National Post

April 22, 2002

Birth parents - just how far can they go?

Alberta adoption case: Judge rules photos, updates not an excessive intrusion on boy's life

Anne Marie Owens
National Post

Dean Bicknell, Calgary Herald
Iris Evans, Alberta's Minister of Children's Services, says issues concerning birth parents and adoptive parents have been among the most controversial in her ministry.

A case involving an Alberta couple who want to know about the son they gave up for adoption has raised important questions about how far birth parents can go in intervening in the lives of adopted children.

The Court of Queen's Bench in Alberta has ordered a couple to share personal information and photographs with the natural parents of their adopted four-year-old son, despite their concerns it would be an excessive intrusion and would allow the birth parents an opportunity to interfere in the boy's life.

The case, which revolves around a boy the court refers to only as Adam, addresses the inevitable tension that arises between both sets of parents in adoption cases. Because of the sensitivity of the issues involved in the case, none of the parties can be named.

The case comes at a time when Alberta is engaged in a sweeping review of its Child Welfare Act, where much of the debate has revolved around how best to juggle the competing demands of birth parents and adoptive parents, all the while ensuring that the interest of the child is paramount.

"These are the things that have been among the most controversial in this ministry" said Iris Evans, Alberta's Minister of Children's Services.

"It is an interesting issue in this case, and it's not surprising given the strong feelings that surround the whole area of adoption."

This case, which revolves around whether it is fair to allow the birth parents to receive annual updates on the child they gave up for adoption, raises issues about parental involvement that may have implications for other adoption cases.

"If there is one area of common ground in this file, it is that all concerned genuinely are attempting to act in Adam's best interests," said Judge Frans Slatter, the Court of Queen's Bench justice presiding over the case.

"It is clear that the motivation of the birth family in seeking this information is related primarily to the emotional bonds they still feel with Adam and the sense of loss they experience as a result of his adoption ... On the other hand, great respect must be shown for the right and ability of the adopting parents to control the upbringing of the child."

The boy was taken into custody by child welfare authorities when he was a few months old.

Adam's birth parents continued to have limited contact when he was first placed in foster care, and received photographs and written updates from the foster parents.

After some time, relatives of the foster parents indicated they wanted to adopt the boy. The birth parents initially opposed the adoption, saying they still hoped to reunite their family.

They relented after some discussion with a government-appointed mediator, and eventually decided they would not formally oppose the adoption, as long as they were allowed "a good-bye visit" with their son and would continue to receive photographs and updates.

"At this time, negotiations were under way between the birth family and the adopting family over the conditions under which the photographs and narratives might be provided," said the court judgment released last week.

The adopting family was willing to continue to provide narratives on an annual basis, but did not want to supply any photographs.

"[They] also wished to reserve the right to stop sending the narratives in the future if they determined it was not in Adam's best interests," the judgment said.

At an unusual trial convened in Edmonton last month, the birth family and the adopting parents all testified about their perspectives on this complex issue.

The birth parents challenged the court's authority to attach any conditions to an adoption order.

"The adopting father has some adopted persons in his own family ... and he was concerned about the effect it would have on Adam if he found his birth family in the future, and discovered they knew everything about him, while he knew nothing about them," said the judgment. "He does not like the fact that Adam has lost control over his life."

The adopting mother was particularly concerned that providing photographs of the boy as he grew older would aid the birth parents in identifying him.

They argued the court has no jurisdiction to interfere in adoption orders because the terms of the Child Welfare Act suggest an adoption "severs the child's relationship with the birth family and creates a new parent and child relationship with the adopting family."

In a decision aimed at brokering a compromise, the judge ordered the adoptive parents to continue providing annual updates about Adam, with a photograph, until the age of 12, when under the terms of the Child Welfare Act he would be allowed input into his adoption.

Judge Slatter explained his compromise by saying the guidelines governing adoption do not pretend the birth family does not exist: "While the parent-child relationship may have been severed for all legal purposes, there remain biological, cultural and emotional links between the child and the birth family."

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