Adoption myths and truths

A look at the facts and fallacies of this complex, but rewarding family relationship

In the hundred years or so since Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert asked the Nova Scotia orphan asylum to send a boy to help on their PEI farm — and ended up with 11-year-old Anne Shirley instead — adoption has changed a lot in Canada. While some ideas about adoption are as old as Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved novel Anne of Green Gables, the reality has undergone dramatic shifts, especially in the past few years. Here’s a look at some myths and truths surrounding one of the most complex, yet rewarding of family relationships.

Myth: All those tsunami orphans would be better off in Canadian families.
The tragedy in Asia last December provides a lesson in how far understanding of adoption has come. Canadians’ hearts were wrung by the media images of stunned, wandering children and wailing babies. Inquiries about adoption began flooding into agencies and government offices. The response was unanimous from those who work in adoption: The last thing these kids need right now is to be whisked to a foreign country and a new family, no matter how loving the arms waiting to enfold them. “The immediate focus for the Government of Canada is reuniting children with their parents or their extended families in the most affected countries,” said a statement from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

“We used to think that adoption solved all these problems,” says Anne Doyle, supervisor of post adoption disclosure for the New Brunswick Department of Family and Community Services. Now there’s deeper awareness of the loss that accompanies adoption, and of its lifelong implications for adoptees, birth parents and adoptive families. When the loss includes a child’s home culture as well as his birth family, the complications can multiply. And for children traumatized by early experience — whether a disaster like the tsunami or the deprivations of a Romanian orphanage — their wounds may defy the loving attention of even the best-intentioned adoptive family. While there are many success stories of cherished bonds between parents and children who share no DNA, adoption is not a quick-fix rescue operation.

Myth: Growing up adopted is not that different.
Much of the insight we now have about the psychological experience of adoption comes from previous generations of adoptees. And while individual stories vary as widely as personality types, most share some element of wondering about and grieving for that missing piece.

MiRyung Pang was adopted in the mid-1970s as a five-year-old from South Korea. Growing up in Toronto, she recalls, “I had a sense that I didn’t want to be Asian.” It’s not that her Caucasian adoptive family denigrated her heritage; it simply wasn’t a topic of conversation. “I didn’t talk with my mom about me being different. We never talked about adoption.”

By her late teens, though, feelings of isolation and anger drove Pang into severe depression. She sought therapy and eventually found herself drawn to the roots she had tried to reject, walking around Toronto’s Korean neighbourhoods and even attending a Korean church. Meeting other adoptees and eventually visiting Korea with her adoptive mother were turning points in what she views as her healing journey. Finally, she says, “I started feeling content about who I was — being adopted, being Canadian, being Korean.” Now married and a mother herself, Pang remains close to her adoptive family and believes that intercultural adoption can be a very positive experience.

Today most parents who adopt receive at least some preparation that underlines the importance of talking openly with their children about their origins, and helping them work through feelings that may emerge. Books aimed at adopted kids help give words to their experience. Families who adopt internationally often get help creating links with their kids’ birth culture; in Toronto, for example, the group Families with Children from China celebrates holidays including the Autumn Moon Festival and Chinese New Year, and runs a summer daycamp for adoptees.

Myth: Kids in care need privacy more than they need families.
Adoption advocates have been trying for years to sound the alarm about the number of Canadian children in the care of child welfare authorities — estimated at 76,000 by the Adoption Council of Canada (ACC). Of those, about 22,000 are available for adoption because the ties with their birth families have been legally severed. Most of these kids fall into the category of special needs, whether because of age (some provinces give this designation to any child older than two), a diagnosis of an existing or potential condition, the fact that they’re in sibling groups, or other factors. And some have survived a rough start, such as neglect or prenatal exposure to drugs.

There’s strong consensus that a committed “forever family” is a far better place for a child to grow up than foster homes or group homes. “Every child deserves a permanent home,” says Barbara MacKinnon, executive director of the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa. But concerns for privacy and fears about commodifying adoptable kids have interfered with past efforts at recruiting families for particular children.

