Globe and Mail

The battle over native adoption

The Supreme Court has rekindled the debate over raising children outside their culture. Love can't conquer all.

Tuesday, February 23, 1999
The Globe and Mail

Duncan says he has no regrets about adopting his native daughter, Melissa, but raising her was sheer torture.

As a teenager, she got into trouble with the law and was sent to reform school and a psychiatric institution. Now a young woman, she is in an Arizona prison, and has severed all ties with her adoptive parents.

But last week, in an unusual snap ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada awarded those parents custody of her son. The decision was made three years after Melissa stole away from her parents' Connecticut farmhouse and went to Vancouver, where she left Ishmael, then just a baby, to be raised by her biological father, a man she barely knew.

"It's been extremely heartbreaking," Duncan, an editor with a newspaper, said of the long court battle. "But . . . obviously I have no regrets at all."

Others, however, have plenty of regrets.

The decision goes to the heart of a debate that has been simmering since the end of the "Sixties Scoop," when overzealous social workers plucked thousands of aboriginal children from their reserves and placed them for adoption in mostly white, middle-class homes.

In recent years, the balance has shifted greatly in the opposite direction.

Many provinces have thrown legal and bureaucratic hurdles in the path of couples wanting to adopt aboriginal children outside their culture.

Driving the change is the fact that so many native children raised in white homes run into serious problems.

Despite being loved and well cared for, they have what appears to be a cultural identity crisis when they reach their teens.

They turn to alcohol, drugs and crime -- and often, like Melissa, angrily reject their bewildered adoptive parents.

The problem has touched lives across the social spectrum, even the Prime Minister's.

Jean and Aline Chrétien adopted their son, Michel, in the early 1970s, when Mr. Chrétien was minister of Indian affairs and northern development.

Despite a privileged upbringing and parents who by all accounts bent over backward to make the adoption work, Michel Chrétien shuffled in and out of prison on assault convictions for most of his young life.

In another case, the late broadcaster Barbara Frum and her husband, Murray, adopted their son Matthew as an infant in the 1960s. He, too, grew up with all the trappings of the upper middle class, but as a teenager he tangled with the law and bounced between schools. Ultimately, he left home for Vancouver, where he reclaimed his aboriginal roots and renewed contact with his birth parents.

What happens when a cross-cultural adoption goes wrong?

Native Child and Family Services, a Toronto social agency that runs aboriginal foster homes and a drop-in centre for troubled native youth, says 80 per cent of the homeless youth who now cross its doorstep were adopted by white parents.

Cliff Hussin was one of those street kids. Now 26, he works at the agency and has a two-year-old child of his own. But his childhood memories start with the family near Timmins, Ont., who adopted him, his sister and three brothers.

"There was no love in that house," he said. The native children ate separately, had their long black hair shaved for school and sometimes were driven by hunger to sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night to steal food.

"We did all the work around the house," Mr. Hussin recalled. "Their kids didn't have to do anything. And if we didn't do it, there'd be a lot of physical stuff and emotional stuff. We'd be labelled as lazy Indians."

He and his siblings all left home before they turned 16, never to return. Mr. Hussin followed his older brothers to Toronto, where he dabbled in drugs and gangs, slept in shelters and did a little time for assault in the Toronto (Don) Jail. Last year, one brother died on the street -- drunk, bitter and barely 30 -- and another one is still there.

"We've got a significant population of people with some history of adoption who don't fit into an aboriginal world and who don't fit into the mainstream sector," said Kenn Richard, executive director with Native Child and Family Services.

Indeed, the odds would appear stacked against native adoption.

In a study of adopted children (including 37 native children) published in 1993, Christopher Bagley, then a professor of social work at the University of Calgary, found that "native child adoptions are significantly more likely than any other parenting situation to involve problems and difficulties," with nearly half of the adopted native children separating from their parents by the age of 17.

"Over all, the native adoptees had significantly poor self-esteem, and were also more than three times as likely than any other group to have problems of serious suicidal ideas or acts of deliberate self-harm in the previous six months," the report concluded, while "non-adopted native adolescents had adjustment profiles that were not significantly different from those of non-adopted whites."

Another study tracked 100 native children, almost all from Manitoba, who were adopted in Pennsylvania. Researchers found that as adolescents, they suffered far more problems than black, Vietnamese and Korean children the same adoption agency placed with parents of similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

By 1995, five of the children had died, half had experienced "difficulties involving identity issues," only a third had completed high school -- and a third had lost all touch with their adoptive parents.

"The native kids really seemed to do worse," said Margaret Ward, a retired professor at Cambrian College in Sudbury and one of the study's authors.

"A lot of the kids placed in Pennsylvania had very little contact with any native culture, and we suspect they shaped their behaviours on the stereotypes of the 'dangerous savage' that they were hearing about."

Given the track record, many provinces have rewritten their child-welfare legislation to place aboriginal children in native homes wherever possible.

But there is a flip side to such policies. Children awaiting adoption often go first to a foster home, and there is a dire shortage of native foster parents even though the need is acute.

For example, nearly 10 per cent of British Columbia's population is native, but native children make up 30.4 per cent of the 9,669 children in the care of child-welfare authorities. The gap is even larger in Manitoba, where about 12 per cent of the population is native versus about 70 per cent of the 5,200 children in care.

Given the great demand, "of course there should be more adoptions," said Elspeth Ross, a researcher with the Adoption Council of Canada who has three adopted native children of her own.

"Children need permanent families, and the damage that occurs to kids often is from being moved around. You've got children leaving foster care at the age of 18 with no connections, no one to call at Christmas, no one to tell when they're getting married."

But Phil Goodman, Manitoba's director of child welfare, said that despite the Supreme Court ruling, the province will, "wherever possible, take into account the child's culture and his Indianness."

Meanwhile, Melissa sits in her jail cell and, according to her lawyer, frets that her young son now is destined to follow in her sorry footsteps.

As an infant, she was removed from her alcoholic parents on a Manitoba reserve and placed with her older sister in a succession of foster homes before Duncan and his wife adopted both girls in Montreal when Melissa was 4.

As a child, Melissa suffered (according to her father) from fetal alcohol syndrome; as an adolescent, she revolted far more than most teenagers do. Ultimately, she tracked down her birth parents in a search for her identity.

(The sister has also had problems, but not as serious as Melissa's.)

Now, lawyer Derrick Daniels said, Melissa is "devastated" by the decision not to have Ishmael live with his native grandfather. "She doesn't want to see history repeat itself with the boy. Her position is that the approach her parents took to solving her problems wasn't the appropriate approach.

"But who knows . . . what's going to happen to this child when he goes back to Connecticut?"

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