. The perception still holds that children in government care are too old to attach, irreversibly damaged, or severely disabled. Granted, these are not the “oops” babies of unwed college girls with bigger life plans; the parents of today’s adoptees tend to be neglectful, abusive, addicted, or mentally ill, and therefore deemed incapable of parenting. “Because the supply of infants has dropped dramatically, childless couples find themselves going for what’s left: the kids who are at risk,” says Michael Grand, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, who specializes in adoption. “These are not the kids who have been traditionally chosen first.”
Today the ways in which we create and conceive of family are manifold. Parenthood has become a choice, no longer an imperative or a privilege of marriage. Single people have children, gay men become fathers, divorced families blend into new ones, while attitudes about adoption have mellowed from a sentiment of shame and secrets to openness and open-mindedness about what makes a child adoptable. And while the flow of foreign infants continues to diminish, as experts have predicted, the domestic public system may be in a unique position to fill the gap, or at least to take advantage and divert more hopeful parents to the thousands of kids in foster homes.
Ontario, for example, cares for 10,000 foster kids per year (8,000 are Crown wards), and public adoptions in the province have climbed gradually for the past decade, up 21 percent between 2009 and 2010. This bump may be the outcome of a fundamental shift in philosophy during the past two decades within the child welfare system, which has placed an emphasis on finding homes for all children, no matter their age or hardship. Part of this has involved tapping into a broader network: extended family, foster parents, single and same-sex parents, and people such as the Fennellys who do not long for an infant, or who are willing to take a special-needs child. As the picture of the modern family continues to change, so too has the face of adopted children, from the newborns of the ’50s, to the Chinese girls of the ’90s, and, lately, a deaf-blind three-year-old from Dunnville, Ontario.
Elizabeth first saw the profile of her son, Shawn, in February 2010 on AdoptOntario, a family-matching website featuring the province’s most heartbreaking children: the veterans of foster care, the developmentally delayed and disabled, the tough cases who require particularly devoted parents. She was struck by Shawn’s resemblance to Jeff; both have fine features and blond hair that goes curly when it gets long. The write-up described him as an affectionate, resilient three-year-old, both functionally blind and profoundly deaf. Elizabeth was comfortable with blindness—she had a blind uncle—but deafness and the resulting developmental delays terrified her. She had never thought of herself as “special-needs material.” She jokes that she is too much of a planner, the kind of person who spreadsheets her way through decisions far less momentous than becoming the mother of a severely challenged kid. But there was something about Shawn, even before she and Jeff met him, that gripped them.
Shawn had been living with a foster family in Dunnville, a seven-hour drive from the Fennellys’ suburban home. Having completed their mandatory parental training sessions and home study (an exhaustive background check by a social worker), they expressed their interest to Shawn’s social worker and began lining up schools and specialists for him in Ottawa. Despite their earnest enthusiasm, they were turned down in favour of another family who lived closer to the boy. Shawn’s social worker was concerned that the Fennellys were too young, but mainly she didn’t want to pull him away from his network of service providers and the foster parents he had lived with for most of his life. Public agencies often prefer to keep their kids geographically close, in case adoptions don’t take, and as a way to anchor the children’s turbulent lives.
Looking back, Elizabeth says it was a devastating but necessary setback. Any creeping doubts they’d had about adopting Shawn dissolved at the news that he would not be theirs. “Five months of work, excitement, anticipation, hope, and fear, and we were a childless couple again,” she wrote in an online adoption magazine. “But, yes, there was relief—not that [Shawn] wasn’t coming home, but that we hadn’t given up on him or turned him down.” She and Jeff crafted a two-page letter to Shawn’s social worker that ended with a plea to be reconsidered should the adoption fall through. Three weeks later, the other family pulled out, reportedly because they felt Shawn would never be able to form attachments or express emotion. The Fennellys found themselves back in the running and were soon making the long drive to Dunnville to meet the boy they had chosen as their son. According to his foster parents, Shawn had been so taken with the Fennellys that he wailed at the door after they left. Just shy of a month later, Jeff and Elizabeth brought home their fine-boned little boy, who could not see, hear, or speak, and was still in diapers and unable to eat solid foods.
