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.
You worry a lot about making a good impression when you are trying to adopt. During the homestudy phase the drive home after every social worker meeting was a detailed dissection that would rival any CSI Autopsy. Did we say the right thing? Was wearing jeans too casual? I wish I had remembered to turn off my mobile ringer! And so forth.
We were lucky to work with a very good social worker, but it’s still a difficult process. You can’t help but keep in the back of your mind that someone is looking at every aspect of you to decide if you can parent a child. It’s daunting, to say the least.
You also agonise over a lot of forms and applications. Some border on the obtuse like, “On a scale of 1-10 how desirable is a speech impediment? Autism? Sexual Abuse?” (seriously, the word used is “desirable”) or “Which of the following conditions would you be willing to accept – AIDS/HIV, Asthma, Lice, Cleft Palate, etc.” The lice question still perplexes me to this day.
It’s hard not to develop a bit of a wicked sense of humour. In one of the many essays we have had to complete, under the question “Why do you want to adopt?” we gleefully drafted an entire response that ranged from, “we are bored blaming all of our farts on the cat” to “I would finally have an acceptable response for why I have the TomKat app on my iPad” to “Starbucks isn’t going to fetch itself on Sunday mornings, you know?”.
At times, it feels like you are marketing yourself as parents, and it just isn’t easy. This week, I threw away all of those tendencies. I went full throttle for answers.
I’m not sure I did the right thing.
Last post I wrote about a boy from ARE. The fact that no progress had been made on his profile quite frankly haunted me. I couldn’t sleep, and if I did, I was awake within the hour thinking about him. Random thoughts like it’s August already, so he will have to not only join a new family, but change schools. If he transitioned over the summer, he would have had a better chance. I could not let it go. So, I called back the director at his CAS, leaving a voice message that I probably re-recorded eight times.
When I didn’t hear back for two days was when I began sending my postcards from the edge. I emailed anyone, and everyone, I could find associated with this particular CAS. I struck gold when I found online an old PowerPoint presentation that had several Board of Directors’ email addresses. I contacted them and where possible, also tweeted to them. I emailed the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS), and MCYS. It was a bit like a cyber “bombs away!!!!”.
As you can imagine, things moved pretty quickly at this point. One Board of Director Member took my concerns very seriously (thank you, thank you). We finally received an update the next day – no, we were not shortlisted for this boy.
It’s a heartbreaking message to hear and one we have encountered more times than we like to admit. Even when you know the chances are remote to none, hope still digs in. There are tears every time.
Speaking of hope, what I do have are personal assurances that this boy’s case is now being seriously looked at and monitored for progress. I wish for his forever home to be found soon and he has a chance to thrive.
I’m hardly suggesting I am some patron saint to foster children. I’m not a social worker and I’m an outsider looking in on this system. Ultimately, it is still CAS that has to do all of the hard work. But, with no oversight, no independent body like the Ombudsman to answer to, CAS has no accountability. And things DO fall through the cracks, which is a dangerous state when children are involved. For example:
My email to OACAS also earned me a hasty reply from CAS Z about a young girl we had also never received a reply about. The good news: there are now two families selected for her and the matching process is proceeding. The bad news: CAS Z says they never received our Expression of Interest (EOI).
When you submit an EOI, it is done via the AdoptOntario website. We received email confirmation that our EOI was forwarded. This morning, we called AdoptOntario who indeed confirmed the time and recipient of our EOI form. Yet CAS Z says they never received it. Just another tumble down the rabbit hole.
I don’t quite know where we stand now. I already know from conversations that my name is damn recognizable around Ontario CASs – which is an achievement I will not proudly add to my CV.
Did I do the right thing this week? In questioning the system, have I placed a scarlet letter on our profile? I have no clue. Maybe this blog isn’t even such a good idea.
But, as I told one CAS worker – If I will advocate this hard for children we’re not even matched with, imagine what we would do for our own child?
Martin and I married a decade ago in a lovely, chic, restaurant, surrounded by our closest friends and family. That upscale venue has since been replaced with a mighty tasty authentic Mexican restaurant. Bonus points? The exact spot where we took our vows is now adorned with an awesomely tacky Tequila advert mirror. Olé! Margaritas for all!
We make a point of visiting the tequila mirror on New Year’s Eve. This year, looking at our own reflections behind the gold lettering, it was pretty clear things had changed since we rang in 2013. Back then, we had just had another failed IUI and adoption was no longer a word hinted at with the careful preface of, “well, what about, you know, maybe…”
Fast forward 365 days…..we’ve completed our PRIDE training, done our homestudy, fulfilled every possible security clearance, obtained a gazillion pieces of paper work. We are sitting on the runway ready to go.
So as we wait, engines revving, there are a million practical things that I’m starting to realise we know nothing about. Things that, I’m not going to lie, can make me break out in a pretty intense cold sweat!
– What do I say when I first meet them? I mean, “Hey, we’re your new parents” sounds pretty sinister. A simple, “Hi” in Lithuanian, plus a smile enough? I know we aren’t supposed to overwhelm them, but how will it feel to hold him or her the first time?
– How will I know when they need the bathroom?!?! Seriously, this one concerns me.
– Food. Nothing here will taste the same as in Lithuania (and no jokes about my awful cooking).
– How do we clear customs on the way back through Canada? “Anything to Declare?”…”No, I had this child in my carry-on when we left for Lithuania. Really”.
– What do I say to neighbours or my Starbucks barista when we go out for the first time? I don’t want to be thought of as the lady who kept her kid in a basement for three years!
The list of questions goes on and on. Do we get a crib or a bed? What size shoes do they wear? Allergies? Are they afraid of thunderstorms, like me? Do they like football like Martin? Will they hate the yellow we painted their room?
(And the very quietest of questions I only allow myself to ask when I feel brave enough: When will this child look at us and think, “Yes, you are my Mum and Dad”?)
This New Year’s Eve, after a couple of margaritas, Martin and I came up with another one of those “practical” questions….the name. For a number of reasons, we’d like to respect the original name (although, we may anglicize it for ease of pronunciation). Still, we don’t have any idea what it might be. So like two giddy kids peeling off a corner of wrapping paper for a quick peek, we Googled “Lithuanian names”…
When we decided to have a family, of course we spent a few gooey hours talking about baby names. It was comforting to see that some of our favourites were on the “Lithuanian List”. Many names are similar to the Polish names I grew up with and are in my family. It was also warming to be introduced to new, wonderful, names that we never even imagined.
(Side note, one Lithuanian boy’s name is “Tadas”, which sounds like “Ta-Dah!” with an “S”. We’re secretly hoping for this one because how cool would it be to say, “Here’s my son – TA-DAS!” Or, “Look who just learned to ride a bike – Ta-DAS!” Or “Show us the picture you drew, TA-DAS!” Yes, we were a wee bit giddy by this point).
There’s a lyric by ColdPlay that seems to be by mantra of late: “maybe I’m in the gap between the two trapezes”. We have made this huge leap of faith. Now we are waiting for what’s out there to greet us.
Not too shabby for a couple reflected in a tequila mirror.