After experiencing many of the complications, frustrations, and lack of solutions offered for adoption in Ontario, we’ve decided that while we might not become parents, it is clear that our knowledge can help improve the system. We know the problems first-hand and there are answers.
I’ve recently joined the Board of Advisors at Adopt4Life – you can learn about them here. We will be meeting with the Ministry of Youth and Children Services in a couple of weeks in an effort to create a stable framework for pre- and post- adoption services. This is the only way to truly put Ontario’s children first. (And if you are an awaiting family, consider sharing your story on the private Facebook page)
My husband wrote the following letter to To The Hon. Tracy MacCharles, Minister of Children and Youth Services. I’m publishing it here because it’s an excellent summary of what is happening and what needs to change.
We would be grateful if you’d not only take a moment to read, but also to consider using it to write your own message to your MP, MPP, or MCYS.
List of MPs – http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parliamentarians/en/members
List of MPPs – http://www.ontla.on.ca/lao/en/members/
Ministry of Children and Youth Services – http://www.children.gov.on.ca/htdocs/English/contact/index.aspx
Adoption for the Rest of Us: Seven Recommendations for Ontario
Open Letter to The Honourable Tracy MacCharles, Minister of Children and Youth Services
Dear Minister MacCharles,
Congratulations on your recent appointment to Minister of Children and Youth Services in Ontario. I was happy to read that you have a background in human resources and are passionate about “organizational change and effectiveness”. Please apply your passion and skills to improve Ontario’s inefficient adoption system.
The first time my wife Lori and I attended the semi-annual Adoption Resource Exchange (ARE), an event to help “locate and match adoptive families with Ontario children needing adoption”, the profile video of a little girl stuck with me. Looking straight into the camera, she told her viewers that “if you are good parents, please adopt me; if you are bad parents, don’t apply”. Based on the number of available waiting families, one would think that there are enough “good” potential parents for her. Yet, more than a year later, the girl’s profile was still listed as available for adoption.
The longer Lori and I are a “waiting adoptive family”, the more it becomes clear that unless it is a kin adoption by relatives, Ontario’s system struggles to connect prospective parents to the many waiting children. It is time for the Ontario Government to improve adoption for the rest of us.
People working in the system keep saying to us that “it’s all about putting the interests of the children first”. We wholeheartedly agree with the premise. But why then are non-kin adoption numbers so low? Why does adoption often take years? If Ontario is serious about putting the interests of the children first, it should speed up its slow system. Here are seven thought starters.
1. Move adoption to the top of your to-do list
Many of the flaws in the system were identified and put into government reports by 2010. Nothing substantial has happened since then. Years have been lost. How is this inactivity helping the waiting children? Please make adoption a top priority for your mandate as a minister. Act now.
2. Learn from other jurisdictions
A good start would be to look at how other jurisdictions have improved their adoption systems. For example, England was able to reduce adoption times, so that parents “can now become approved as an adopter within six months and can have a child placed with [them] within three months after that”. Change came through the leadership of people like David Akinsanya, a former foster child who was frustrated about never being adopted. Please talk to David and others with the right experience.
3. Put real oversight in place
Perhaps the biggest systemic flaw is the lack of real oversight of Children’s Aid Societies. We have personal experiences with the effects of this. One example is a child profiled at ARE, a forum that is supposed to help speed up adoption. We submitted a letter of intent through AdoptOntario to the responsible Children’s Aid Society (CAS). After three months of silence, the CAS said it never received our letter. AdoptOntario says they definitely sent it. No resolution. Hopefully, the child has been matched with a family whose application wasn’t lost.
My wife has received emails from other prospective parents with similar stories of inefficiencies and random decision-making. People in the system have told us that collaboration between the provincial and local parts of the adoption system is difficult. There is clear friction. “Putting the children first” would mean overcoming obstacles to an efficient partnership, and working together to get children and parents matched.
The generic information we received from your Ministry of Children and Youth Services and from the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies make it sound like standards are in place, including a complaints process involving the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, the Child and Family Services Review Board (CFSRB), and the Provincial Ombudsman (who can only investigate the CFSRB). This convoluted process seems designed to proactively avoid being helpful or meaningful.