Shawn was born prematurely, which, not uncommonly, caused vision and hearing damage as well as gastro-esophageal reflux disease, meaning he could vomit with the ease of a tipping pitcher. And he did, out of sheer panic, whenever anything larger than a pea was placed in his mouth. Today, on a clear February afternoon in Ottawa, a year and a half after the Fennellys brought Shawn home, he is sitting on Elizabeth’s lap in their carpeted dining room, being spoon fed porridge mixed with canned turkey and cheese. (“The porridge is a vehicle,” says Jeff, “like the bread of a sandwich.”) After two months of tongue exercises involving tubes and brushes, Shawn has learned how to manipulate and chew most foods, provided the morsels are small enough. “Our feedings went from forty minutes to five,” Jeff says. Sure enough, after a few minutes of concentrated scarfing, Shawn loses interest in his porridge and returns to the pile of blocks on the floor.
The home has the spare, functional decor of a toddler’s roaming grounds. Baby gates block the kitchen and the upstairs, and doors are kept locked because Shawn loves to dash into the garage or the bathroom when he wants attention. Lately, he has been pulling off the quarter-sized microphone attached by a magnet to his skull, part of his new cochlear implant, which has enabled him to hear for the first time. Tiny wires from a transmitter embedded under the skin deliver sound directly to the brain, bypassing the damaged inner ear. After several months with the Fennellys, Shawn’s vision, attention span, and ability to walk have improved dramatically. During their parental leaves, Jeff and Elizabeth doggedly worked with nearly a dozen specialists to kick-start Shawn’s primary senses and ready him for the wider world.
Jeff’s father, John, recalls the day when his mother sat him down in his bedroom to tell him she was not his mother. This was in Newfoundland, in a tiny fishing village an hour’s drive south of St. John’s. It was 1958 or 1959, which makes John eleven or twelve (he’s not sure which). After some brisk chit-chat, his mother unpacked the facts: she was his grandmother, which meant that his seven siblings were actually his aunts and uncles, and the woman he knew as one of his sisters was his biological mother. John remembers being oddly placid and unsurprised by the news. “I figured there had to be something unusual going on; my parents were quite a bit older.” (John’s eldest brother—he still calls him a brother—is twenty years his senior.) All he knows is that his mother had become pregnant with him at seventeen or eighteen. “Being pregnant and unmarried in the ’40s in a little Catholic outport town in Newfoundland would have been a pretty serious thing,” he says. As was the customary response then, the birth was hidden and John was enfolded into the larger family.
This was a simpler time in adoption—before home studies, private agencies, and going abroad—when provincial child welfare departments handled official adoptions, though it is impossible to know how many unofficial kin arrangements like John’s were quietly brokered. Until the ’60s, the ideal adoptee was a newborn: healthy, female, white, direct from a hospital or a maternity home, according to Judith Adams, a Toronto Telegram reporter who wrote a book in the early ’80s about the now-defunct paper’s pioneering adoption advocacy. A six-month-old baby boy in 1968, for instance, was considered hard to place (too old, not female), while school-aged, mixed-race, and disabled kids were assumed by social workers to be unadoptable. Adams writes that some adoptive parents requested specific eye or hair colour, presumably in the interest of passing off the child as kin. Adoption was a closeted affair; records were sealed, effectively wiping out a child’s history in the interest of his or her new future.
By the early ’80s, when John (then living in Ottawa) and his wife, Liz, adopted Jeff through their local Children’s Aid Society, the prevailing sentiment around adoption had relaxed, and it was no longer taboo. Liberated by feminism and the sexual revolution, women were more career minded, putting off or even reassessing motherhood and the necessity of marriage. For John and Liz, then in their mid-thirties and unable to conceive, adoption was their Plan B. They attended a few educational sessions mandated by social services and completed a home study, which Liz remembers as “cursory—only to see the baby’s room and look at our finances.” Within a year and a half, they got a call to collect Jeff (who was then called Adam) from his foster home. It was a quaintly casual event. On the way, they stopped for burgers at Harvey’s, then at the department store to buy a crib. Afterwards, some neighbours came over to celebrate, while Jeff napped in Liz’s arms and John struggled with the crib. Three and a half years later, they adopted again, a ten-day-old baby boy they named Stephen.
