Karen Kartusch, Regional Adoption Manager, and Candace Tokiwa, Adoption Worker, talk about their work in public adoption.
What exactly does an adoption worker do?
The work involves a lot more than most people realize. It’s a huge process that starts with getting to know a child right from when they first come into care. We work in partnership with the child’s worker and ongoing protection workers, when they are still trying to accomplish the primary goal of a Children’s Aid Society (CAS), which is reuniting a child with their family. But since we know that nothing can be predicted in child welfare we also work on a second plan, in case the child is not able to return to their biological family. We call this concurrent planning.
Adoption workers are also responsible for recruiting families, training families through our PRIDE training program, conducting HOME studies that evaluate whether families are able to take on this parenting role, managing families that are waiting for children, matching families to waiting children, and supporting children and youth once they are placed, through a period known as adoption probation. And when adoptions are finalized, we also continue to support families with various post-adoption supports.
What would you say is the most challenging part of your work?
When we talk about matching families to the needs of child, what we really mean is that a big job and responsibility for us is to translate for families what the child’s needs will look like as they grow up. We have a lot of families that inquire about adoption but there is a disconnect from the reality of public adoption when people first call. They want children who will easily fit into their family, whereas we are looking for families that will adapt to meet the needs of the kids. Our challenge as adoption workers is helping those families understand that there is a reason that children and youth are in care. They have been exposed to drugs and alcohol, abuse and neglect, and there is a strong likelihood that these traumatic experiences will impact their development, if not now, then later when they start school. But people often want a healthy baby so it’s hard to match them. It’s challenging work.
The beauty is that with time and education and assessment most families we work with can develop their capacity to take on some very challenging children. But, unfortunately, some families really struggle to get there – it’s not what they set out for or envisioned when they first contacted us. At the same time as translating for families what it’s going to take to parent their child we also make it clear that there are many supports to help them. Nobody expects them to do it on their own.
The One Vision One Voice project has emphasized the importance of matching African Canadian children and youth with families that share their background. Is this another aspect of the matching work that you do?
This is front and center in our work. We understand now more than ever how crucial it is for African Canadian children and youth to be placed with families of the same race and culture, and that African Canadian LGBTQ children and youth are placed in homes that support their racial, gender, and sexual identities. It is critical that African Canadian children are supported to develop a positive identity as they grow and mature, particularly as they become acutely aware of social differences and inequalities. This is a priority for us in the adoption planning that we do and often involves us reaching out to our partner agencies throughout the province in our efforts to find the right match.
Critics of public adoption say that there are thousands of children waiting to be adopted who never find families. What is your response to this?
One of our communication challenges is explaining to people that adoption is only one of many permanency outcomes for our children and youth who are crown wards. The community talks about the 5,000 crown wards “sitting” in our foster care system, believing that these children and youth do not have a permanency plan and that all of them are awaiting adoption. This is misleading. What people don’t understand is that many of these crown wards are actually living with kin, or biological family members, for example, and so the plan is not to look for an unknown adoptive family for them. This 5,000 number also includes the hundreds of crown wards that have already been placed for adoption across Ontario but whose adoptions have not yet been finalized in court.
A second communication challenging is explaining to the public that while adoption may be the best permanency outcome for many kids, adoption is by no means a quick process. Adoption planning takes time, especially now that more and more adoptions involve “openness” relationships with a child’s biological family.
We do agree that improvements to the adoption system are needed in Ontario, such as addressing inconsistent practices across CASs, and other challenges that come with a fragmented system. We want our adoption numbers to go up also. In response to this challenge, Kawartha-Haliburton CAS, Highland Shores CAS, and Durham CAS have entered into an innovative regional adoption shared-service program. The goal of this regional partnership is to provide a more cohesive, equitable, and responsive adoption experience right from the front door for families wanting to adopt and to expand our capacity to plan adoption services for our children and youth.
Can you describe the kids you are working with right now who are available for adoption?
Most of the kids – and this is something people don’t understand – have been exposed prenatally to drugs and alcohol, and in many cases their parents have mental health challenges and there is a risk of the child inheriting them. We also have many siblings who want to be adopted together, and older children. It’s not all one population – it really ranges from day to day, month to month. I have kids whose ages range from zero to 16. I have several toddlers right now who have been exposed to heavy drug use prenatally. But I also recently placed a 16-year old for adoption – it was wonderful.
What other learning curves should an adoptive family expect?
They will need to understand the current legislation around adoption which includes provisions to allow “openness” with their birth families. It’s no longer the case in adoption that crown wards don’t have access to anybody from their past, and adoptive parents have to know this coming in the door. We provide a lot of education and pre-work to support this understanding.
With “openness” we are looking for meaningful relationships that are beneficial for the child. I have families that go out several times a year and pick up the birth mother to get a Christmas photo with Santa Claus taken, and then they go for lunch. The adoptive family has embraced that parent and accept that relationship because it is important for the child. It’s also a gift for the adoptive parent, which they may not feel at the time, because it is work. When you’re adopting, you’re opening your life to that child’s family.
How does an adoption worker help support “openness” in an adoption?
The adoption worker has to do a lot of pre-work with both the birth family and the adoptive family. We don’t want to set up the biological family to expect certain things only to be disappointed later. And we don’t want to set up an adoption family for any misunderstandings either. So a lot of what an adoptive worker will do as they prepare a child to move to adoption, is also to prepare adults to move on, and have a new relationship that looks different from what an access relationship might have looked like previously.
Your job sounds difficult and emotional. What would you say is the most challenging part about your job?
When we see a family having difficulty after they have adopted. As a worker there is a sense of ownership and responsibility for the success of the adoption. Often families don’t admit they are struggling until very far along in their adoption journey, when they’ve lost confidence. Parenting is not easy and in these situations they are becoming parents in a very short period of time. When families reach this point I am there to help them. Depending on the situation, I may stay involved for two years providing support. I stay in the picture until families are confident, and they feel they have what they need.
And what would you describe as the best part of your job as an adoption worker?
It’s wonderful to be part of finalizing an adoption. One of the most rewarding moments is to see a parent finally claim the child as their own. Seeing the children and youth that I place for adoption finally have that sense of being “home” is also really fulfilling. I love to see families succeed.