Conversations on adoption, family, parentage and the law

BC Adoption agency closing its doors

Those of us who have not been through the experience of adopting a child sometimes wonder what motivates the many British Columbians who spend years working their way through the red tape commonly involved in international adoptions.

I got some insight into the source of that determination when reading about the recent  closing of the Hope Adoption Services in Abbotsford.  One of their clients is Barry Penner, the former Attorney General and four term MLA.    Describing his experiences with children in Thailand, Mr. Penner was quoted in the Globe and Mail making this simple observation:  “What I expected was that the children would cry when a stranger picked them up. It was the opposite – they cried when you tried to put them down. I wasn’t ready for that.”

Hope is one of only five licensed adoption agencies in B.C.  As the Globe writer observed, the agency’s closing is both a blow to prospective parents and an indicator of a possible shift in the landscape of international adoptions.   Countries around the world are tightening the rules governing international adoptions, which can aid in reducing questionable adoption practices but raises the cost and delays involved for legitimate agencies and prospective parents.

Hope announced its closing on its website early in January, stating that the Provincial Director of Adoption would be assisting the agency in completing its current files or transferring them to other agencies.

For most of Hope’s existing clients, that likely means more waiting.  It would be comforting to believe the difficulties facing agencies like Hope are a result of a decrease in the number of children out there who cry when a stranger puts them down.  Sadly, I doubt that it is the case.

Children born of assisted reproductive technologies– rights to information

Parents considering the use of assisted reproductive technology to form their families face a daunting range of questions.  A critical one is considering what information will be available to their children about their genetic origins.

Some parents using sperm donation, for example,  deliberately chose a donor known to their family, someone they hope will have a connection with their child and who can help answer questions they or their child may have regarding her family and medical history.  Others have preferred as much anonymity as possible, protective of their family’s privacy and wanting to avoid the possibility of future contact from their child’s genetic father.  At the same time, donors of genetic material often want assurance that their donation will remain anonymous and that they will not be contacted in future or face any possibility, no matter how remote, of an obligation to the child.

Recently, the children affected by these decisions are being given a voice in the debate.    New in-vitro fertilization program guidelines issued by the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons last month  were critiqued in the media for falling short in their failure to require that the identity and medical history of donors be recorded and preserved.

Without such a requirement, a child’s right to information about his or her origins is rendered moot, because the information may not exist.  Records may have been destroyed or never kept in the first place.

That was the issue before the BC Supreme Court last year, when the court mandated this province to establish a system that will give children born through assisted reproductive technologies the same access to information about their biological origins as is provided for adopted children under the provincial Adoption Act.   The decision (Pratten v. British Columbia) heralded the end of anonymous sperm donation in British Columbia.  It is currently under appeal.

While children’s rights to information about their biological origins must be addressed, concerns arise that would-be donors of reproductive material may now have second thoughts about donating at all, out of fear they may later be contacted or found to have some form of legal obligation.  Parents who use reproductive technologies also need certainty about their parental status.   In B.C., pending changes to the law should put some of those concerns to rest.    As discussed here earlier, when the new Family Law Act comes into force the only legally recognized parents of a child born through assisted reproductive technology will be the mother who gives birth to the child and her married or common-law spouse.  Unless the parties agree otherwise before the child is conceived, a donor will have no legal status as a parent.

Teens waiting for adoption — TV coverage tonight

Last month, I mentioned the number of older children in care who are waiting for adoption in Canada.

I just saw that this week Global TV is running a news series on B.C. teens waiting for adoption, with a live blog later today and coverage during their nightly newscasts on January 30, 31st and February 1st.   I haven’t had a chance to see the newscasts yet, but will check it out.  Glad to see these kids are getting a chance to be heard.

Legally speaking, what does it mean to be a parent? The question facing parents using assisted reproductive technology

What, legally, does it mean to be a parent?

The majority of people with kids don’t think about that much. We know we are parents. We think we know what it means.

But for parents going through an adoption process or who are building their family with the help of surrogacy or other reproductive technologies, parenting itself might seem like the easy part. Obtaining legal recognition as their child’s parents can be much more complicated.

If you adopt a child, or have a child through surrogacy or assisted reproductive technology, you likely need a court order to confirm your legal standing as parent of your child. It could be an adoption order, or a declaration of parentage. Depending on the circumstances, even being named as a parent or co-parent on your child’s birth certificate may not be enough. Bizarrely, in some situations this can be the case even if you are the genetic parent of your child. A court order is important not just to confirm your standing as a parent, but to provide certainty that other people involved in the process of your child’s birth—such as a sperm donor— don’t later come forward and seek that standing.

The rules are different in different provinces, and are changing all the time. In British Columbia, new legislation is in the works that will make it clear that the fact someone donates reproductive material is not enough to make that person a parent of the children resulting from that donation. Only the birth mother and the birth mother’s married or common-law spouse will be deemed to be parents– unless the parties involved agree otherwise through a written agreement before the child is conceived.

This is just one of many changes the new Family Law Act( Bill 16) has in store for British Columbians planning to have children through adoption or assisted reproductive technologies. The Act is not yet in force, but when it is, it promises some needed certainty for parents. Stay tuned.

In the news: Parental benefits available for foster parents planning to adopt

Earlier this month, the federal government announced that families who foster children with the intention to adopt will be eligible for parental benefits under the Employment Insurance program.

Parental benefits allow parents time away from work to bond with their newborn or newly adopted children.    It goes without saying that such time is no less important—perhaps even more so— in the case of foster parents who plan to adopt, where the child is often older and may arrive in the home of her prospective parents with a history of trauma and fears of abandonment.

An estimated 30,000 Canadian children living in care have parents whose parental rights have been ended by the courts.  In B.C., as many as 1,300 children like this are wait-listed for adoption through the Ministry of Children & Family Development at any given time.  Most of these kids are school age; many are teens.  Some have siblings, who are all looking to be adopted together.  Many will turn 19 without ever finding a permanent family, having spent their childhoods in foster care or institutional placements.

The EI scheme allows an adoptive parent  up to 35 weeks of parental benefits.  Under the new rules, it will no longer be necessary for a foster parent to have commenced adoption proceedings in court before becoming eligible for benefits, a step which, depending on the province, can take several months after the child is placed in their home to complete.  Instead,  a  “demonstrable commitment to adopt” will be all that is required.

If this small change to the law makes it easier for even a handful of Canadian families to adopt the children in their care, it will have been well worth it.