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Family Bonds: How the Government of Canada Can Support Adoption

Ottawa, ON, Canada

The Adoption Council of Canada

Appearing November 25, 2010

Family Bonds: How the Government of Canada Can Support Adoption

This month, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Canada is one of the 193 nations that have ratified that convention. One of its principles is that a child, “for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.”

There is a crisis in child welfare in this country, although it’s not a crisis that politicians talk about. Tens of thousands of children are growing up in foster care in our provinces and territories, shunted from temporary home to temporary home, or group home to group home. This lack of permanency is a public health issue. Youth in care are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized for mental health issues than the general public, according to B.C.’s Representative of Children and Youth and its Provincial Health Officer.[1] To quote an editorial last year in CMAJ, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, “Children who have a government as their parent, no matter how well-intentioned or necessary that arrangement is, are often damaged by it.” They are damaged because multiple moves to living arrangements with multiple caregivers – no matter how loving the foster parents – do not promote stability, security and attachment, the building blocks every child and youth needs to succeed.[2]

Even more damaging, thousands of youth age out of care every year without permanent families, once those young people turn 16, 18 or 21. They move into adulthood without connections or supports. Many drop out of school, become single parents, end up on social assistance or become homeless. According to a three-year research project that YouthWorks conducted involving interviews with 689 street-involved youth in Calgary, Toronto and St. John’s, 68 percent of those youth had previously been in foster care.[3]

Within two to four years of leaving foster care, more than half of all youth without a permanent family connection have not completed high school, according to one B.C. study. Fewer than 50 percent are employed, 60 percent of young women have given birth and fewer than 20 percent are self-supporting.[4] By 21 years of age, 41 percent of children and youth in care have been in contact with the criminal justice system, compared to only 6.6 percent of the general population in the same age group.[5] Aging out of foster care also has negative mental health consequences for youth and young adults, who are more vulnerable for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug and alcohol abuse.[6] Sometimes, those who have ‘graduated’ from the child welfare system have their own children removed. Those children end up in foster care and the cycle is perpetuated. The societal costs and the costs to our social services of not finding families for these young people are mounting.

Family BondsThis brief will discuss ways in which the Government of Canada can support Canadians in their efforts to adopt children – giving those children permanent families to provide them with the happiness, love and understanding they deserve.

Unfortunately, we don’t even know precisely how many children are in care in each province, and how many youth age out of the system. We have no national database that collects this information. Nationally, we believe that at least 70,000 of our children and youth are in care of child welfare agencies across the country. We don’t know how many of these children and youth are legally free for adoption, although we estimate 20,000-30,000, based on figures that the Dave Thomas Foundation collected as of July 2004.[7] We don’t know how long children and youth wait for a referral and placement after they have become permanent wards of the province or territory. We don’t know how many children in care are referred for adoption, or for whom adoption is the plan.

We know that aboriginal children are over-represented in the child welfare system, but we don’t know what percentage of children in care in each province and territory are aboriginal.  We join the Canadian Council of Provincial Child and Youth Advocates in advocating for better national coordination and promotion of better measures and data practices to establish the actual percentage of aboriginal children in the child welfare system, and to track their outcomes.[8]  

We don’t know if more older girls than older boys are adopted, although we hear that anecdotally. We don’t know how many children in care have siblings who are also free for adoption. Likewise, we do not know how much money we are spending in each province and territory to keep children and youth in care, and how many of our public resources are being devoted to finding permanent families for them.

Without these figures, there is no accountability or transparency. We need to know these numbers, to craft approaches that are targeted to the specific needs of each population in of children and youth in care. Without the figures, we can’t assess whether we are meeting our obligations to find permanency for our children and youth. Provinces and territories are, for some reason, reluctant to release those numbers. When one adoptive parent asked Alberta for them – in an Access to Information request – she was denied, on the basis of “national security.”  

We do know that only about 2,000 children are adopted every year from the public system. Another 2,122 children were adopted internationally in 2009, and became Canadian citizens. A further 500-600 children are adopted privately. We also know we can – and should – do better by the children we have removed from their birth families, without their consent, and placed into foster care.

