HOME >Winter 2010 - Volume 55 - Number 1

One Child, One Placement: The Elgin Model - Why Adoption in Ontario is Failing our Children

By Deborah Ellison, PHD, and Dawn Flegel, MSW


Family & Children‘s Services of St. Thomas Elgin (Elgin) operates as Elgin County‘s local Children‘s Aid Society. For approximately 25 years, the agency has practiced a "foster-to-adopt" model when children enter care. This model was developed as a result of a careful assessment of the adoption practices of the time and their impact on children. This paper will discuss the development and evolution of the model and will present data on the model‘s effectiveness. A discussion will also be presented outlining why, in our opinion, the current adoption direction in Ontario is not in the best interests of children.


In the 1980s, a number of factors influenced the agency‘s adoption program. First, "foster care drift" was a term and concept that was starting to become more discussed and acknowledged in both the literature and within child welfare agencies. In general, this term referred to the number of children in care without a permanent placement and the tendency for them to grow up moving from home to home. This concern led to several articles on the topic and the concept of "concurrent planning". These were read by the leaders at Elgin and provided theoretical support for practice changes (e.g., Hartley, 1984).

Second, there was a high number of adoption breakdowns occurring within the agency – a conservative estimate is that 10-15% of Elgin‘s admissions to care were the result of adoption breakdowns (S. Bailey & J. Hummel, personal communication, April, 2010). Many of these breakdowns were adoption placements of older children that ended because there were inadequate supports and subsidies in place for adoptive families.

Third, there were policies and practices in place across Ontario, including at Elgin, which claimed to be child centered but, in fact, were almost exclusively focused on the needs of adults. At that time, foster care and adoption were viewed as separate programs. Policies actively discouraged and prohibited foster parents from adopting, did not permit couples with more than two children to adopt, and did not permit couples in their 40s to adopt. The entire adoption system was geared more toward meeting the desires of prospective adoptive parents than giving the needs of children the utmost priority. It "felt good" to place a baby for adoption with a couple who was unable to have children of their own (J. Hummel, personal communication, April, 2010).

Finally, as social mores changed and the private adoption sector became accessible, the number of infants available for adoption within Children‘s Aid Societies substantially declined while the number of couples wanting to adopt infants remained very high. The list of couples waiting to adopt in Elgin became unmanageable – there were simply too many people for the numbers of babies available (Bailey, 1994).

This was the context in which the agency‘s foster to adopt program emerged. By 1983, the agency‘s adoption policy had already begun to support some foster parent adoptions. However, it was a particular situation involving an infant with a foster care family that wished to adopt him that pushed the agency‘s leadership toward further change.

This situation involved a two parent family with five children, one of whom had previously been adopted through the agency. In 1986, a four month old infant was brought into care and placed with the foster family. Within three months, the infant was made a ward of the Crown and available for adoption. The agency had approximately 13 couples waiting to adopt infants (Annual General Meeting Report, Family and Children‘s Services of Elgin County, 1986). The agency began making plans to select an appropriate home and move the baby to be adopted.

The foster family advised the agency that they wanted to adopt him. The agency‘s decision remained to move the baby because there were "no special circumstances to keep the child in this home while there are other adoptive applicants waiting" (Recording summary from agency file, 1986). There was a special meeting with the Services Committee of the Board where the foster parents argued that an attachment had developed and that the baby should be placed permanently with them to minimize the risk of separation trauma for the infant. Agency staff continued to maintain that the "child‘s best interests would not be in jeopardy if the child were to be replaced in an adoption home". Staff expressed concern that the agency would "be giving preferential treatment to foster parents over adoptive applicants" (Minutes of the Services Committee, Family and Children‘s Services of Elgin County, January 1987).

After much deliberation, the Board ultimately supported the agency‘s position. The foster parents appealed the decision to the Ministry and threatened further legal action. The agency reversed its decision and allowed the foster parents to adopt the baby stating in a letter to the couple "while we continue to feel that the infant‘s best interests would not be adversely affected by replacement, this position becomes more difficult to defend with the passing of each day. Therefore, I see no merit in implementing such a plan given the time consuming review process proposed by your lawyer and/or threats of legal action. Despite our differences on this issue, we are agreed that you will give the infant a good loving home" (Letter to foster family, December 1986).

While the situation did not result in an immediate change in the agency‘s ongoing practice, it did create discussion and reflection. There were some difficult questions to be asked and answered:

1. Who were the agency‘s primary clients?

2. Whose needs was the agency meeting first?

3. Why was the agency moving children?

In reading the historical documents, it is easy to see the focus on the prospective adoptive parents. The agency was more concerned about the needs of adults, rather than the best interests of the child and continuity of care. The rationale for moving the infant was a belief that the move would not put the child‘s best interest in jeopardy – not what was actually in the child‘s best interest. This thinking and decision making permeated despite an emerging body of literature on attachment theory.


