SUE FERGUSON July 26 2004


SUE FERGUSON July 26 2004


Interaction between adoptive and birth families isn't for everyone. But when it works, it can give children a greater sense of being loved.


EMMA SANDS was just 21/2 weeks old when her father decided that he and her mom needed help. “I was scared about how Carrie was handling the baby—she wasn’t herself,” says Gary Sands (to protect Emma’s privacy, all the names have been changed). Pie picked up the phone and a social worker soon arrived at his door. Carrie, diagnosed with schizophrenia, was admitted to hospital. Sands, who had spent years in and out of jail for petty crime driven by his drug and

alcohol addiction, was left to parent by himself. On his wife’s return eight months later, things spiralled out of control once again. “One of her friends intraduced me to cocaine,” says Sands, “and that was it. I was back in crime-lost my job and

Emma turned 12 in February. When Sands, now a youth counsellor and in a new relationship, arrived at her Port Coquitlam,

B.C., home for the birthday party with his nine-month-old son, she yelled to friends in the basement, “Wanna meet my baby brother?” The poignancy of that moment wasn’t lost on Sands—“I was like, wow,” he recalls.

This isn’t a story of a birth father reuniting with his child. Outside of a few periods, including a two-month stay in a recovery house, he has seen Emma regularly, taking her to swimming lessons and movies.

(Carrie has disappeared from both their lives.) In recent months, Emma, who calls 36-year-old Sands “Daddy Gary,” has begun to spend the occasional night at his house.

Emma’s adoptive parents encouraged the relationship from the beginning-taking her to visit Sands in jail and maintaining contact even when, on parole in the early 1990s, he filed, unsuccessfully, for custody.

ended up going to jail.” Emma

was sent to live with a foster family and, by her first birthday, the foster parents had applied to adopt her.

Open adoptions of this nature are rare. Traditionally, adoption has been shrouded in secrecy, with every effort made to ensure birth parents and adoptive families never cross paths. But judges, says Adoption Council of Canada chair Sandra Scarth, are increasingly reluctant to sever children’s ties to

their biological parents, believing that giving kids information about their origins is critical to nurturing a healthy sense of self. For the same reason, private agencies now commonly arrange to have birth parents meet and choose the prospective adopters, and keep in touch with their child through

letters, photos and, in some cases, visits.

But openness is a scarier proposition for families who opt for public adoption. Parents of permanent wards are often scarred by mental illness and addictions, or have abused or neglected their children. And, unless the law clearly spells out the rights of

the various parties (as it does in B.C. and Newfoundland), families who arrange open adoptions are taking a leap of faith. “It’s hard to tell potential adopters unequivocally” that the birth family couldn’t take the child back into their custody at any time, says Nancy Dale, acting associate executive director of

the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. The issue is further complicated in Ontario by a law that prevents the over 6,000 Crown wards with access orders—legal provisions for contact between birth parents and the children taken from them—from getting adopted. “Ifyou have an access order,” says Dale, “you grow up in foster care. That’s the plan.” At least, it is for now. Minister of Children and Youth Services Marie Bountrogianni says the government intends to free kids with access orders for adoption when it’s in their best interest and hopes to introduce openness legislation by next year, as part of a wider initiative to boost placement rates.

In the meantime, some families are able to work out ad hoc openness arrangements. Two years ago, Patty and Ken Winer, who live in the southern Ontario town of Arkell and already had biological children Kyra, 13, and Brent, 11, adopted Lisa, now 10, and her brother Joseph, 8. They would happily have also taken brother Alan (a pseudonym), now 14, but because of an access order he remains in foster care. With the help of the local Children’s Aid Society, however, Alan regularly visits and phones his siblings. He joined the Winers for 10 days at their cottage in Prince Edward Island last July. He’s also served as a go-between, delivering letters and Christmas presents from their birth mother—from whom the children were seized by police three years ago (she’s permitted to see Alan six times a year)— to his brother and sister. In time, the Winers

sister were adopted. When his sister later contacted her birth parents, he says, “it just about destroyed our family”—an experience he’s not anxious to repeat by searching out his own roots. At the same time, he and Patty insist adoptive parents need to have the last word in arranging the terms of contact. Adopting is “just like when you bring your new baby home from the hospital,” says Patty. “You want to hold it for yourself, so you can get adjusted. Then as it gets older, you’re OK to let go.”

Many adoptive parents fear the birth parents are the ones who won’t let go. But,

visits if he started to slip into his old ways again.

As for the kids, rather than feeling abandoned, they can gain a sense of being loved and valued by more than one set of parents—a principle behind adoptions within First Nations. Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada, recalls the adoption ceremony she attended at Alberta’s Yellowhead Tribal Services Agency in 2002. Elders and family members from the children’s and the adoptive families’ bands were all present. “Watching the community step forward to take care of

‘THEY WILL go back and see their mom when they’re of age. Why put up a brick wall when it’s going to be torn down?’

say, they’ll arrange for Lisa and Joseph to visit her. For now, however, the letter to Lisa— which reads in part “I wish for you a happy home... I know I am still learning”—helped alleviate Lisa’s feeling of responsibility for her biological mother’s well-being, notes adoptive mom Patty. It was “tremendously important” to the girl, she adds.

For Ken Winer, openness is just a matter of common sense. “They will go back and see their mom when they’re of legal age,” he says. “Why put up a brick wall when it’s going to have to then be torn down?” He speaks from experience: both he and his

notes Scarth, “people haven’t been clamouring to get their children back. In fact, they often fade off into the distance after they’re satisfied things are fine with their child.” For those, like Gary Sands, who stick around, it’s not always easy. In the early days, he says, “I felt like Emma’s mine, my personal piece of property.” But eventually, “through time and all the heartache,” he learned to put her interests ahead of his own. “I’m amazed at myself,” says Sands. “I had to be really understanding of the adoptive parents.” He even signed an agreement limiting contact to supervised monthly

those five children was the most moving experience in my life,” she says. “It was something to be celebrated—nothing to be ashamed of.” Were openness readily accepted in public adoptions, she adds, it might help navigate the stormy waters of crosscultural adoptions. “The children wouldn’t have a sense of having to choose.”

And, in Emma’s case, she hasn’t been the only one to benefit. Her adoptive parents, says Gary Sands, “saw me go through a lot of things, show up in messes, crying. They never closed their door on me”—giving a home, in effect, to daughter and father.