Thirteen-year-old DeShawn lives with his parents and younger brother in Duclos, a small rural town in Quebec. He showers and does his chores without his parents having to nag him and usually completes his homework on his own. DeShawn enjoys fishing and swimming and playing with his dogs; he does well in school and plans to one day attend college. And, like many adolescent boys, he just loves girls.
A typical teenager is how DeShawn’ mother, Nancy Ruth SinCennes, describes him. But if you look at DeShawn’s history, the magnitude of his accomplishments becomes clearer. When Nancy Ruth and her husband, Christian, adopted DeShawn and his brother, Mackenzy, two years ago, the older boy was stealing and hoarding junk food and crying at every little scratch he got. He couldn’t complete tasks, didn’t know where babies came from and needed help brushing his teeth.
DeShawn and his brother were two of approximately 30,000 youngsters now known as Canada’s Waiting Children: children in foster care needing adoptive families. But DeShawn and Mackenzy were lucky; unlike most children in foster care, they found their forever home.
Many couples choose adoption to start or grow their family. But few consider adopting children from within Canada who are currently in foster care. Why? Adoption Council of Canada President Laura Eggertson says, “many Canadians aren’t aware that there are thousands of Canadian children available for adoption from foster care. We have many wonderful, rewarding children and youth available for adoption who have a lot to bring to families.”
According to Eggertson, the majority of children waiting for adoption are age six and over. For some couples, like Nancy Ruth and Christian, older children are a perfect fit. But Laura says “some people do want infants and think they will get a ‘clean slate’ or fewer issues if they adopt babies, which leads them to adopt privately or internationally.
It may or may not be true that they have fewer issues – often parents adopting internationally have less information about the children, and the kids may have fetal alcohol or attachment-related issues to deal with.” So who are the parents making the choice to adopt older children from foster care? Single parents, same-sex parents, Mom and Dad parents, says Laura, who herself adopted older children from the Children’s Aid Society as a single parent. Erin and Lance Richardson, of St. Albert, Alta., realized an older child would fit better since Erin didn’t want to give up her job outside the home. However, they had to consider how their daughter, Emma (who Erin had when she was 17), would feel.
“We had to talk with Emma to make sure she was OK with us going ahead with this,” said Erin. “We wanted to make sure there was a minimum of three years between them.” Emma gave the green light and things moved ahead. Fast forward three years and Erin says their second daughter, Alanta, whom they adopted at age eight, and Emma now act like typical sisters. “They argue and bug each other all the time but they love each other and love to spend time together, bike riding and doing their own thing.”
The Richardsons weren’t discouraged by the idea of adopting a child with a history of trauma. But that’s not to say things have been easy. “Alanta used to throw fits that could last one to two hours – screaming, throwing herself on the floor, kicking, breaking things. We saw some of that at the group home before she moved in. Within a few days of moving in with us, one morning before school, she was in a ball curled up screaming. I said, ‘In our house, we don’t do that, you need to get up and go to school.’ ”
Erin says they’ve become more firm as parents, which has helped, plus finding other resources for Alanta’s struggles. They’ve seen tremendous progress in Alanta in the two years she’s been with them. “Before the group home, where she was for three years, she had five foster homes.” Alanta had been in a behavioural classroom when she first came to live with the Richardsons. “We decided we’d put her into the normal classroom last year. Her academic scores came up hugely. This year, at the new school, she has a ton of friends; everybody wants to be her friend. This is a kid who never had friends.”
Thierry Cadieux and his partner, Marc-Antoine Caron, of Cantley, Que., had some concerns before they adopted five-year-old Anthony two years ago. “At first, we thought that the fact that we were a gay couple would hold things up,” said Thierry. In fact, it was mere months from the beginning of their adoption journey to when their son arrived.
“We didn’t feel that it was right to pick hair and eye colour and background. Our only requirement was zero to seven years old. We didn’t want to erase his past. We developed a strong bond with his biological family (aunts, uncles and grandparents) who we now consider our own family. We took Anthony with everything that came with him. Not doing that would have been stealing a part of who he is.”