Jeff was five months old when John and Liz brought him home. His birth mother was the sort of young, unattached woman “in trouble” seen in adoptions of an earlier, more conservative era. Though it was not customary with public adoptions, the Ottawa public agency, progressive for its time, allowed Jeff’s mother to choose his parents from the list of applicants.
The idea of a birth mother directly participating in the adoption process was just starting to appear in child welfare regulations, but the practice had long been taking place unofficially. Private adoptions, as they are still called in most provinces, “used to be like mortgage deals,” says Michael Blugerman, a veteran private practitioner who works out of a smoky ground-floor office in Toronto. “The mother would have a lawyer, the adopting parents would have a lawyer, they would sign some paperwork, the mother would give birth, and the parents would take the baby home,” he says. Once the process became provincially regulated, he opened his private agency, which he still operates today. At the peak of the private adoption era, he estimates that 700 or more adoptions were being brokered by lawyers and agencies in the province in a year. Today he says he might do five to twenty annually. (In 2011, seventy-two private adoptions were arranged in Ontario.) “There has been a major slide in sentiment,” he says. “When I went to high school, a pregnant girl was sent away; now there are daycares attached to high schools.” By the time private agencies like Blugerman’s came on board, fewer women were surrendering their babies. Meanwhile, the last of the baby boomers were starting families and running into fertility problems, creating a critical mass, he says, that “caused a big push on infertility and adoption resources. All of a sudden, the interest in adopting from other countries exploded.”
Canadians have long adopted from abroad, but largely for humanitarian reasons, in spurts and small numbers: orphans of the Irish famine, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars; and, later, in the mid-’70s, from orphanages in Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, and Latin America, through Ottawa’s newly established national Adoption Desk. But over the next two decades, as adoption became normalized and the supply of domestic infants began to wane, inter-country adoption became less about finding parents for destitute babies and more about finding babies for hopeful parents. It was no longer motivated by goodwill, but rather became a transaction in the business of fulfilling the developed world’s growing demand for infants.
International adoption is now a multibillion-dollar global industry supplied largely by poor nations, usually those in the aftermath of war, political upheaval, or natural disaster. Canadians adopted 250 foreign children annually in the ’80s; by the mid-’90s, it was 2,000. In 1992 alone, international adoptions shot up by 75 percent over the previous year. Kids came from India and the Philippines, along with a growing number from the newly fallen Soviet Union, but the main source was China. Its one-child policy was blamed for creating thousands of unwanted infant girls, and Canadians happily and with few difficulties brought home thousands of Chinese toddlers for nearly a decade. China’s girls were plentiful and considered healthier and better off—perhaps less damaged—than local foster kids. Also, the thinking went, Chinese parents were victims of a cruel social policy, not crack addicts or prostitutes. Between 2003 and 2010, some 75,000 Chinese children were adopted out worldwide, and it became normal to see Chinese kids with obviously non-Asian parents. There was no hiding adoption anymore, and this visibility carried shifting attitudes about family and adoption to new levels of acceptance.
Since the mid-2000s, however, the China Center of Adoption Affairs has capped infant adoptions and tightened restrictions on foreign adopters, shutting out same-sex couples and single parents, and has introduced stricter eligibility criteria. Experts point to various explanations, including an increased demand from Chinese families facing similar fertility problems. “You hear all kinds of policy reasons,” says Blugerman, “but I think this concept of face and public embarrassment was huge for China as it was ascending as a world power.” When China shut off the tap on infants, Canadian adoptions from there dropped by more than half between 2003 and 2010.
No one knows just how many children in Canada are in government care or available for adoption in any given year. Consider that Ottawa keeps annual statistics on the country’s inmates, yet it has no central authority to track how many minors, some of them babies, it has under its watch. For the first time, in the latest census, Statistics Canada polled specifically about foster kids; in 2011, households reported boarding a total of 29,590 foster kids aged fourteen and younger. The best big picture estimate, however, is 79,000 in government care (which includes foster care, group homes, and kin arrangements), with 31,000 of those available for adoption, meaning the relationship to their biological parents has been legally terminated and all other plausible safe care options have been exhausted. Still, this is a wobbly and outdated measurement, calculated using 2004 statistics culled from the provinces and territories, which have varying and often incompatible tracking methods. (By contrast, the US Department of Health and Human Services collects yearly state and national stats on the number of kids in care, how many are adopted, their gender, ethnicity, and age, and even the structure of adopting families.)
