Kathryn Connors and John Amy lost four pregnancies to miscarriage. After the last resulted in massive internal bleeding and near-fatal cardiac arrest, the couple’s doctor advised them to stop trying because he couldn’t guarantee Connors would survive.
“That’s when Joe said we need to rethink how we’re going to be parents,” Connors said.
They started researching adoption. Six years ago, when the couple welcomed two sibling toddlers with a complex range of special needs into their “forever home” in Brampton, they had no idea federal legislation worked against them.
“Because we adopted two toddlers at the same time, I thought the government would recognize the challenges and provide support,” Connors said. “We were shocked to learn that not only do we not get extra help, we get less help than a biological parent.”
The reality is that parents who adopt a child are eligible for nine and not 12 months of standard leave at 55 per cent of their average weekly earnings. A new report on the inqueality from researchers at Western University calls on government to change that. Researchers and adoption advocacy groups are pressing the government to provide “attachment benefits” — three more months of paid leave equal to what biological parents receive — to give adoptive parents more time to bond with their kids and find them the medical and educational supports they need.
The current system is “discriminatory,” the report states, “fails to uphold children’s rights and is unusual, compared to systems in other countries.”
“We’re not asking for more than biological families,” said Valerie Howes, a community engagement liaison with Adopt4Life: Ontario’s Adoptive Parents Association. “We’re just asking to catch up with them.”
The report, produced for Adopt4life and the Adoption Council of Canada, states that the federal government “treats adoptive families as though they are second best to biological families” and is failing to uphold the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure its policies and laws allow children to “survive and develop in a healthy way.”
Research shows that Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom all have much more generous parental leave programs that apply equally to biological and adoptive parents.
In Canada, the three-month disparity in benefits for adoptive parents makes it more difficult for these children to reach their full potential.
Adoptive parents often describe a “honeymoon period” with their new children that can last weeks or months. But as the kids become more comfortable, the layers of trauma begin to reveal themselves and the case for more time becomes clearer. And many of these kids have a built-in sense of distrust after having been moved over and over again in a short period of time.
Howes’ adopted child had lived in two countries and six homes before coming to live with her permanently at age 14.
“You can’t erase 120 months of pain, neglect and abuse in nine months,” says Kate, an adoptive single mom in Toronto who asked to remain anonymous to protect her children’s identities.
For nearly a year after adopting one of her daughters, the child would wet herself at the sight of anything related to a Disney character. It wasn’t until she told the child she was planning a short vacation up north, that her daughter opened up about what she was feeling.
“She said to me: ‘Who do I have to stay with this time?’ And then it all came out.”
Kate learned that in the foster system, her daughter would be shipped to temporary respite care while the family she had lived with for years took their biological kids on annual summer vacations to the Orlando theme park.
They also worked through a difficult period of night trauma — where her daughter would wake up every hour through the night screaming, crying, shaking and inconsolable.
“It takes time,” Kate says. “Time does not heal all but time will bring you to a better place of understanding your child, of being able to get services for your child because they finally got to the top of a wait-list.”
The researchers and adoption advocates from both provincial and national agencies have met with more than two dozen MPs and policy advisers of all political stripes to advance the issue, which likely requires amending federal legislation, specifically the Employment Insurance Act. The report estimates achieving parity would cost taxpayers $12-$20 million, depending on the number of children placed in permanent homes.
The range is due to the difficulty of collecting accurate adoption statistics in Canada. There is no national tracking database that accounts for these children. The researchers estimated that in 2017-2018, approximately 2,400 children were adopted across Canada. In Ontario, about 17,000 kids are in care of Children’s Aid Societies. Half of these are Crown wards who have been permanently removed from their homes and families.
Connors and Amy didn’t think they were equipped to handle a child with special needs but when they watched a short adoption video of Serenity, their fears of the unknown were dimmed by her sparkle.
“Life has a funny way of giving you what you didn’t think ou needed,” said Connors, a social worker who gave up her job to care for Serenity and her baby brother. “She’s a spunky little spitfire.”
Connors acknowledges that her decision to stop working is a luxury many families cannot afford. She only recently found a flexible job with Adopt4Life that allows her to work from home while caring for their growing family, which includes a third child whom they adopted as an infant, Abigail.
Serenity came to them in a wheelchair at age 3. The couple was told she likely would never walk. She had a condition that prevented the left and right sides of her brain from talking to each other. She is legally deaf and blind. Her biological brother Malakai was a year old at the time.
When Serenity came home, the couple noticed the child would try to stand up from her chair to reach for things, leaning on a counter for a second before falling. They encouraged her to keep reaching.
Three weeks later, she took 12 steps “and we just froze,” Connors said.
Three years later, she joined her dad in a 7-kilometre race.
“She had the stamina to cross the finish line.”
Diana Zlomislic is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @dzlo