Canada’s 30,000 Adoptable Children

**This is an article that Julia and I recently read in the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s magazine, Faith Today. It really struck a chord with us, and I think it’s worth sharing. If you have a heart for adoption, this is especially for you.

Link to the Faith Today magazine online, click here.

By Bruce and Tracy Clemenger


What can we do to be culturally transformative and care for tens of thousands of parentless Canadian children? The policy issues are pressing, as is the daunting task of transforming how Canadian society views our country’s children.

Canada could fill a stadium with the number of children who, through no fault of their own, are in government care waiting to come home through the process of adoption. There are an estimated 30,000 adoptable children across Canada who are waiting and aging in a system that is fragmented, exhausted and lacking national coordination. They also face a mainstream mentality that holds a pejorative understanding of who they are and who they can become.

The inability of Canada’s child welfare systems to bridge that gap for those children between waiting and coming home is disturbing. Domestic adoption is a provincial not federal government jurisdiction, and the piece meal system that exists in Canada today lacks national standards – it differs province by province and even county by county. Further, as it struggles with limited resources and faces growing needs, it has become fatigued.

This is not to say that the people working in the system aren’t doing their jobs. To the contrary, Canada’s child welfare workers are increasingly burning the midnight oil. They are on the front lines, seeing the trends and changing profiles of families and children’s needs. They attend as best they can to those children who come into care and seek to satisfy their ultimate need for permanent, stable and loving homes. They too don’t want to see children wait.

The question is not “if” but “how” to improve and reform the system for better outcomes in protection and recruitment.

Some provinces have commissioned studies to examine systemic deficiencies in protection that in the worst cases have seen children abused or dying in the system. Some of the proposed solutions are indeed being made.

Sometimes steps in the right direction are found in the best practices of non-governmental organizations. For example, a key concern in protection is being successfully addressed in an approach to fostering practised in Ontario at Bridgeway Family Homes.

Patricia Aitchison, its manager of foster care services, explains: “We customize a care plan that addresses the needs of the child through equipping and supporting caregivers.”

The Bridgeway approach ensures that “foster families, who are the primary healing agents, are not left to fend for themselves until something goes awry.”

This vision started 22 years ago with a Mennonite couple who were concerned about families doing foster care.

Unfortunately, even after such a vision has borne fruit locally, that doesn’t mean it automatically becomes standard practice nationwide.

Other practices sometimes fail, not for lack of good ideas, but for lack of funding and resourcing. Consider the issue of recruiting parents to adopt. A major marketing campaign to Canada’s compassionate population could make a huge difference, but lack of funding prevents it.

Will British Columbia’s 1,300 adoptable children find homes this November when their needs are buried in an ad on a government website? It has taken that method more than five years to find homes for 1,471 children. Yes, it works, eventually – for some. But it means some children will be waiting for years. And in the life of a child, even one day longing for home is an eternity.

Children’s agencies are doing the best they can with what resources they have, but we should not assume they will do all the work for us as a society.

Thankfully, there is an emerging consensus on the need for change in the way Canada addresses these issues as a society. Key reports on systemic weaknesses and strengths, supplemented by dialogue with the child welfare community, are making clear an entire labyrinth of policy issues in protection and recruitment – and thus the need for a collaborative national vision and standard. In fact, these are long overdue.

House Committee Study on Adoption

There is good news: an opportunity to come together at a national level has appeared on the horizon. In November 2010 the House of Commons is scheduled to study adoption practices. This study includes public, private and international adoption processes as well.

When the committee looks specifically at the public system, how it cares for and gets its children homes, they may be shocked to learn about the cost, ineffectiveness, lack of national cohesion and overall unsustainability

And they may discover a more unsettling reality: that children waiting in the system are but the tip of an iceberg of issues facing all Canadian children.

With increased pressures put upon Canadian families, parenting skills in our country are being eroded. Individualism, family breakdown and poverty take their toll. Is it a coincidence that in only five years, the estimated number of children needing homes has gone from 20,000 to 30,000, according to research publicized by the Adoption Council of Canada?

To produce the best report, the committee needs to hear not just from commissioners, child welfare workers and researchers, but also directly from children inside the system – their insights, experiences and dreams -and from adoptive families. This novel approach would go a long way towards improving our care.

Societal Change

Imagine waiting for the beauty and innocence of your childhood to be cradled, for your abilities and dreams to be nurtured in the warmth and stability of a loving “forever home.” Imagine dreaming of something big like the Olympics, an exciting career or travel.

