Some 26,000 Canadian kids need homes, writes SUE FERGUSON, Does aggressive marketing-Web sites, videos—dehumanize them or just help find families?
ONE COLD, cloudy Monday morning last year, Esther and Tom Olfert woke up as usual to the 6:30 news. The voice on the radio was saying that in 2001, only 216 of 4,700 permanent wards in Alberta had been adopted. It also announced that Alberta Children’s Services had launched a Web site featuring pictures, information and, in some cases, video clips of 90 kids waiting to be adopted. The Olferts went online that day. With the profiles just two clicks of the mouse away, they settled on an image of three siblings described as animal lovers who would do well on a farm. The couple, who run a mixed farm in the Lethbridge area and already had four older biological children and two adopted children, knew they’d found their match. This past February, those kids, 12and 8-year-old girls and their brother, 10, joined the Olfert ranks.
“We felt a little cheap,” Esther says about searching for a child online. “Like we were shopping,” adds Tom. “But there are children getting their forever families,” adds Esther. “Little girls who know that when they get married, they’re going to have a daddy to walk them down the aisle. Those things are huge.”
She’s right. Living in a permanent home is critical to a child’s well-being. Studies show that adopted kids fare significantly better socially and academically than those returned home or left in foster care-even long-term foster care. Esther may also be right about the effectiveness of the Alberta site: in its first year, it received 3.5 million hits and increased public adoption placement rates by 30 per cent. A few other Canadian agencies post foster children’s pictures on
the Internet, but the sites are passwordprotected, intended for screened applicants. By contrast, anyone can navigate the Alberta site without disclosing personal information. While many in the field acknowledge that this sort of public marketing of children is ethically dicey, the sheer advertising power of the initiative has convinced most observers of its merits.
Adoption advocates are desperate for strategies that work. Although exact figures are elusive because provinces collect data in different ways, the Adoption Council of Canada (ACC) tallies 25,969 children in the permanent care of the state in 2000. Not all of them were slated for adoption: most children will remain in foster care or group homes. Cross-cultural considerations also prevent many Aboriginal children from getting adopted. All this adds up to an alarmingly low placement rate: of almost 26,000 kids in 2000, only 1,585 found permanent homes with adoptive parents. Six per cent.
The vast majority of the remaining children grow up without the love and security they’d get from committed parents. Among those bounced from one foster home to another—the average foster child in Ontario, for example, moves every 22 months—many drop out of high school and/or suffer poor health and unemployment. One B.C. study found that, within two to four years of living on their own, less than 20 per cent of the province’s former long-term wards were self-supporting. And because the numbers of Status Indians
taken into care jumped by 71.5 per cent between 1995 and 2001—something experts put down to the general level of poverty and relative underfunding of First Nations child welfare agencies—the situation can only fuel racial inequality and discord. In a verdict shared by adoption advocates across the country, ACC chair Sandra Scarth calls the overall situation “appalling.”
Meanwhile, foreign and private adoptions continue to thrive. Foreign adoptions by Canadians, which typically cost between $15,000 and $30,000, are steady at about 2,000 children a year. No central agency tracks how many private adoptions (which usually run between $6,000 and $12,000) are completed each year, but the figure is estimated to be in the hundreds. People choosing to adopt—ffequendy because of infertility, which affects about one in 10 Canadian couples—often forgo public adoption because of a mismatch between supply and demand. Most want healthy white infant girls. Permanent wards, however, are generally older, though a large proportion are still under 2. They tend to be culturally diverse, with spe-. cial physical or emotional needs, including problems becoming attached to new caregivers (in most cases, these issues diminish or disappear altogether after the child is adopted). Some are adoptable only as part of sibling groups. And an estimated 20 per cent have had serious exposure to alcohol (many more have been exposed to cocaine, and others to heroin, but those drugs are believed to have fewer long-term effects).
Public adoptions are also plagued by the myth that they take much longer than international and private ones to process. “People say Toronto has a five-year waiting list,” says Nancy Dale, acting associate executive director of the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. “We have no waiting list. Placement
happens way more quickly than many applicants expect. It’s generally a year. But, if you call today and ask our intake worker for a newborn baby—no risks, white girl—we would say to you, we do those placements, but it’s going to be a longer wait.”
Adoption has only recently become a priority for child welfare agencies. After a number of high-profile cases in which children in the care of abusive biological and foster parents died, “all the energies went into investigations,” says Scarth. “People got kids into care and forgot about getting them out.” Along with battling that mindset on the
front lines, she and her colleagues face tight resources and a public
that is unaware of these kids’ plight-and potential.
But there is a silver lining. Re-
cent campaigns in British Co-
lumbia, Alberta and New Brunswick have put adoption front and centre. Ontario is also aiming to increase placements by 15 per cent over 12 months. The most impressive results to date are in the East: an aggressive advertising strategy coupled with an injection of resources into child welfare agencies increased New Brunswick placements by 198 per cent last year. Still, it’s Alberta’s more controversial practice of using pictures and video clips of actual foster children on a public-access Web site that’s being touted as the way forward. As for those sticky ethical questions? Proponents ultimately claim Machiavellian immunity: getting kids adopted, they say, may require doing things you’d rather not.
Not everyone shares that view. Initially, critics assailed Alberta Children’s Services for undermining foster children’s privacy by making too much medical information available online. The province quickly responded and now, it’s a matter of reading between
the lines: “Gursharn has learned to express his wants and needs through pictures in his communications book.” But another issueone that speaks to the Olferts’ sense of unease—persists. The site, say some critics, dehumanizes children. “It seems to treat them as commodities, making them into little
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\P’ looking online, says Esther Olfert. getting their forever families.’
performers where the ones who sing and dance best get adopted,” says Arthur Schafer, director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics. “It’s part of our moral intuition that something so necessary to human flourishing as a loving, supportive family—with your whole life at stake—shouldn’t hinge on whether you’re cute or can perform well.”