Thierry and Marc-Antoine first saw their son on the website, Canada’s Waiting Children, a program started by the Adoption Council of Canada (ACC) in 2005 to attract more prospective adoptive parents. It points out that international adoptions can cost between $25,000 and $45,000, while public domestic adoptions (usually from foster care) only include a mandatory training which costs about $1,200. The national program features a website designed for agencies across the country to post profiles and photos of the children in their areas that are most difficult to place. These children may have special challenges (physically or emotionally), be part of a sibling group, or are older. However, Deborah Brennan, vice president of the ACC and author of Labours of Love, Canadians Talk About Adoption, says that there are barriers to getting social services in the provinces to use the national site. “It’s an uphill battle. The provinces govern adoptions and historically work within their own parameters, which can vary dramatically between provinces. It would be helpful if the federal government became involved in finding ways to collaborate and coordinate across the country.”
That lack of collaboration between the provinces is one factor that can make adoption of children in foster care more difficult. For example, Nancy Ruth and Christian’s adoption was considered international by the province of Quebec because the boys were living in Toronto. “We went through the same thing as a couple going through an adoption from China. It was ridiculous, since the kids were just across the river.”
In spite of the challenges, parents who have chosen this route find enormous joy and meaning in their relationships with their children. “We often have people that come up to us saying stuff like: ‘you guys are so generous to offer this gift to a child in need,’ but really, we are the lucky ones,” says Thierry.
Catherine, who in addition to being Director of Association Emmanuel (a nonprofit organization that helps to place special needs children) is also the adoptive mother of a special needs child herself. “It is the most beautiful adventure in life,” she says.
“It’s something unbelievable,” echoes Nancy Ruth. “I always wondered why God put me on this earth, what do I have to do here? I’m not an actor, a singer, or a doctor. Now I know my job was to adopt these boys.”
The adoption process
Since adoption is governed by provincial law, the process varies depending on what province you and the child live in. Here are the steps you must take in Ontario, for example:
1. Have a home study completed
Domestic adoption home studies are typically done by Children’s Aid Society social workers and do not require a fee.
The homestudy helps decide:
- whether you are ready to be an adoptive parent, and
- what kind of child you are best suited to adopt.
Together with the adoption practitioner, you will discuss your home and community and your thoughts on parenting. You will also talk about many other aspects of being the parent of an adopted child.
A homestudy can take several months to complete.
Based on the homestudy, the adoption practitioner will either agree that you are ready to adopt or not. If you are approved to adopt, the adoption worker will write a report that includes a recommendation about the kind of child you should adopt.
2. Take a special training course offered through the Children’s Aid Society
“This course is called PRIDE (Parent Resource for Information Development and Education). This course is now mandatory for anyone wishing to adopt a child through a children’s aid society or through private and international adoptions.”
3. Attend an Adoption Resource Exchange conference
Five times per year, the Ministry of Child and Youth Services sponsors this gathering “…which helps locate and match adoptive families with Ontario children needing adoption.” Families who have completed home studies and have been approved are encouraged to attend.
Post-adoption support for parents & families
Things don’t necessarily get easier once the adoption is final. “There isn’t enough support for the parents, to help them deal with their stress and the enormous changes that the children bring to their lives,” says Brenda McCreight, a B.C. therapist, writer and parent of 12 children adopted from foster care. Brenda, who is also an adoption counsellor, says the focus on most post-adoption support is on helping the child heal from any trauma. “And that’s vital, but not much is done to help the parents deal with their stress and potential secondary trauma. Secondary trauma is rarely spoken of by adoption professionals, but in my opinion, it’s one of the leading causes of adoption breakdown.” theadoptioncounselor.com
Books such as Deborah Brennan’s Labours of Love, Canadians Talk About Adoption, can be a source of support.
In Quebec, Association Emmanuel helps place special needs children across the province and, perhaps more importantly, supports the families after the adoptions take place. The non-profit organization was started by a couple in France who had adopted a special needs child. association1emmanuel.wordpress.com (website in French only)
The national organization Focus on the Family Canada provides support to adoptive families in the Christian community. Their website, waitingtobelong.ca, provides information about adoption with a special focus on foster care adoption. focusonthefamily.ca
Gail Marlene Schwartz’s play, “Crazy: One Woman’s Search for Sanity,” was recently published as part of the anthology “Hidden Lives.” She lives in Montreal with her wife and two-year-old son.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2012.