Here is what is known about the children in government care: a large proportion are Aboriginal; only a fraction find homes through adoption; and each year, thousands age out of the system, not having been placed in a permanent living arrangement by the time they reach eighteen. Imagine a childhood spent bouncing between homes, with only caseworkers, counsellors, and foster parents—well-meaning but temporary figures—looking after you, and then, on your eighteenth birthday, being told to leave the place you’ve begrudgingly called home and find somewhere new to live, while figuring out food, clothing, and school, challenges you’re ill equipped for because you have zero confidence and you trust no one, and when this becomes overwhelming, there’s no one to call for help or encouragement. It is not surprising that young people who grow up in the child welfare system are more apt to abandon school, live on the streets, and fall into crime. In British Columbia in 2010, twenty-three teens were adopted; in 2011, 700 aged out of foster care. Of New Brunswick’s kids in government care, fully half are over the age of eleven; while in Ontario, 61 percent are between thirteen and eighteen, yet that cohort accounted for only 3.6 percent of total adoptions in 2010–11. This is partly because older kids can refuse adoption (their consent is required when they turn twelve); after they have survived years of foster home flux, the prospect of another uprooting is understandably off-putting. Of the 971 adoptions in Ontario that year, the majority involved children younger than five. Along with adoption, there were 2,300 legal custody, customary care, and kin care arrangements—not technically adoption—which still left 4,700 foster kids in the system. Only two in five had found permanent homes.
The reasons more people don’t adopt through public agencies are hard to ascertain. The brush stroke answer is that most want babies or very young children, and there is a widespread fear of foster kids and their scars. A lifetime of abandonment, abuse, and neglect have a way of warping children’s psyches and can prevent them from trusting or attaching to their new parents, while fetal alcohol syndrome and other developmental and physical problems are common. But blame also lands on the public system for being inhospitable to prospective parents, who say the home study process takes too long, sometimes more than a year just waiting to be screened, and post-adoption supports are inadequate or non-existent. Adopting from another province can be just as legislatively onerous as going outside the country.
Broadly, there is a perception that child welfare agencies are stretched too thin and cannot properly address the dual mandate of protecting children—which invariably involves pulling them out of bad homes—and then finding them better situations as quickly as possible. Agencies have come under fire for abuse and neglect suffered by children in their care: last year, for instance, a baby girl in Edmonton died six days after she was taken from her mother and placed in foster care; another girl, five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair, was murdered by her mother and stepfather in 2005 while under the watch of Manitoba’s Child and Family Services. And across the country, children have been housed in supervised hotel rooms and emergency shelters when no foster homes were available. “Most resources go to bringing children into the system, and not enough is spent getting them out,” says Patricia Paul-Carson, a volunteer with the Adoption Council of Canada, a national, largely volunteer-run advocacy organization based in Ottawa. “I’ve had calls from people who say they’ve tried and tried and are not getting anywhere with the [public system],” she says. “They don’t have a clue where to go; there are a million websites out there.” The ACC is the only national resource for adoptive parents trying to muddle through the range of options—international or domestic, public or private—and how each system works in their province or territory.
By the time people make their way to adoption, many are already beaten and broke. “I meet families who have spent $70,000 on infertility treatments, sometimes in various countries, and when I tell them they can adopt from Russia for $50,000 they just look at me like I’m crazy,” says Michael Blugerman. “And now, with the economy and job uncertainty, there aren’t many people who can write a cheque for that kind of money. So the more accessible we make the public kids and the smoother we make the public system, the more it will be a natural place to adopt.”
Within the past couple of decades, the provinces and territories have separately taken small measures to make local adoption easier and more appealing, while addressing the cracks in their systems. The Adoptive Families Association of BC has been particularly effective at providing emotional supports for parents by connecting them with other adoptive families. Alberta is known for its generous financial subsidies, while Manitoba, amid some controversy, has overhauled its child welfare system to better serve Aboriginal kids. (In light of Canada’s residential school system and the infamous Sixties Scoop, in which Native children were taken from their birth families and placed in white foster or adoptive homes, many jurisdictions have established Aboriginal agencies that emphasize culturally sensitive placements.) Ontario’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services recently announced ongoing subsidies for families adopting older kids and siblings; previously, financial support depended on the budget of a particular agency, whereas most other provinces set aside money for this purpose. In the US, where such subsidies have been legislated since 1980, followed by generous tax credits, financial incentives have been shown to shorten children’s stays in foster care. The American approach to promoting local adoptions has been pragmatic and business minded: create incentives, reduce costs, and advertise.