It took some time to formulate the ideas and there was no formal plan that emerged on a single day that was written down to be implemented. Instead, Jim Hummel, the Resource Manager at the agency at the time, took a strong leadership role and "just did it" (J. Hummel, personal communication, April, 2010).

Hummel‘s first step was to close the adoption list. No more families would be accepted to adopt at the agency. He met with the current families on the adoption list and advised them that the only way to adopt children in Elgin was to first foster the children. If the children became available for adoption, they could be adopted by their foster parents. Many of the prospective adoptive parents did not agree and stopped their involvement with the agency. There were community complaints about the program to the Board of Directors and the MPP.

However, a few families stayed on and were willing to try this new program. The agency developed a core and fundamental belief – children were our primary clients and all our decisions needed to be about them and their needs. Lobbying by prospective adoptive couples and other adults did not change that central tenet. Important decisions were made based on continuity of care and stability. In terms of practice, that meant that every person who wanted to adopt through Elgin could only do it through fostering first. If the person did not want to foster first, they were referred to another Children‘s Aid Society or the private sector.

The ability of Jim Hummel to implement this radical departure from the adoption practices of the day is a credit to his progressive thinking. In addition, Elgin was a small agency without either an entrenched adoption department or beliefs about what adoption should be. Once attachment theory and continuity of care discussions were held, it was relatively easy for staff to support the program.


After the model‘s implementation, the agency formalized the program through policy development. It is also important to note that the model exists within an overall agency culture and practice that:

1. Does everything possible to keep children out of care – either by keeping children with birth parents or placing with kin under kinship service;

2. Offers a continuum of supports and services; and

3. Stresses flexibility, responsiveness, and creativity.

When children come into care, the key values and beliefs that influence how they are served include:

1. The child‘s need for continuity of care and freedom from unnecessary placement changes is of paramount importance in all placement decisions;

2. Concurrent planning is possible and in the child‘s best interest; and

3. Foster-to-adopt parents rather than the child assume the risks inherent in foster-to-adopt placements.


The model has evolved over the years. Initially, children were placed in foster-to-adopt homes only when it was determined through case conferences that there was a low prognosis the child would return to his or her biological family. That remained the situation for many years. Practice experience and reflection taught the agency that it was not easy to accurately identify low prognosis situations. Sometimes children were placed in foster homes, circumstances changed, and the children were made Crown wards. The agency then faced difficult decisions if the foster parents were unable or unwilling to adopt. Was it better for the children to move to an adoptive home or remain in their foster home for continuity of care?

In 2005, the practice changed significantly towards placing every child admitted to care under the age of 2 immediately into a foster-to-adopt home. This approach meant that every child under 2 would have the opportunity to have one placement. There appeared to be no downside for the child – either they returned home, or to kin, or were adopted by their foster family. There were more than enough homes available for this age range and it was the easiest to implement. In about 2007, the practice grew to placing every child under the age of 6 who came into care into a foster-to-adopt home. Today, the goal is to place every child under the age of 12 immediately into foster-to-adopt homes.

Recruitment strategies have changed significantly. The agency actively recruits foster-to-adopt families. When prospective adoptive parents contact the agency, they are told about the program, its philosophy, and its values. The vast majority of candidates agree to proceed to the next step of Parent Resources for Information, Development and Education (PRIDE) pre-service training. When prospective foster families contact the agency to foster, they are asked to consider being approved as an adoptive home as well. The majority agree to this. This practice avoids a delay when a foster family wishes to adopt a child placed in their care and needs an updated Structured Analysis Family Evaluation (SAFE) completed.


When foster-to-adopt becomes the norm within an agency and a community, the benefits to children are enormous. For nearly every child admitted to care, the goal is reunification with their biological family or extended family members. Foster-to-adopt parents know this and are part of the team that actively promotes and encourages reunification to occur. When reunification is not successful and children are made Crown wards and available for adoption, they remain in their placement and adoption with their foster family proceeds. One child, one placement.

Ideally, there is no need to ever search for an adoptive family because, by the time the child is legally free for adoption, the child is already with their family. There is no need to move the child. The child is not required to wait while the agency locates and selects a potential adoptive family.


Staff spend considerable time educating a variety of people including all prospective foster and adoptive parents, new staff, and other Children‘s Aid Societies. Some agencies now use a foster-to-adopt model in limited situations. However, foster-to-adopt as a practice for every child coming into care is not the normal practice in Ontario. Our agency regularly encounters a lack of information and misunderstandings about the program and how it works. We believe the time commitment is worth it for the children.