That’s changing, as the number of waiting children has moved to the front burner in several provinces. New Brunswick launched an aggressive ad campaign in 2002 to raise awareness of all the kids waiting for families; it also hired an additional 25 social workers to help find permanent homes for them. In 2003, the Alberta Ministry of Children’s Services launched a website featuring real first names, photos and profiles of individual children, accessible to any Web surfer; other such sites have tended to be protected by passwords, or use pseudonyms to mask the kids’ identity. The Alberta site generated a storm of publicity upon its launch, when the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner complained that the profiles gave too much personal information, some of it medical. Now revamped, the profiles walk a fine line between description and labelling, and the interest remains high.

To the squeamish, it’s advertising — making kids into merchandise. To believers, it’s finding children families. Whatever your view, the numbers tell a compelling story: In the year after Alberta’s site was launched, the number of parents applying to adopt jumped by 63 percent, and 42 percent of the children profiled on the site were matched with adoptive parents. In New Brunswick, 363 kids in care have been placed for adoption since the project began.

Along with the push to place kids in permanent homes comes a new recognition of the importance of post-adoption support, financial and otherwise, especially for families who adopt children with special needs. While some provinces offer subsidies to some adoptive parents, the funding is spotty and, in some cases, falls well short of the money those same families would receive for fostering the children. Sandra Scarth, president of the ACC, puts it this way: “Why would you not pay people to adopt if you’re paying them for foster care?” She’d like to see a thorough review of subsidy policies, with an emphasis on the needs of the children, not the means of the adoptive family.

Myth: Parents who adopt internationally are “buying” a baby.
They’re no longer the oddities they once were, especially in cities like Montreal and Toronto, but families with children of a different racial background still get questions. One that many have heard — and all detest — is “How much did she cost?”

Most international adoptions do cost in the tens of thousands. The money covers many expenses, including a home study, lawyers’ fees, documents, translations, agency services in Canada and abroad, travel, immigration fees and a donation to the orphanage or welfare agency that cared for the child. Parents are willing to pay, often because they have their hearts set on a baby. While infants do become available for adoption in Canada, says MacKinnon, “there are not enough babies without any special issues or risk factors for the demand that’s there.”

Those who work in international adoption see the costs as a necessary if not always comfortable part of the process. “The parents are buying a service, not a baby,” says Janice Cox, a social worker in Mississauga, Ont. Cox points out that the Hague Convention on inter-country adoption — of which Canada is a signatory — is intended to prevent child trafficking and coercion, and forbids payment to birth families or intermediaries. As well, partner countries don’t just cash the cheques and put a baby on a plane; adoptive parents must meet local qualifications, some of them stricter than in Canada, and trained officials comb the files to make suitable matches.

Martha Maslen has heard the “buying” comments too. As executive director of Children’s Bridge, a non-profit agency based in Nepean, Ont., that facilitates adoptions from China, South Korea, Thailand, India and Kazakhstan, Maslen has many happy stories to share when she encounters critics who question the process of bringing babies from abroad.

Unfortunately, this part of her job has become harder recently with what she sees as a growing sense of entitlement among a small number of parents who apply to adopt internationally — an observation confirmed by others in the field. “Most of our families are lovely,” says Maslen. “But we’ve been told by [overseas] officials that Canadians are perceived to be fussy around health and age of the child. Europeans are a little more flexible.” On occasion, for example, parents have rejected the proposal of a particular child because of something that worries them in the medical report. While some fears are legitimate, Maslen feels that others result from guesswork by Canadian doctors trying to interpret unfamiliar files at the request of the parents. She emphasizes to Children’s Bridge clients that, as with biological offspring, there can be no guarantees about a child’s health.

So are these parents, who spend thousands to chase the dream of a healthy baby, depriving needy Canadian children of a potential home? Adoption experts don’t see it that way. “Good inter-country adoption can be wonderful,” says the ACC’s Scarth, a fierce advocate for Canada’s waiting kids. MacKinnon emphasizes that outcomes are best when adoptive families go in knowing all the facts about different types of adoption — and being honest about what they can handle.