A key recommendation in Bill 42, currently stuck in the weeds at Queen’s Park, is to make Children’s Aid Society’s accountable to the Ontario Ombudsman. This would help eliminate some of the friction. I urge you to push the bill forward, convince your MPP colleagues of its merit, and improve oversight.
4. Create accountability in the system
Accountability mechanisms are missing or not working. For example, after the same ARE, we submitted a letter of intent for another child, along with thirteen other couples. Months later, and only after my wife persistently raised questions, the responsible Children’s Aid Society admitted (over the phone only) that the file had not been touched since the ARE event.
Isn’t it imperative that the few kids whose profiles have been prioritized for ARE over the thousands of other waiting children get matched quickly? Especially if there are fourteen waiting families interested in one child? Why bother highlighting these kids only to move them to the bottom of the pile again?
My wife heard from other adoptive families with similar stories. One family applied for a sibling group of three at one ARE, never heard back, and the same children appeared again at ARE a year later. From the perspective of those families it may be frustrating; but how devastating is it for a child in the system to think there aren’t any “forever families” for her or him?
These may be singular examples, but are they really exceptions? How many children are kept in foster care way longer than necessary? How much does it cost to keep them there? How many resources are clogged up because of inertia? Where is the accountability? How is the adoption progress of individual children tracked? Who is actually checking and following up on it? Please simplify and improve accountability in the system.
5. Change the approach
Changing the system is possible. One idea for shortening the adoption cycle is to better separate in-take of parents and case management of children. Given the severity of situations that adoption workers have to deal with, it is no wonder they struggle to both actively help traumatized, abandoned children, and manage the matching process with adoptive families. Of course they will prioritize an urgent situation, and rightly so.
This leads to bottlenecks. For example, Toronto CAS is only holding its second in-take meeting of the whole year this October. Why not centralize in-take and keep case management local? Appropriately staffed, these separate units would work more efficiently. It would require modifications to the heavily decentralized approach Ontario is currently taking with its legally independent Children’s Aid Societies. Your leadership in spearheading change in this area is critical.
6. Stop prospective parents from dropping out
Creating separate approaches for in-take of prospective parents and case management of waiting children may also help keep more adoptive families in the system. The P.R.I.D.E. training for adoptive families at the beginning of the process is an excellent introduction to adoption, and an eye-opener in many ways. Even there, participants are often told that a successful completion can last two to four years.
My wife writes a blog (http://DorothyWasAdopted.wordpress.com/) about our adoption experience, where she is also publishing this letter. She hears from other families a lot. Many write to say they have either given up or are thinking about it. How many prospective parents has Ontario lost because they abandoned the adoption process due to a slow system that scares away instead of nurturing interest? It’s in the interest of the children to find better ways of keeping waiting parents in the system.
7. Modernize processes and technology
Decentralization, fragmentation and outdated paper-based processes are working against the interests of the children. Bringing together disjointed databases of children across Ontario and Canada is a first step, but much more could be done to speed up the process. England has made the process fast and transparent by removing administrative barriers and putting accountability checks in place. Combine this experience with technology excellence that makes complex processes faster, easier and more user-friendly.
The Government of Ontario has created the MaRS Discovery District to foster research-driven and technology-based innovation. Why not team up experienced adoption workers with some of the young bright minds coming out of University of Waterloo and other Ontario universities to start a project for modernized adoption processes at MaRS?
In conclusion, I know that I am self-servingly looking at the adoption system through the eyes of a waiting parent. Frontline work with children matters most, and I truly hope the system is much better on that end. Based on what my wife and I have experienced since starting our journey two years ago, I wonder how often “putting the interests of the children first” is used as a phrase to shield from accountability and unwanted collaboration.
How many kids in Ontario grow up without ever having a family to belong to because the system denies them the chance, despite the availability of adoptive families?
Minister MacCharles, speed up the adoption process, so that more forever families are created faster. It is doable, someone at the top just has to lead the way. I hope you are the one to make a difference for the many waiting children and prospective parents in Ontario. Thank you for listening.