Yet a similar adoptee marketplace is already common. Across the country, screened applicants can flip through catalogues or attend events where hundreds like them view video clips and pictures of foster children. Toronto CAS’s Dale calls such gatherings “a very disturbing little process.” But, she insists, the end justifies the means. “People connect to the face of a particular child,” and often become smitten by kids with greater needs than they were first willing to consider. Alberta’s Web site—like monthly newspaper
columns featuring foster children that are also highly effective—simply brings that process out in the open. “You can do it in a nice private office, and maybe that makes the public feel better,” says Dale. But at the end of the day, “nobody wants to have to tell a child, ‘You would have had a family but for the fact that we’re squeamish.’ ”
Still, Schafer believes it’s premature to know if the Web strategy really works. The spike in Alberta’s numbers, he points out, may be due to other aspects of the province’s adoption campaign-such as increased co-ordination with First Nations and non-profit agencies, or post-adoption subsidies, or even to publicity around the site itself. He acknowledges, however, that if there proves no better way of recruiting families, “a way that doesn’t pander to something unattractive in us, then, reluctantly, I’ll say let’s do that and get kids families.”
No better way—there’s the rub.
FIVE-YEAR-OLD Nathaniel “is crazy about dinosaurs and teddy bears,” says his father, Claude Provencher. “At three o’clock in the morning, he’ll walk into the bedroom and say, ‘Mommy, I love you.’ For us, it’s sunshine.” The retired Canadian National employee from Grande-Digue, N.B., and his wife, Diane, were in their early 50s when they decided to adopt Nathaniel in 2002. The couple had fostered since 1978 but never pursued adoption because, he says, “social workers told us it would take five to eight years before we’d get any children.” More recently, they believed they had grown too old.
But in 2002, adoption had moved onto
New Brunswick’s front burner. Borrowing from a four-year-old B.C. campaign that saw placement rates jump by up to 49 per cent, the newly formed New Brunswick Adoption Foundation blitzed TV and radio stations with ads aimed at recruiting adoptive parents. (The upbeat ads don’t feature actual foster children but use paid child actors instead.) “People couldn’t believe there were more than 600 children who needed homes,” says foundation head and retired senator Ermine Cohen. As with most public adoptions, “they weren’t healthy infants.”
Advertising, however, is only half the story. The province also beefed up resources, hiring 25 more social workers. Agencies whose work consisted largely of removing children from unfit homes could now shift attention to placing kids. In fact, it was a social worker who approached the Provenchers about adopting Nathaniel— the first time one had done so in the couple’s 25 years of fostering. And the process took one year, not eight. There’s “no question,” says Cohen, “we wouldn’t have placed 164 children in 12 months if there weren’t 25 extra people.”
More workers. Isn’t that a better way? Perhaps. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to get tested elsewhere anytime soon. In Ontario, funding for Children’s Services levelled off in 1997, says Roy Walsh, executive director of the Halton Children’s Aid Society. “Our capacity to provide a full range of services and staff has really eroded since.” Children and youth services minister Marie Bountrogianni’s recent establishment of a child welfare secretariat to look at adoption is a hopeful sign. And the provincial government did inject $84.8 million into the system to pay down agencies’ budget shortfalls for 2002 to 2003. But with no new money to improve staffing, subsidies to families and the timeliness of response, says Walsh, “I’m guarded in my optimism.” Meanwhile, in B.C., overall cuts to social services, says the ACC’s Scarth, have resulted in adoption workers getting pulled off task to work in other areas. (B.C. agencies placed 338 children last year, but the number of kids available for adoption, now more than 5,000, keeps growing.)
That tight fiscal environment should ignite interest in another initiative: subsidies for adoptive families. All foster families receive a per diem, which they stand to lose if they adopt the child they’re fostering. While
most provinces offer limited assistance for low-income families with special-needs kids, none guarantee it. It’s hard to figure out why not, given the potential savings. Depending on where you live in Canada, it costs up to $40,000 a year to keep a child in care (factoring in salaries, training and travel). Were a family to adopt that child, and receive as much as $1,000 a month, says Scarth, the price tag falls to $12,000.
What money can’t buy, sometimes politics can. Gary Kinsman and Patrick Barnholden wanted a child ever since they first got together 17 years ago. But “it was only with recent legal and social changes that it became more realistic to pursue adoption,” says Kinsman, a sociology professor at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. Two years ago, the couple approached the local Children’s Aid Society. Despite writing “nƒ a” when filling in a form that asked the reasons for their infertility, their experience was “remarkably positive,” he adds. Their school-age son—who moved in with them late last summer-hasn’t so far encountered any serious harassment. “You hear little whispers that people don’t approve,” says Barnholden, a high school teacher. While most provinces permit adoption by same-sex couples, many agencies are reluctant to facilitate it. Similarly, there remains a bias in
THE MYTH persists
that public adoptions take much longer than international or private ones
some quarters, says Scarth, about single people adopting-a strategy same-sex couples sometimes use to circumvent legal restrictions or social disapproval. “People have this perverse idea that all these gay and lesbian couples are taking all the children away,” adds Barnholden. “They have no comprehension whatsoever about the incredible need for parents to give loving homes to children who don’t have them. It’s twisted.” For the children who don’t find permanent homes, those twisted ideas can’t change soon enough. Television ads with paid child actors, adoption subsidies to encourage foster parents to adopt and increased staffing would also make an enormous differenceno squeamishness required. Hu
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