Adoption has recently been front-and-centre in the news as would-be Canadian parents who paid thousands of dollars to adopt children from overseas had their dreams dashed when their adoption agency went bankrupt. Imagine Adoption, based in Cambridge, Ontario, worked with hundreds of families across Canada matching them with children from countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, and Ecuador. But on July 13th, the agency shut down under a cloud of financial mismanagement and other irregularities.
Fortunately, stories like this one are the exception rather than the rule. There are many more positive stories of adoption to share.
When it comes to adoption, people often think about newborns and toddlers. However, in B.C. alone, there are more than 1,300 children in care waiting for a forever family. Tragically, many of these children “age out” of the foster care system as young adults without having benefited from what most of us take for granted: the consistency, unconditional love, and sense of belonging that a family provides. Even more, as they become adults, they lack the foundation of a family and of parents who know and love them. They often suffer from intense and often devastating feelings of loneliness that may haunt them for life. Being shuttled from foster family to foster family is destabilizing and leaves these kids vulnerable to a range of issues such as criminal activity, homelessness and teenage pregnancy.
Recognizing the critical need to forward permanency for young people in care, the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) contracted the Adoptive Families Association of British Columbia (AFABC) to plan and implement a progressive new project. The two organizations are working collaboratively to increase the number of youth-in-care within the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal regions with adoption placements or permanency plans.
The project involves three components – specialized staff training, youth engagement, and child-specific recruitment – and is designed to help guardianship social workers set up and nurture lifelong relationships with the extended family or other significant people connected with the youth on their case load. Where it’s feasible, the ultimate goal is to move children out of foster care and into safe and permanent homes with extended family members.
According to Michelle McBratney, AFABC’s Vancouver Coastal/Fraser Family Finder, “For some of the youth, particularly the ones that are close to leaving care due to their age, the main goal is to identify family members, establish connections and then support the youth and family members to build relationships and lifelong attachments. Many would otherwise leave care without these important supports.”
Participation in the project is voluntary. Referral comes from an MCFD guardianship social worker with consent from the youth who must have a continuing care order (that is, be under the care of the ministry), be registered as available for adoption, and at least 12 years old.
Family-finding involves a significant amount of investigative and forensic work. Children in permanent care often have little information about their birth family, while many extended family members have no idea what became of the child. As a result, they not only lose a connection to birth moms and dads, they also lose siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, and often a connection to their culture and family traditions. Michelle emphasizes that the family-finding process involves more: it must serve as a part relationship-builder, social convener, confidant and advocate, in order to make the connections successful.
One of the most interesting tools in Michelle’s toolkit is a genogram. It’s effectively an enhanced family tree that maps out as many family-related connections as possible, identified through records and other strategies such as cold calling, internet searches, and contact with frontline agencies within the youth’s community. Then, a family finder, like Michelle, begins to systematically contact people on each branch of the genogram. This helps fill information gaps and add in new connections. It’s a powerful resource and a wonderful contribution to the child, who has the right to know their roots and family connections.
During my conversation with Michelle, she told me about one young man who came into care after living with maternal grandparents as a result of protection concerns. The young man’s father had not been identified and there was no contact with other maternal family members. Therefore, foster care became the only option at the time. When Michelle received this referral, she began to build a genogram and did some research that yielded possible names of the birth father. Upon confirmation of a paternity test, Michelle contacted the birth father and learned that he was registered with an Aboriginal band. She then contacted the band, which opened the door to finding paternal family members.
Ultimately, Michelle helped arrange a family group conference where interested family members and a trained ministry representative came together to discuss what kind of contribution or role they were able to play in the young man’s life. In this case, the outcome is a home run: the boy will be adopted by a family member rather than be bounced through the system until he is old enough to leave care.
Volumes of research confirm that children grow better, stronger, and more resilient in families. Healthy children and youth are the hallmark of a healthy society. Programs like family-finding establish foundations that allow us to leave the world of impersonal statistics and celebrate a range of poignant human stories.