In the months leading up to her 18th birthday, Chana Weiss thought she’d figured out a pretty good plan. She and a friend from her group home in Toronto would pool their monthly $1,050 cheques from the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) for youth who’ve aged out of foster care and split a basement apartment. Most importantly, she would finally be done with adults. “They pretty much screwed me over until this point,” she recalls thinking at the time. She couldn’t wait to collect her stipend and “get the hell out” of her group home and the child welfare system in general.
Chana’s journey through the child protection system began when she was 12, the year her father died. One of seven siblings, Chana also had an older sister who was already in foster care and four older brothers who were out on their own. Following her father’s death, her mother was unable to care for Chana and her younger sister and soon they lost their home. A Hasidic Jewish family, they turned to family and friends in their community for help, but after a few months of sleeping at other people’s houses, Chana and her little sister were apprehended by the CAS. Chana entered foster care at 13 and became a crown ward when she was 14.
She lived with three different foster families over the same number of years and attended Jewish schools, where she found herself getting into trouble and skipping classes. “I became very defiant,” she recalls of that period in her life. “Nothing made sense to me. I was lying for no reason. It was a mess.” Just before her 16th birthday, Chana was finally moved into a group home, where she found what she calls a “pseudo-family structure” with the workers there. She began to like some parts of school, like playing rugby and taking a women’s study class, which helped her feel confident to come out as queer. But Chana says she still wasn’t doing well emotionally. “I felt so broken and traumatized that having a family would never be an option again and I’d have to make it on my own,” she says.
For more than 800 teenagers like Chana who age out of foster care in Ontario every year, turning 18 can be bittersweet. Nobody steps up to help launch them forward in life. Instead, the provincial government—their legal parent—takes a big step back, leaving them to make the best of their independence. Social workers try to ease the transition, but for many young people in care, it can feel like walking off a cliff because they lack the real supports they need to succeed. According to data gathered by the Adoption Council of Ontario, half of young people will not finish high school or find employment within two to four years of leaving foster care at age 18 and one-quarter of them will experience incarceration. Only 20 percent of young people who leave foster care will be self-supporting by their 22nd birthday. Many will become homeless, joining the 35,000 to 40,000 young people who experience homelessness over the course of a year in Canada. According to a 2016 survey by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, nearly half of homeless youth polled had a history of placements in foster care and group homes, and nearly 40 percent of those who “aged out” of care suggested a link between that event and their homelessness.
To help youth in the child protection system avoid ending up on the street, the government offers classes in financial literacy and life skills like cooking, but these small supports hardly amount to a solid footing for adult life. “I learned how to make gourmet mac and cheese,” Chana wryly recalls of her preparation for independent living.
A new program at the Adoption Council of Ontario called Never Too Late For Family (NTL) seeks to offer these young people another path. NTL starts from a simple premise: Survivors of the child protection system deserve better than what government programs can offer. All the services that Ontario has invested in helping youth succeed after care just aren’t making enough of a difference in the negative outcomes for this group, and we believe what is missing is the stability of a family connection, says Pat Convery, executive director of the Adoption Council of Ontario. Youth homelessness remains an unrelenting problem for people who age out of care, as well as low academic achievement and employment issues. “We know that we are still not moving the needle,” says Convery. “One of the ways you can fix youth homelessness is to find families for young people who don’t have families.”
The organizers of NTL are doing exactly that: They aim to help these kids find families to rely on, beginning a process of undoing their painful stories of rejection and abandonment. NTL seeks these young people out by raising awareness through networks like the Ontario Child Advocate—which the Doug Ford government is in the process of shutting down—and by working with dedicated “permanency” and adoption placement workers at Children’s Aid Societies and collaborating with shelters and agencies that support youth in difficult situations. NTL works with people who have aged out of the system to help connect them with adults who want to be their families. These can be people in their lives—relatives, teachers, coaches or even former foster parents—who simply never considered stepping up to the role or even strangers who want to adopt. Whoever they are, the adoptive families need to have one important quality: the ability to commit. When a match is made, these young people can find as adults what eluded them as children and teenagers: the unconditional lifelong support of a family.