Marketing adoptable kids has long been recognized as crucial for family recruitment, though critics have cited concerns about privacy and consent, and have raised fears that websites advertising vulnerable children could attract predators. However, as with any social campaign that pleads for a moral response (World Vision child sponsorship, stamping out animal cruelty), photographs of wide-eyed, painfully innocent victims have the power to spur action. In 1964, the Toronto Telegram published photos and short biographies of foster kids in a daily feature called Today’s Child, which now continues monthly in the Toronto Star. Photo listing has moved to TV and online: The US has numerous websites with national, state, or regional scopes, as well as sophisticated travelling exhibits advertising kids, sometimes during high-profile events like the Super Bowl. In Canada, BC, Alberta, and Ontario have province-wide child listing sites, while the Adoption Council of Canada maintains a national online database, although it is quite small.
In 2004, one year after Alberta launched its pioneering open access model (no password or registration required), public adoptions increased by 30 percent and applications surged by 63 percent, according to the province’s Ministry of Children’s Services. AdoptOntario followed suit with a more private website that used BC’s model of including parent profiles and matching them to kids across the province. The database is still relatively thin, and the onus is on social workers to submit profiles of children. Though the write-ups employ the usual glowing adjectives, they are frank about each child’s challenges and needs. “We’re building education and awareness about who these kids are and what it takes to parent them,” says Pat Convery, executive director of the Adoption Council of Ontario, the Toronto non-profit organization that oversees the website.
The province organizes quarterly Adoption Resource Exchanges, a conference where regional public agencies advertise their hard-to-place kids in brochures and videos. It’s a surreal scene: the booths, the browsing couples, the narrated video loop of child profiles that are difficult to watch. “They are incredibly effective, because it brings the parents right to the social workers, and as soon as you get them close together good things will happen,” says Convery. “The whole purpose is to meet new families that [social workers] don’t already have in their drawer.” These exchanges are an Ontario initiative, but other provinces hold similar, though smaller, events to drum up interest in their kids, and especially to welcome potential adopters.
Lately, in urban centres, this has meant welcoming the gay community. Having won the legal right to adopt a decade ago (ahead of the right to marry), Canadian same-sex couples are now free to approach adoption as a unit. Before the laws changed, one of the pair would apply under the guise of a single parent, especially if they were going abroad for a child. Today not one sending country will consider same-sex applicants. “We didn’t even explore international adoption, because we heard from so many people that it would be a dead end,” says Michael. Along with his husband, Thomas, he adopted an eight-month-old boy named David two years ago, through Family and Children’s Services of the Waterloo Region. (To protect their son’s privacy, they asked that their last names not be used.) “Our region is very progressive; its mission statement talks about being open and inclusive, and we definitely felt that,” says Thomas.
All of this—the outreach, the marketing, the subsidies—is the kind of good, practical fix the system needs. But the thornier task ahead must strike at something more fundamental: how people think of adoption and foster kids. In 2002, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, an American charity established by the Wendy’s burger chain founder, funded one of the few studies to examine popular attitudes about adoption. The usual concerns emerged: money and emotional supports and how to deal with a child’s medical problems. But the majority of respondents said they would be afraid of the birth parents reclaiming an adopted child, even though, as the research suggests, such cases are rare.
This fear may be more common now, since openness has become an overarching principle, spurred in the ’80s by adult adoptees and birth parents looking to reclaim their history, as well as by a larger philosophical shift within adoption agencies. Openness involves some contact between adoptive and birth families: it can be as distant as sending a card once a year or as close as regular visits. The degree to which it is emphasized in provincial legislation varies, but it is no longer out of the question, as long as the interaction is deemed healthy for the child and all parties consent to it. Since the days of secrecy and sealed records, adoption professionals have come to agree that acknowledging, rather than concealing, adoptees’ roots can ultimately serve them better. But it scares the hell out of adoptive parents.