Emotionally charged situations can and do occur. The agency has provided a high level of support to all foster-to-adopt families, including grief and loss groups and EAP services if necessary. Grief and loss are a reality of the program and there needs to be a sensitive and timely response. Having identified that as a challenge, it is also important to note that the agency would much rather support our foster-to-adopt families through the difficult times than require children in care to move homes and experience separation, grief, and loss, sometimes numerous times. Strong foster-to-adopt families are better able to handle the emotions and resolve them than a child in care is able to.

The model also has had an impact on those foster families in the community that want to foster in the traditional manner. Foster homes are now rarely used for children under the age of 12. This has created a situation where the agency has some excellent foster care resources that are not being fully utilized.


Throughout the years, many criticisms and misunderstandings have been levied at Elgin‘s foster-to-adopt program. The top four are outlined below as well as Elgin‘s response:

1. “It’s too emotionally difficult for foster-to-adopt families and there won’t be enough people who will take the risk.”

Our experience has consistently demonstrated that there are more than enough people who will take the risk for the sake of Elgin‘s children in care. The vast majority of people who contact the agency wanting to adopt agree to the foster-to-adopt program. It is emotionally difficult at times but foster-to-adopt families maintain it is worth it for the children. They eloquently express that they are the adults who can handle grief, pain, loss, and fear much better than the child who has come into care and has negatively experienced so much in his young life already.

2. “Once foster parents adopt, they will stop fostering/adopting and you can’t maintain enough homes.”

Elgin is currently in a unique position of having more homes than we need. This provides us with choice for children who enter care.

3. “The foster-to-adopt parents will not work with the birth family and will sabotage reunification efforts. They will oppose any reunification plans in court.”

Foster-to-adopt parents know that for nearly every child, the primary goal is reunification with their family and that they are the "backup plan" if reunification does not work. There are circumstances that arise where people have different opinions but the responsibility lies with the adults involved to discuss the issues and come to problem resolution. Foster-to-adopt parents are required to participate in the PRIDE pre-service training which incorporates adoption and Elgin‘s unique model throughout. One of the core competencies of PRIDE is supporting relationships between children and their birth families.

4. “Judges will think we’re pre-determining the outcome of a case.”

When the program becomes the norm for every child admitted to care regardless of the circumstances, the concern is eliminated – the agency cannot pre-determine that every child admitted to care is going to be made a Crown ward and available for adoption. Because the program has been in existence for so long, this issue does not exist in the Elgin community.


In order to evaluate the success of the program, three key outcomes were selected:

1. Children experience one placement from admission to care to adoption finalization.

2. Children who are legally available for adoption are adopted.

3. Adoption breakdowns are reduced.

The results are presented below:

1. How many adopted children experienced one placement?

Information was collected on all children who had experienced adoption in the last five years (n=58). For comparison purposes, a similar sized Children‘s Aid Society without an identified foster-to-adopt program generously allowed us to review the completed adoptions within their agency in the last five years (n=74). Fifty percent of Elgin‘s adopted children had only one placement from admission to care to adoption finalization compared with 21.6% of the children from the comparison agency. The comparison between the two agencies is seen in the chart below. The difference between the agencies is significant (χ2 (2) = 7.47, p <.05).


2. How many children who are legally available for adoption are adopted?

While we did not gather data from the comparison agency on this question, there is data comparing numbers of children available for adoption in Elgin over time. On April 1, 2005, there were 16 children legally available for adoption. All 16 children were age 12 or younger. Of those 16 children, half of them have grown up in foster care. Only 50% of children age 12 or younger who were legally available for adoption were adopted.

On April 1, 2010, there were 13 children legally available for adoption. Of the 13 children, four of them were 12 years or younger. All four of the children are already with their foster-to-adopt families and the adoptions are proceeding. One hundred percent of children age 12 or younger legally available for adoption have been or are in the process of being adopted. Eight of the 13 children are the same children from 2005 (now all teenagers) and there is one additional teen. This finding indicates that the changes to Elgin‘s model in placing every child under 12 in a foster-to-adopt home, in conjunction with the Transformation Agenda, and a renewed focus on permanency, have been successful in achieving adoptions. Elgin‘s children no longer grow up in foster care.

3. Have adoption breakdowns been reduced?

Prior to the model‘s implementation, 10–15% of all admissions to care were the result of adoption breakdowns. This number is consistent with other research and statistics available (Livingston-Smith, Howard, Garnier, & Ryan, 2006; Rushton, 1999). Following implementation of the model, the number of adoption breakdowns diminished significantly (S. Bailey & J. Hummel, personal communications, 2010). Over the past five years, none of the admissions to care were the result of adoption breakdowns for children placed by Elgin through the foster-to-adopt model.


This paper sought to provide some preliminary education and information about 25 years of the successful use of a foster-to-adopt model. Its current state offers a very different experience for children entering care – one continuous placement. If children are unable to return home, they remain where they are and adoption proceeds. There is no searching for an adoptive family, no trying to select the right one for an older child, no change in schools, community, friends, or supports.