Getting a family after all these years
In the year leading up to Chana’s 18th birthday, a permanency worker from her local Children’s Aid Society started to talk to her about the possibility of being adopted as an adult. Their initial conversations were difficult. Chana didn’t like the idea of joining a family at this stage in her life after all that she had been through. “She was trying to tell me that there are families who are willing to take in an 18-year-old and build this permanent connection,” recalls Chana. “That idea really made me angry and upset because why hadn’t they given me that option earlier, when I came into care?”
4 things I wish I’d known about foster parentingThe founders of NTL understand that words like “adoption” and “family” can trigger negative reactions for the young people they’re trying to reach. If someone enters care, it’s because they have already been wounded by a family breakdown. Beyond the original trauma, they may have been forced to move repeatedly from one foster home to the next or have suffered a failed adoption. These experiences can reinforce feelings of abandonment and rejection, which may, in turn, lead to anger and unjustified self-blame.
“They have been indoctrinated to believe that they can’t trust people, especially adults and especially adults that are called parents,” explains Kim Stevens, a consultant with NTL who created a program in the United States called Lifelong Family Connections for Adolescents. “The work is really hard. It takes a lot of time to be able to get young people into a family, and it takes a lot of supports to keep them in that family.”
Instead of using loaded terms like “parent” and “adoption,” the people who run NTL prefer to talk about “finding permanency.” In their language, older adults who want to help a young person by making an unconditional commitment don’t necessarily become “parents”; instead, they simply become “someone’s human.” A young person from the child protection system may have no interest in acquiring a new mom or dad, but finding a reliable human who cares and who won’t walk away? Well, that could be nice.
Because the notion of moving in with a family can be off-putting for people from care, as it was for Chana, NTL offers education and support on both sides of the equation: to those who are interested in providing a family-type connection and to the young people themselves. Prospective “humans” attend workshops to learn about things like grief and loss, trauma, attachment theory, commitment and the stages of child development, which may be re-enacted later in life for those who suffered childhood trauma.
If the young person can’t find someone from their own circle, NTL will help them introduce themselves to prospective parent figures through blogs and videos. Another way to help the program’s participants identify parent figures is to coach young people to find casual settings where they can interact with older adults, such as a book club, cooking class or community service project. “This takes the pressure off participants to be ‘looking for a match’ so that they can learn and enjoy an activity, with the added bonus of making connections,” says Aviva Zukerman Schure, co-founder of NTL. Another way for young people to meet potential parent figures is to attend workshops on older-child and adult adoption.
Once the connection is made and the older adult decides to make a lifelong commitment to the young person, they may eventually pursue legal adoption, but that is by no means necessary. For many young people from foster care, adoption doesn’t appeal to them. Instead, they take a more creative approach to defining what their new family means, how it works and how to describe it.
Despite Chana’s misgivings about meeting a family and potentially reliving the negative experiences she’d had in foster care, her CAS worker convinced her to speak at an adoption event in Toronto, focused on older children and youth, called Planting Roots. Events like these are intended to be educational for prospective adoptive parents, but they also have a matchmaking dimension, providing an opportunity to meet youth in care who may be seeking families. Chana didn’t necessarily want to find “permanency” for herself, but she was eager to get out of her group home as quickly as possible. She agreed to share her story in the small hope that she might find somewhere to stay until she turned 18. That’s where she met Adina and Brad.
“I met my ‘framily’ at that event,” says Chana. Framily is a term she created—it means “friends who are family.” Forty-four-year-old Adina Kaufman is a firefighter and 51-year-old Brad Zarnett works in the environmental sector. They’d been trying to have a baby for years but hadn’t succeeded so far, so they decided to start exploring adoption “We had been trying to have a child for years, but we weren’t successful, even with IVF,” says Adina. “I was pregnant multiple times, but all of them ended in miscarriage. As many (but not all) people do, we came to adoption from a place of loss—something we have in common with the young people in care.”