Jeff Fennelly had terrible associations with birth parent contact—not his own, but his younger brother’s. “He’s still dealing with the fallout from that,” Jeff says. “His mother was not emotionally stable, and your average fifteen-year-old is not emotionally stable, so it was a disaster.” His brother never found the soulmate he had envisioned, and his deflating experience solidified what Jeff already felt, even at seventeen, when his parents handed him the file they had assembled with information about his biological mother, should he wish to find her. “I neither wanted contact nor needed it for myself,” he says. “I would do it for her if she wanted peace of mind.” His birth mother felt the same, and they have amicably remained strangers.
Before adopting Shawn, Elizabeth feared the openness as well as the judgments that might surface. She considered the hypotheticals: could she explain to a child that his biological mother was mentally ill, or a rape victim, or an alcoholic? “It would be hard to get over the fact that some parents are incapable of choosing their child over addiction,” she says. But then she began volunteering with a local Children’s Aid Society as part of her plan to pursue a master’s degree in social work. She now helps supervise visits between foster kids and members of their birth families. Elizabeth saw the parents in a new light. “I don’t think I ever worked with a family who didn’t love their child,” she says. “They may be abusive or they may not know what to do, but they always love their children. I saw how hard it was for them to say goodbye at the end of each visit; they would be in tears. Then I realized I wasn’t so worried about sharing the name Mom.” The Fennellys send photos and holiday cards to Shawn’s biological parents through his social worker, but they have no plans to meet.
Michael and Thomas have met their son’s birth mother, for the first time while she was in prison, before the adoption was finalized, and they are keen to continue the relationship. “Sure, there are fears and worries, but it also has to be what’s best for David, so he can understand where he came from,” says Michael. “She seemed thrilled that we were going to take care of him. We talked about how she’ll always be his only mom and we’re his dads.” Since her release, they have received one or two replies to their emails, and several months have passed without contact. “We hope she’s doing okay,” says Thomas. “She’s had challenges in her life, and she struggles with addiction.” David was taken into care at birth, and was born with cocaine in his system, which can cause developmental delays, particularly in speech. These were difficulties the fathers felt they could handle. “Very few couples have to think about what they’re willing to accept in a child,” Michael says. “The assumption is that they’re going to have a healthy child, whereas the assumption in adoption is that they will have challenges.”
The hard reality is that foster kids and their diagnoses and abuse and trauma histories send adopters running scared, many in the direction of international adoption, where children’s medical histories are often unknown. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have problems. “Children in the public system have experienced trauma, and they come with diagnoses and a lot of information, because we take good care of our children. We have therapists and assessments,” says Pat Convery. “In international adoption, you have a child you don’t know anything about. For some people, the fear of the known is greater than the fear of the unknown.” She agrees that this is perhaps the greatest hurdle in public adoption, and while diminished avenues may already help lessen the stigma around foster kids, she says, “we’re not there yet.” Though public adoptions have been increasing slowly, at least in Ontario, this has not happened without constant tweaking and tending to the system. Even if international adoptions dried up, the work required to change perceptions of foster kids remains.
“More needs to be done to find a family for a child, rather than waiting for a family to submit a home study,” says Elizabeth. “The poor kids get stigmatized, and no matter how many YouTube ads you put up saying that no child is unadoptable, the problem is, whether we say it out loud or not, the consensus is that these kids are at the bottom of the chain.” It can be disheartening for adoptive parents to face “scary medical files” like Shawn’s, she says. “You have to be brutally honest with yourself and ask, ‘Can I deal with this?’ It’s the same as if we had a biological child who suddenly developed these conditions: you would learn to deal with it.”
The Fennellys talk about this with the easy manner of parents who have come out on the other side. They have survived the vomiting, the night terrors, the medical decisions, the love that didn’t come easily. Since Shawn was adopted, his progress has been dramatic. He has a longer attention span, he has stopped rocking back and forth to soothe himself, he rarely throws up when he eats, he interacts more easily, and now that he can hear sounds he is beginning to understand words. Recently, he floored Jeff by bringing over the peanut butter from the grocery bag when his dad asked for it. And he understands when his mom says a stern “No!” as he sneaks toward the front door, mischief in his eyes, testing his parents, as any five-year-old would.
This appeared in the December 2012 issue.