There is one main reason the federal government should help support children who need adoptive families, and the families themselves: the outcomes are better if it does. The permanency of adoption dramatically improves the quality of life for children and youth. Children and youth who are adopted score higher on IQ tests than their non-adopted siblings or peers, and perform significantly better in both academic and social settings. Adopted children and youth are more likely to have increased involvement in positive, structured activities such as sports, music and community organizations, and tend to have a positive self-concept and higher level of caring behaviours, such as volunteering.[9] Children with a secure and permanent base are more likely to better handle their emotions and form meaningful and long-term relationships with others.[10]

Whether children are adopted internationally, or from the public child welfare system in Canada, or privately, all adopted children begin their lives with a loss – the loss of their birth families. Many children who spend time in foster care, whether in Canada, or in orphanages or foster families abroad, have suffered trauma in addition to loss. That trauma may have begun in their families of origin, but it is certainly continued through the multiple placements that children and youth experience in our foster care system. No matter how loving and skilled foster parents are, children and youth who are parented by the state do not do as well as children who have permanent families.

The federal government can support adoption by acting in the following areas of its jurisdiction:

1. Gather data and establish equitable standards of care

We need to know the number of children and youth in each province and territory who are in foster care, and how many are legally free for adoption. We also need to know how each province and territory responsible for child welfare defines “child,” “youth,” and at what age the system will no longer support them if they are not adopted. We need to know the figures on aboriginal children in care. 

We are asking the federal government to direct Statistics Canada or the Library of Parliament or another federal agency to collect and make public annual statistics concerning children and youth in care, and the numbers of children and youth legally free for adoption, in as much non-identifying detail as possible.  We would ask that children in care and aboriginal children specifically be included in the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth.

In addition, we would recommend the creation of a federal/provincial working group to address the issue of equitable standards across Canada for the care and protection of children, which addresses their need for safety, permanency and well-being, defines “child” universally as up to age 18, and provides for a seamless transition for those aging out of the child welfare system, so they move from children’s services to adult services at age 18.

2. Extend parental leave benefits through the EI program

One of the barriers for some Canadian families considering adoption is that adoptive parents do not get to take the same amount of paid leave as do biological parents. If parents knew they could get a full year off work to bond with their new child, more might be willing to adopt.

Currently, a child born to a Canadian family has the opportunity to spend a full 50 weeks attaching to parents who do not have to go back to work. A biological family receives a combination of 15 weeks of maternity benefits, paid through EI, and 35 weeks of parental leave.

Because adoptive families do not qualify for the 15 weeks of maternity benefits paid under EI – regardless of whether they have paid into the EI system – adoptive families have significantly less time to bond than biological families do. No matter what age a child or youth is when they are adopted, either internationally, privately or through the child welfare system, they are at risk of attachment disorders prompted by their initial losses and multiple caregivers. Adoptive families need time to build bonds of attachment, without the fear of lost income.  

The Adoption Council of Canada is asking this Committee to recommend amending the Employment Insurance Act to ensure that adoptive parents receive the opportunity for 50 weeks of paid parental leave, so that they may have the same opportunity to bond with the children as do biological families.

Estimated cost: $23.6 million (15 additional weeks of EI for each adoptive family, with each family receiving an average of $350 per week, based on 4500 families adopting in Canada every year.)[11]

Break even:

If 35  additional children (average age 3) find an adoptive home each year because parents are able to take additional time off thanks to EI parental leave benefits, we more than pay for the program by relieving the child welfare system of that child’s lifetime costs of care.  It costs approximately $44,830 per year to keep a child in care (Ontario figures). Extending EI benefits for an additional 15 weeks to adoptive parents would cost, on average, about $5,000 per family per year. 

3. Remove barriers to inter-provincial adoption

Currently, it is easier to adopt internationally than it is for a family in one province to adopt a child or youth who lives in another province. Some provinces prefer to leave children in foster care rather than match them with an adoptive family in a different part of the country, regardless of whether there is a qualified family that would meet those children’s needs.

Family BondsThe Adoption Council of Canada runs Canada’s Waiting Children, the country’s only national photolisting, where potential adoptive parents can see pictures and profiles of waiting children in foster care. The site is password protected and there are no locations or real names provided for the children and youth featured on the site.

Canada’s Waiting Children has an 85-percent success rate, meaning 85 percent of the children shown on the site are eventually placed in adoptive homes. We have successfully placed Ontario children in Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador children in British Columbia, Alberta children in Manitoba, and Ontario children in Manitoba. But many provinces and territories are reluctant to refer to the photolisting because of the difficult paperwork involved in inter-provincial adoptions. Some provinces, such as B.C., refuse to place their children and youth out-of-province, even if it means they linger in foster care when qualified parents would be available elsewhere in the country.  Only one province – Alberta – funds the Canada’s Waiting Children program, despite the fact that the program saves provinces who refer to it millions of dollars every year. For example, we placed 11 Ontario children in adoptive homes through Canada’s Waiting Children in 2009, saving the province almost $5 million, given the cost of maintaining those children in foster care until they would have turned 18. Ontario provides no money to the program; Alberta provides $10,000.