They saw the Planting Roots event as an opportunity to learn a bit more about the process and had no intention of actually adopting someone right away. But when they heard Chana speak, she made a strong impression on them. “Something about her spoke to me and Brad,” says Adina. “We wanted to learn more about her story.”
Adina was struck by the transformations that Chana had embraced in her life: a queer woman from a Hasidic Jewish background, moving from a conservative religious school to playing rugby at a big urban secondary school. “Brad and I were impressed and intrigued with how committed she was to charting her own path and pursuing her dreams and interests, despite many barriers,” she recalls. Adina also comes from a Jewish background and, as a firefighter, she felt she could relate to that “non-traditional female role within a religious world.”
Adina and Brad went up to Chana after the event and congratulated her on her speech. Chana was cautiously hopeful to meet them. “I was thinking, ‘If I could just live with these two nice people instead of living in a group home, that would be ideal,’” she recalls.
Brad and Adina got in touch with Chana’s permanency worker, who told them that she was looking for somewhere to stay for the summer, and maybe longer. As soon as they learned of Chana’s post-summer plans to rent a place with another young person from care and live on limited government financial assistance with no one to actively support her, Brad wanted to tell Chana that she could stay forever. Adina felt the same way but thought they should be careful: “You can’t tell her that unless you really mean it,” she told Brad. He felt strongly that the system hadn’t been fair to Chana and someone needed to step in and make it right. Adina wanted to make sure that “it was a commitment we could honour, not just emotionally but intellectually and logistically.” After talking it over and letting the decision simmer for a few weeks, they let Chana know she could stay. From that moment, there was no turning back for Adina. “Once I said, ‘We’re here for you, and we’re not going anywhere,’ my word was my bond,” she says.
Adult adoption requires commitment, but it also takes a lot of agility and inventiveness. “The whole experience of entering a family is definitely a creative process,” says Chana. She found that she had to explore many relationships with Brad and Adina’s extended families and figure out her role in this network. She gets along particularly well with Adina’s father, who speaks Yiddish, which is one of Chana’s passions. “It’s this neat way of reconciling my past and my present reality as a Jewish person that I’m able to have this very close relationship with him,” she says.
Another surprise relationship has played an important role in cementing Chana’s place in the family: her baby brother, Zachary. Shortly before Adina and Brad met Chana, Adina’s sister-in-law offered to be a gestational surrogate for the couple. Eight months after Chana moved in, Zachary was born. “She is his big sister, and it’s all he has ever known,” says Adina. “He has been a big part of helping her feel like part of our family.”
The work of blending families and networks goes both ways. Chana often visits with her mother, who has a relationship with Brad and Adina now as well. “She wishes she could be there for me in a bigger capacity but is grateful that I have people who are in my life today,” says Chana.
No matter how well it goes, adult adoption always has its struggles. Chana is sensitive, and if she even felt a hint of distance from Adina, she would text her to ask if she needed to pack her bags. “I was on constant alert, assessing and calculating whether I was really welcome,” recalls Chana. One day, after a big fight with Adina and Brad, Chana was convinced that she would be kicked out and started making plans to find a new place to live. Of course, Brad and Adina never even considered asking Chana to leave, and they reconciled the next day. “Every time something like that happens and we don’t kick her out, I think she becomes more certain that it’s real,” says Adina.
Adina says that, even though they all still grapple with sorting out how to live together and be a family sometimes, it’s all worth it. “We care deeply about Chana, and we know that the feeling is mutual,” she says. “We may drive each other crazy, argue and let each other down sometimes, but we all know in our hearts that we’re in this together and we’ll work it out because that’s what families do.”
Chana is still adjusting to life with her adopted family. “Now, when we have an argument, I’m finally coming to a place of not having to ask her if I need to leave,” she says. Sometimes she tells Adina, “It’s a good thing for me that you don’t know how to give up on people.” But even though the fear of abandonment still comes up sometimes, Chana says the relationship continues to feel more natural and secure. “It’s just family,” she says.