This model develops naturally from the attachment literature that has consistently found that young children involved with the child welfare system develop insecure attachment relationships with their biological parents that affect their ability to form stable intimate relationships later in life (Crittenden, 1995; Main, & Hesse, 1990). It has been suggested that it may be the early attachment relationship between the biological parent and the child that may help to explain the intergenerational nature of maltreatment (Mennen, & O‘Keefe, 2005).

When children must be removed from the biological family, it becomes even more important to ensure that they learn the relationship skills that will be so crucial later in life. "Felt security" comes from more than a stable placement. Schofield, Thoburn, Howell, and Dickens (2007) argue that the welfare of the child in out-of-home care depends on the quality of the relationships established between the caregiver and the child. Therefore, Mennen and O‘Keefe (2005) advocate placing children, especially infants, in permanent homes as soon as possible in order to promote healthy relationship development. When children are moved frequently, the opportunity to develop secure attachment relationships. These points are supported by Ponciano (2010) who found that attachment security was higher in infants who were in foster-to-adopt homes than in traditional foster homes. Specifically, she found that foster mothers in foster-to-adopt homes were more sensitive and attentive to children‘s signals and needs than mothers in traditional foster homes. Ponciano (2010) speculates that this may be due to a greater investment in the relationship by the foster-to-adopt mother. greatly diminishes.

These points are supported by Ponciano (2010) who found that attachment security was higher in infants who were in foster-to-adopt homes than in traditional foster homes. Specifically, she found that foster mothers in foster-to-adopt homes were more sensitive and attentive to children‘s signals and needs than mothers in traditional foster homes. Ponciano (2010) speculates that this may be due to a greater investment in the relationship by the foster-to-adopt mother.

Maternal investment has also been suggested as a factor in the maintenance of problem behaviours in children who reside in traditional foster homes. McAuley and Trew (2000) found that, contrary to expectation, children with behaviour problems in foster home settings showed no improvement over a two year period. In addition, they found that it was the foster mother‘s rating of behaviour problems at the four month mark of the placement that was related to placement disruption two years later. McAuley and Trew (2000) interpreted this finding as a lack of long term commitment on the part of traditional foster mothers.

Taken together, the research evidence and the results of the current project argue strongly for a foster-to-adopt model in which the children are afforded early, stable placements with committed families where strong relationships can flourish. For this reason, within the Elgin foster-to-adopt model, very close attention is paid to unnecessary placement changes. We believe the system needs to shift to make things more stable for children; even when the shifting may make things more difficult for the adults involved. Today, we stay very true to the roots of the model – the child is the primary person that we are here to serve.

The potential is enormous for Ontario‘s children if this program is implemented province wide. Children tend to be older by the time they become available for adoption. Adoptive families are often more difficult to find for older children. This is partly why there are so many children in Ontario currently without an adoptive family. The alternative to this situation is to have children placed with a family at a younger age and let them stay if they cannot go home.

The current direction of the province to highlight and recruit adoptive families, hold Adoption Resource Exchanges, link adoption to infertility, create a centralized adoption agency, and place children for adoption once they are legally free for adoption, does not serve Ontario‘s children well. Our evidence shows it is possible for children to enter care and experience one continuous placement. Our resources, time, and energy need to be re-directed toward recruiting interchangeable foster-to-adopt families, explaining and promoting the model, and actively encouraging foster families to adopt the children they care for. Training, education, homestudies, and support need to be entirely geared to foster-to-adopt families.

Children do not need foster homes; they do not need adoptive homes. Children need homes where they belong, where they are attached, where they can stay if they are unable to return to their biological families.

The reasons for not taking this approach are grounded in adult problems and a lack of information and misunderstandings about the program. The adults in Ontario‘s child welfare system can and should figure out and assume all the inherent risks in this approach so the children do not have to.


Dawn Flegel, MSW, has spent the past 18 years in Child Welfare in a variety of roles in the Intake, Protection Services, and Children in Care. Since 2004, she has been the Director of Services, overseeing all clinical services at Family and Children‘s Services of St. Thomas and Elgin. Dawn is a passionate advocate for the foster-to-adopt service model.

Deborah Ellison received her PHD in Developmental Psychology from the University of Western Ontario. She has a background in attachment theory and developmental disabilities. Deborah has worked in a clinical setting managing several programs for children with developmental disabilities and mental health disorders. In 2006, she moved to child welfare consulting agencies on quality assurance and research. Deborah is currently the Quality Assurance Consultant at Family and Children‘s Services of St. Thomas and Elgin.


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Rushton, A. (1999). Adoption as a placement choice: Arguments and evidence. (Maudsley Discussion Paper No. 9). London: Maudsley Publications.

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