So this is a first for the blog…I am writing this post from the Business Class cabin of an Air Canada plane, flying back to Toronto from Paris. Sounds glamourous, and I suppose it is – I know I am very privileged to travel the way I do for my job (because believe me, I could not afford this ticket on my own!). I should be enjoying the luxury and the fact that I am returning home after a long work trip. Sadly, it doesn’t actually feel all that great. I mean, the reclining seats and large pillows are nice, but I’m not settled. Actually, I feel quite awful.
A few months ago I was making this very same trip for a project. During that flight I ended up with a little stowaway beside me. There was a family traveling from India, via Paris, with three little children…a baby, a toddler, and a lovely young boy of seven who quickly became my air buddy.
I will admit it: I used to be the type of passenger who cringed seeing the stroller approach down the airplane aisle. I’ve had enough experiences with crying babies, poopy diapers, and seats being kicked, thank you very much. When we got on the adoption train a few years ago suddenly parents become objects of curiosity. It may sound creepy, but I couldn’t help but watch and wonder…would that be us one day? Will we be juggling toys and blankets while we bring our child home from Lithuania?
Back to my wee friend in the skies – this family had already been traveling for twelve hours and another eight hours was proving exhausting. I couldn’t sleep anyway, so I passed my iPad to the eldest boy to see if he would welcome a distraction from the long trip, especially since his parents were already busy with his two younger siblings. He took the bait and soon was happily playing away.
When we decided to adopt from Lithuania, one of the things I did was download a bunch of children’s apps to learn English. Yes, I know – a bit premature. I figured they would come in handy. And they did. Here I was, 38,000 feet in the air, with such a kind little boy, playing games to learn colours and numbers. It wasn’t a trip from Lithuania, and it certainly wasn’t my son, but for a few hours, it was a break from reality. The parents were happy for the extra set of hands, and I got to play fantasy parent until we touched down in Toronto.
So sitting here on the plane flying home I am startled by a recent and harsh truth:
We will never make this trip home with our child. There will be no long flight from Lithuania; no comforting a little one while their ears hurt during landing; no playing games or pointing out shapes in the clouds. There will be no iPhone video footage to show of the trip, no Welcome Home banner on the porch, no luggage to unpack. It will not happen. Ever.
I don’t know how to grieve this anymore, so I guess I will just tell the story. I have a good seven hours…
Our first rejection from Lithuania was devastating. We had a set of photos of this child, a story, a plan, and in one quick email, it was over. When we were presented with a second child who was deemed a good match, we made every attempt to keep our hearts closed and our heads clear. For the record, this is impossible.
When you are matched, you must review the entire file of the child and put together a proposal on why you would be great parents for this specific child. This means pouring over every detail about the child’s history in an effort to match your skill set and resource against their needs. You also have about 48 hours to do it. We wrote and rewrote, reformatted and edited our letter, finally sending it for translation and submission.
Needless to say, we were rejected.
In the Lithuania program you do receive details on why you were not selected as parents as well as details about why a different set of parents were chosen. For this child, they are truly going to a good home that can accommodate their unique needs. They will be loved. This is the perfect outcome. It’s odd to grieve a happy ending, but it’s certainly what I am doing while flying over the Atlantic Ocean.
We know we cannot go through this again.
In both of our rejections, it was clear that the selected families had advantages that we will never have. All were younger, had degrees in child psychology or pedagogy, and already had young children. That’s null for three. Sure, our adoption practitioner urges us not to give up hope. Well, there’s hope and then there’s reality.
I know I cannot look at another photo and read another dossier only to try and fail. We can’t endure another tidal wave of this. That’s why we have decided to stop our adoption efforts in Lithuania and refocus on Ontario.
This decision might come as a surprise given the poor luck that we have had with CAS the past six months. And really, it’s not a choice. I mean, we have not even been told by our CAS if we can attend the in-take in October. Still, it is where we are – the gap between the two trapeze swings, flying between two countries, suspended.
We are lucky to have such an incredible village of friends and family around us – and I know many of you want to say sorry and offer your thoughts. These are all appreciated. But it’s going to take some time for us to get back on our feet.
In the meantime, I have been refocusing a lot of my energy on the adoption community and lobbying for change within CAS and MCYS. At the end of it all, this is not about us as parents, but about a lot of kids who need homes. Watch this space for some serious kicking.
Now, time to recline my seat and think about what to do when I land.