We are asking the Committee to recommend that the federal government convene a meeting of the province and territorial ministers responsible for children and youth, to draft a Memorandum of Understanding that would support inter-provincial adoption, opening up more potential adoptive homes for children and youth in care. In addition, we are asking the federal government, through HRSDC, to consider funding the Canada’s Waiting Children program, at a cost of $85,000 per year, to ensure that more Canadian children will find adoptive homes through this successful evidence-based approach to recruiting families.   

Break even: If Canada’s Waiting Children places just two children per year, at an average cost of about $45,000 per year to keep a child in care, the program will have broken even for Canadian taxpayers.

4. Launch a national public awareness/public health campaign

Most Canadians are not aware of the numbers of children and youth waiting for families in the foster care system. They don’t know that adoption could be an option for them to build their families. There are many prominent and well-known Canadians in all walks of life who have been touched by adoption – including some members of this Committee. We believe the Government of Canada should enlist their help in educating Canadians about adoption, through a public awareness/public health campaign. The health of children and youth who remain in the child welfare system is at stake. By letting Canadians know how they can adopt through the public system, and what the benefits of adoption and permanency are for children and youth in care, the federal government would help to build Canadian families. 

We are asking the Committee to:

Recommend that the federal government work with the Adoption Council of Canada and other stakeholders to finance and launch a national public awareness/public health campaign, through broadcast public service announcements and mailing campaigns featuring real adoptive families, to promote adoption as an option for Canadian families.

5. Amend the regulations accompanying Bill C-37, an Act to Amend the Citizenship Act

Adopted children deserve to be treated equally, under all aspects of Canadian law, as children who are born to biological families. Bill C-37, an Act to Amend the Citizenship Act, discriminates against adopted children born outside of Canada by limiting their ability to pass their citizenship along to their children. We are asking the Committee to recommend that the Government of Canada:

Amend the regulations accompanying this legislation, so that the Government of Canada grant children adopted abroad by Canadian parents ordinarily residing in Canada the same legal status as children born in Canada.

Ensure children born abroad and adopted by a Canadian parent be permitted to transmit their citizenship by descent to children born abroad, provided that the Canadian parent resided in Canada for a specific period of time, as established through legislation, before the child was born.

In summary, the Adoption Council of Canada would like to thank the Committee for providing representatives of the adoption community in Canada with the opportunity to discuss these important issues. We appreciate the leadership that Committee members have shown in considering ways to improve the lives of children in care, children adopted privately or internationally, and of Canadians attempting to build their families through adoption.

[1] https://www.rcybc.ca/sites/default/files/documents/pdf/reports_publications/kids_crime_and_care.pdf

Kids, Crime and Care: Youth Justice Experiences and Outcomes. BC Representative for Children and Youth/Office of the Provincial Health Officer, February 23, 2009. 

[2] Trupin EW, Tarico VS, Low BP, et al. Children on child protective service case-loads: prevalence and nature of serious emotional disturbance. Child Abuse Negl 1993;17-345-55.

[3] Road to Solutions, Raisingtheroof.org, 2009.

[4] http://www.leg.bc.ca/cmt/38thparl/session-3/cay/hansard/Y0614a.htm

[5] Kids, Crime and Care, Ibid.

[6] Rutman, Deborah, Hubberstey, Carol, et al. When Youth Age Out of Care – A Report on Baseline Findings. University of Victoria, BC Ministry of Children and Family Development

[7] Child and Family Services Statistical Report, July 2004 statistics released October 2007, and collated by the Dave Thomas Foundation.

[8] http://www.gnb.ca/0073/PDF/positionpaper-e.pdf 

Aboriginal Children and Youth in Canada: Canada Must Do Better. Canadian Council of Provincial Child and Youth Advocates, June 23, 2010.

[9] Lizendoorn, M.H., et al (2005). Adoption and cognitive development: a meta-analytic comparison of adopted and nonadopted children’s IQ and school performance. Psychological Bulletin, 131(2), 301-316.

[10] Freudlich, M., Avery, R.J., et al (2005). The meaning of permanency in child welfare: Multiple stakeholder perspectives.

[11] Note – this figure would fluctuate, given that not all adoptive families will take the additional weeks of leave, and there is a range of EI benefits provided, with the maximum being $457 per week.