Myth: Adoption is basically the same across Canada.
Each province sets its own adoption policies, including licensing agencies and setting criteria for adoptive parents to qualify. The only role played by the federal government is in overseeing immigration requirements when children are adopted from overseas (and, presumably, administering the proposed tax credit for adoption expenses, which was announced in last February’s budget but had not made it into law at press time). The result is a patchwork of policies: For example, gay couples can adopt in British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick (if they already have a child) and Newfoundland and Labrador; in some provinces, data on adoptions of aboriginal children is collected separately from other adoptions.

One consequence of this patchwork — and one that frustrates adoption advocates — is a lack of national information. No one tracks facts as basic as the number of adoptive families across the country, let alone data on successes and failures, and the factors that might influence them. By contrast, the US began asking about adoption in its 2000 Census, compiling a national picture with details, including the children’s age, sex and country of birth, as well as characteristics of adoptive families, such as income, education levels and where they live.

Myth: Adoption works best when it’s surrounded by secrecy.
When Karen March started interviewing Canadian adoptees around 1985, those who admitted to wanting to find their birth families were thought to be either neurotic or trying to escape a dysfunctional situation. “Now, if you don’t want to search, something is wrong with you,” says March, an associate professor of sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa and author of The Stranger Who Bore Me: Adoptee-Birth Mother Relationships.

Such is the change in thinking over the past 20 years. Many now see it as a human rights issue for adoptees to have information about their birth families. British Columbia, Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador have opened records so adult adoptees and birth parents who request it can automatically receive identifying information about each other, including names and addresses. (The release can be blocked by filing a specific request.) Legislation introduced in Ontario in March goes further, allowing the right to block contact only, not disclosure. This trend toward openness should one day mean there’s no more need for the kinds of registries that have controlled adoption information in the past, says New Brunswick’s Anne Doyle. “We should work ourselves right out of a job.”

When adult adoptees reunite with their birth parents, March notes, they often become closer to their adoptive families as a result. Some realize how much of a parent-child relationship is built through day-to-day contact; even those who go on to form close ties with their birth families are often grateful for the life they were given by adoption.

March believes that the era of concealment is past. While openness in adoption is not a panacea, it’s better than separating people with walls of secrecy. Says March: “The more people in a child’s life to love him, the better.”

For more information
adoption.ca The Adoption Council of Canada site has information on every kind of adoption, plus extensive links.

Adoption Books for Children
Many adoptive parents find their children’s favourite adoption story is the one they tell themselves about becoming a family. But there are numerous books that capture the experiences of adopted kids and their families. Here are some recommended by parents. Find more at parentbooks.ca/adoption.

Preschool/Primary
A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza
Choco the bird finds a mom who looks nothing like him but hugs, kisses and loves him.

Allison by Allen Say
A stray cat helps Allison deal with the sadness she feels.

Friends for Life by Nathalie Langlois and Marie-Josee Decoste
Two boys adopted from Korea become friends.

Horace by Holly Keller
Horace has spots but the rest of his family has stripes.

I Love You Like Crazy Cakes by Rose Lewis, illustrated by Jane Dyer
A mom recounts the journey to find her daughter in China.

Rosie’s Family by Lori Rosove, illustrated by Heather Burrill
Rosie has lots of questions about how her family came to be.

Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis, illustrated by Laura Cornell
A funny, sweet retelling of a girl’s favourite story.

The Day We Met You by Phoebe Koehler
Parents recall their excitement in preparing for baby’s arrival.

We’re Different, We’re the Same by Bobbi Jane Kates
This Sesame Street book celebrates diverse families.

School age
Adoption is for Always by Linda Walvoord Girard, illustrated by Judith Friedman
Celia has lots of questions for her adoptive parents and sometimes feels angry.

Chinese Eyes by Marjorie Ann Waybill, illustrated by Pauline Cutrell
At school, Becky encounters racism.

Did My First Mother Love Me? A Story for an Adopted Child by Kathryn Ann Miller, illustrated by Jami Moffett
This book answers the title question in the form of a love letter.

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