The right to rediscover roots

Mark Budgen August 4 1980

The right to rediscover roots

Mark Budgen August 4 1980

The right to rediscover roots


Mark Budgen

When deepsea diver Jim Kelly pursues his hazardous job in the North Sea and Arctic oilfields, his life depends on the air line extending from the mother ship. But for most of the past nine months, Kelly has been looking for another kind of life-support system—an awareness of who his natural parents are. Adopted shortly after his birth on Nov. 30,1952, at Vancouver General Hospital, Kelly is convinced that many of his subsequent difficulties—an unhappy childhood, marriage breakdown, a lack of self-perception— stem from the fact that his real past is concealed in a government vault in Victoria. “It angers me that any number of bureaucrats can see my adoption record, but not me,” he says. So intent is Kelly on his search for his roots that he has given up months of lucrative employment to find them and launched a precedent-setting suit against the B.C. government, a case that he lost early in July.

Cornelia Williams is searching, too— for the daughter she gave up for adoption shortly after her birth in Vancouver on July 4, 1950. The umbilical cord may have been severed but not the loving affection and natural concern for her daughter. “I gave up my child because I could not look after her, but I’ve never forgotten her,” says Williams, whose husband and other children strongly support her in her search. “I thought that she should have a family since I was unmarried then. I’ve been looking since she was 21. Before, I would not have had the right.”

Both Kelly and Williams are victims of provincial adoption policies which are coming under increasing nationwide criticism—so much so that, despite the B.C. setback, provinces are beginning to pass laws that may go a long way toward facilitating reunions. Traditionally, children are adopted under conditions of total confidentiality guaranteed by a legal agreement. The natural parents relinquish all their rights and the adopting parents accept the child “as if born to them,” to quote the quaint legalese often used in the various provincial adoption acts. “How can a child be ‘as if born?’ ” asks Joan Vanstone, herself an adoptee and national director of the adoptee activist organization, Parent Finders, with headquarters in Vancouver. “That’s writing fantasy into law and is the source of all our

problems. We have a right like anyone else to know who our natural parents are, to see where our physical characteristics come from, as well as our talents and quirks. As adults, we are bound by contracts which we were not parties to. It’s meant a lot of devastation for adoptees.”

Parent Finders was started six years ago by Vanstone and others to help adoptees find their birth relatives and to pressure provincial governments into changing their adoption laws. With 12,000 members nationwide, including

3,000 birth parents like Cornelia Williams, Parent Finders may only represent a small percentage of the estimated 500,000 adoptees in Canada, but its numbers are increasing daily, says Vanstone, as more adoptees realize the possibility of being able to discover their roots. Vanstone estimates that Parent Finders has brought about almost 1,000 reunions in the past five years.

The reasons given by searching adoptees repeat the same theme—“to fill a

void,” “to find out where I came from,” “to have a past.” That their right to do so has been denied to them for so long is an affront to natural justice, they say. That some persevere for decades speaks of the intensity of their desire for roots despite the law that, they believe, assumes these emotions do not exist. Says Nova Scotian nurseryman Ed Bronell: “I had an excellent upbringing by my adopted parents but I just wanted to know who I was. I spent three years and $3,500 finding out. In fact, I know more about my birth than most, since I’ve been in the room where I was born and met the doctor and nurse who attended my birth.” For Susan Brown, married with four children, the search was imperative for medical reasons, and in February this year she found her birth mother living close to her in New Westminster, B.C. “It was the first time that I knew I had grandparents, who are actually younger than my adopted parents.”

In a painfully slow procession, some provinces have begun to allow for the reunion of adoptees and their birth parents by establishing registries where both parties can deposit letters indicating their desire to meet. All provide non-identifying information about the biological parents (color of eyes and

hair, occupation, town of residence, etc.) but that only serves “to whet the appetite,” as Jim Kelly puts it. For five years Saskatchewan has operated a “passive registry” that facilitates reunions when both parties agree. Ontario has had a similar system for the past year but demands that the adoptee, although an adult, must have the consent of his or. her adoptive parents—a situation termed “ludicrous” by one adoptive mother. Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Quebec have

legislation, in various stages of completion, providing for registries. In Alberta,

an adult adoptee may receive a copy of the adoption order which, if made prior to 1966, will have the birth name on it— “virtually essential for a successful search,” says Vanstone. In Newfoundland, which has a registry, the minister of social services, Tom Hickey, candidly told Maclean's: “If I put myself in an adoptee’s position, I wouldn’t want anyone preventing me from finding my true parents. We’ve helped some find their birth mothers on an indvidual basis.” Only British Columbia is maintaining the practice of strict confidentiality.

In B.C., where almost any controversial issue can become a battlefield, adoptive parents, concerned for the wellbeing of their families, successfully lobbied against the establishment of a registry in 1974. Those parents saw reunions as a threat to the stability of their adopted families and as breaches of the legal contract they entered into when adopting. But contrary to these fears, the experience of most adoptees who have found their birth parents is that they feel even closer to their adopted parents. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Susan Brown, “my adopted parents are my parents.”

Reuben Pannor, coauthor of The Adoption Triangle and director of the

Vista Del Mar Child Care Service, a Los Angeles facility for disturbed children, draws on 25 years of experience with adoptions when he says: “Most adopting parents are infertile, and when they adopt they are trying to make up for this inability to conceive. Consequently, they become very attached to the adoptees and perceive the birth parents as a very real threat. This leads to all kinds of anxieties which the child begins to perceive and, in adolescence particularly, leads to family strife where the fact of adoption is used by all concerned as a weapon; the parents hint at the immorality of the birth parents and the child fantasizes that his real mother is better than his adopted mother.” It is not surprising, then, that many adoptive parents are unable to cope with the stress in their families and put their children into the care of the state. Pannor estimates 30 per cent of the children in foster homes and juvenile detention facilities in California are from adopted families. In Toronto, five per cent of children going to juvenile court are

adopted, although adoptees represent about 1.5 per cent of the population.

The answer, according to Pannorand other experts, is more openness in the adoption process. Says Pannor: “The plain and simple fact is that adoption is not the same as having your own child. It is a mistake that adopting parents and social agencies have been making for years.” Adds Margaret Edgar, a 35year social work veteran in Montreal who adopted six children and now lives in Vancouver: “Commonly an adopted child will say, ‘You’re not my mother, you can’t tell me what to do.’ Adopting parents are out there on a limb—they need to know that birth parents are not a threat.” Open adoption means not only more information given to the

adoptee, including the parents’ names, but goes even further in allowing contact between the three parties concerned during childhood. Open registries have operated in Scotland for 50 years and in England and Wales for five without, according to Edgar, “any major problem.”

For Jim Kelly and Cornelia Williams openness remains a faraway dream. Kelly is still looking for the genealogical equivalent to his diver’s lifeline while finding himself adrift in a tide of bureaucratic and legal red tape. Williams is searching so that she may again share life experiences with the daughter she relinquished 30 years ago. However, while Williams, having signed a legal contract, has no recourse to the law, Kelly has appealed his case. He still hopes, he says, that the system will eventually start to work for, instead of against, him and thousands of other adoptees who want to know their origins.