Getting started in adoption

The steps from paperwork to parenthood

The journey to adoption can seem long and daunting, but parents who have travelled it find joy at the destination. For those who have built a family this way, it’s hard to fathom parenting any other child. “Parents and children who are joined through adoption are as attached and cemented as through biology,” says Martha Maslen, an adoptee herself and executive director of Children’s Bridge International Adoption Consultants, based in Ottawa.

Some families may want to adopt a child born in Canada, while others are pulled toward international adoption. Within Canada, there are two routes: public, arranged through a child welfare agency like the Children’s Aid Society, and private, involving a licensed private agency or adoption licensee. In recent years, Canadian families have adopted between 1,500 and 2,000 children annually from overseas; while domestic adoptions are not tracked centrally, they number in the hundreds.

The process differs depending on which path you choose and the province where you live, but some aspects are common. You’ll likely attend an information session with the adoption agency. From there, you or your agency will choose an adoption practitioner (usually a social worker) to conduct your home study, which includes about five visits with the practitioner, including one in your home, to discuss all aspects of adoption and parenting. You’ll also need to get police checks, a complete medical and, depending on the route you choose, up to seven letters of reference from friends, family and employers. The completion of a home study is a big step toward your adoption.

The timeline of the public adoption process can vary a lot. An older child with special needs could be placed quickly; if your heart is set on a healthy newborn, on the other hand, you could be waiting as long as 10 years. According to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, there are more than 75,000 children in foster care in Canada, and roughly 30,000 of those are waiting to be adopted.

Newborn babies tend to be rare. Typically, the child is first removed from his birth family because of abuse, neglect or abandonment. He’s placed in foster care or a group home until social workers can help the birth family to the point where the child can safely rejoin them. If that can’t happen, the birth parents’ legal rights are terminated and that’s when the child becomes eligible for adoption. The process can take months or years.

Your practitioner and the agency will work to match you and a child.Plenty of supervised visits will take place before the child goes home with you. Once that happens, there will be a probationary period from six months to a year, depending on your province. You’ll get regular home visits by an agency worker to ensure that you and the child are adjusting. Following the probation, when it has been deemed that the adoption is in the best interest of the child, it will be finalized in court.

In some cases, contact with the birth family may take place if both parties agree. This is referred to as open adoption, an arrangement increasingly favoured by those on the front lines. Kelley Clark, a social worker with Edmonton’s Adoption Options and an adoptive parent herself, says that where they’re suitable, open adoptions serve adoptees and families better than the old days of secrecy. “It was heartbreaking to talk to people who never knew where their children were placed or never knew anything about their birth parents.”

Public at a glance

Typical cost Minimal or none.

Typical timeline Fluctuates. Count on up to a year for the home study and information sessions, according to canadaadopts.com. Then, depending on the child you’re looking for, the wait can range from months to many years.

Main reason parents choose this option Low cost, short timeline if adopting a child with special needs.

Parents who adopt privately either locate a child themselves, by connecting with a birth mother, or, more typically, hire an agency to match them. With their practitioner’s help, they create a family profile and circulate it among adoption websites, family doctors, lawyers and other sources in order to get the word out that they want to adopt. A birth mother who is thinking about adoption for her unborn child will typically be presented with a few family profiles. She will arrange to meet the families through a practitioner and will choose one to adopt her child.

Some families wait years to be chosen while others, like Dijana and Cameron Crawford of Sudbury, Ont., find out suddenly that they are about to be parents. “We adopted our daughter, Grace, when she was 19 days old,” says Dijana. “We are both chartered accountants, and our client was the doctor on call at the hospital when the birth mother showed up to deliver, out of the blue. We had given him our profile months earlier. He phoned to say that this young girl was about to deliver and wanted to give her baby up for adoption.”

Nine days later, the Crawfords learned the birth mother had chosen them. “On day 10 we saw our daughter for the first time at the foster home and visited her every day until we brought her home,” says Dijana.

Since laws vary among the provinces in Canada, it’s crucial that you find out about your province’s regulations, such as what measures you can take to find a child and how long it takes for the final adoption order to be issued. In all cases, the birth mother is given a set number of days to change her mind about the adoption; the period varies from province to province. As in public domestic adoption, adoptive parents also undergo a probationary period with follow-up visits until the final order is issued.

You’ll have to pay for the required services, including the home study and legal fees. By law, birth mothers cannot receive any money or gifts from adoptive parents.

Private domestic adoptions in Canada today are becoming more open. The degree of openness (yearly letter and photos, monthly visit, etc.) is negotiated between the adoptive parents and the birth mother or family, with the help of a practitioner.

“One of the biggest misunderstandings is that open adoption is too scary and that birth families will be on your doorstep all the time,” says Clark. “In many cases, the birth parents want their child to have a safe, secure family and there is no way they would hinder the relationship by interfering.”

Private at a glance

Typical cost $10,000 to $18,000, including legal and administrative fees.

Typical timeline Depends on how quickly a birth mother is found; could take as little as six months or many years.

Main reason parents choose this option Best bet for those seeking a healthy newborn.

Many parents choose to go overseas because of concerns about possible prenatal drug and alcohol exposure in domestic adoptions, and also because — depending on the country — it can be a more predictable process than domestic adoption. There are no guarantees, however, says Maslen. Newborn babies are not available through this route, and open adoption is rarely an option. The typical age of children available for international adoption is four months to 15 months. Older children, some with special needs, are also available.

“When trying to decide which country to adopt from, you first need to think about the health of the child, the age of the child and how you feel about the country, culture and ethnic group,” says Maslen. Procedures and eligibility requirements change frequently in international adoption, so it’s important to check the latest information with your agency.

Your practitioner and agency will guide you through the load of required paperwork until your dossier is ready to be sent to your child’s birth country. This is where you will be matched with your child. The wait to be matched depends on the country and can be anywhere from six months to three or more years. Some agencies offer seminars during this waiting period.

Once you have been matched with your child, you or the agency will make your arrangements to travel. Most international adoption programs require that you stay in your child’s birth country for two to three weeks or, sometimes, longer.

International at a glance

Typical cost $17,000 to $50,000.

Typical timeline Varies; current wait for a child from South Africa is less than a year; from China, more than four years.

Main reason parents choose this option Depending on the country, avoids issues such as prenatal alcohol exposure, and can be more predictable than domestic adoption process.

Gone are the days when adoption was cloaked in secrecy. When children join a family through adoption, parents are encouraged to start talking to them about their origins as soon as they’re old enough to listen.

“We can focus on adopting a child and sometimes not think about our child’s birth family…nor (in the past) were we encouraged to,” says Leceta Chisholm Guibaul, a mother and board member of the Adoption Council of Canada.

Guibaul, whose children are from Guatemala and Colombia, says adoptive parents need to focus on those issues, for their child’s sake. “Become comfortable with your child’s birth history and adoption. Accept the realities yourself. Work them out in your own mind. Become accepting of the terms adopted, birth, bio, ‘other’ mother, ‘real’ mother.” As children grow and begin to ask questions about their origins, she adds, parents need to answer honestly, with information that’s suitable to the kids’ ages. “If we are comfortable with our children’s adoption realities, they will be too.”

More information

adoption.ca The Adoption Council of Canada provides news and extensive links.

canadaadopts.com A useful parent-run site with lists of agencies and practitioners.

canadaswaitingkids.ca Photo listings of Canadian children who need families.

davethomasfoundation.ca This foundation advocates for waiting kids and provides basic info on adoption.

familyhelper.net This resource-rich Canadian site includes sections on fertility and post-adoption support.

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