Every child has the seeds of wonderful possibilities, but it takes a permanent, stable, secure environment even to allow those seeds to sprout.

A major reason so many children are still waiting is the un-examined social myths we accept about adoptable children. Few of us may be surprised that negative stereotypes about adoption are “out there” in society.

But recognizing just how close to home they really are can be uncomfortable.

In seeking a fair understanding, we will find that the voices of children themselves, as persons with their own insights, are significant. Indeed, they can tell us about how we as a society are measuring up.

For us this truth hit home exactly that way, when our daughter came home from kindergarten one day in 2005. (We have her blessing to tell this story.)

Picture a happy-go-lucky, five-year-old coming home to tenderly announce: “Mom, you need to write a book about adoption because there are a lot of dumb, stupid and mean children at school who don’t know about God’s love – you know, God adopting us and this is what we naturally do on earth.”

We had known about our society’s derogatory perspective of adoption, but now we were seeing it from her point of view, of her listening to kids chat at the classroom craft table.

We had known that toxic children’s narratives about adoption were common in everything from Dickens to Disney to TV. In fact, we had deliberately shielded her from them.

In our family we instead introduced and affirmed the term “adoption” in its sacred sense of being created in God’s image, being part of a family and a valued member of society.

As she reached school age, we had prepared her for other views about adoption by affirming, in an age-appropriate way, the simple fact that she would be meeting new friends who might not share her perspective on important matters.

So what surprised us that day in 2005 wasn’t the negative views, but that the minds of other five-year-olds were already saturated in them. Later, we also learned of the lack of positive and healthy resources available to schools about adoption.

We could tell from the typically stalwart way our daughter related the story that what her friends were saying wasn’t emotionally or mentally sticking to her. Thanks to her upbringing the mainstream negative perspective of adoption was foreign to her. Meanwhile, her friends had no idea that she was one of “those” children they so “factually” discussed (that shock would come years later in Grade Three, when she decided to raise it).

Our daughter basically looked at ignorance in the face of her friends without being victimized by the experience. To the contrary, the adoption savvy she expressed that day stemmed foremost from a heartfelt empathy for her little friends.

This experience, although mild, can non the less begin to indicate what some children face out there.

Adoption as “Plan A”

How can we as a society start addressing our negative perspectives on adoption?

Perhaps we can start by noting a decision to adopt is not always a “Plan B,” as many people negatively refer to it, assuming pregnancy risks or infertility “forced” a couple to settle for “second-best.”

In our case, the two of us chose adoption as a primary choice in family planning prior to marriage and as an expression of our Christian worldview. Our daughter knows and feels this.

She basks freely, as does our whole family, in the wonder and mystery of a biblical truth: God is adoptive by nature and He chose adoption as a way to express Himself on Earth.

She also knows that after we were married, we wrote to Today’s Child, the syndicated newspaper column on adoption, to find out what it takes to qualify as government-approved parents and to keep a paper trail about our intentions for our future children.

As parents, we affirm with her a deep, empowering truth: God holds us – and all the pieces of all our lives. He has a unique purpose which He is unfolding for her life. This same truth holds for all people.

All parents will tell you that when that day comes and you hold a child that has become yours – adoptive or not-places of the heart unzip and become larger. This miracle, some would argue, can be experienced in even more profound ways through adoption.

As our daughter matures she is realizing that she may meet well-meaning people who are not adopted and don’t understand or those who ask “snoopy” questions about the particulars of her homecoming story. She knows she doesn’t have to respond or “sweat it.” She’s free to focus on the busy job of being a kid.

The good news for those who ascribe to the Christian worldview is that there is always opportunity for healthy introspection about cultural values and what Christ has to say about them. This means facing the reality that sometimes there is more culture guiding our thoughts than truths about the value of all children than we’d like to think.

Levelling the Field

In our experience, given a community whose core identity is found in adoption and loving others regardless of genetic ties, we were shocked in those pre-parenting years by people who repeatedly tried to talk us out of adoption.

The objections and fears came from non-adoptive people and included everything from ugly warnings against getting a so-called “genetically imperfect” child (as if they or any person could be genetically perfect) to others that assumed only adoptive families have challenges (as if only genetically-tied families are permanently ready for their perfect photo op).

Others patronized our commitment as a “nice rescue thing.” Still others expressed their fears about children abandoning parents for birth relatives, as if all genetically-tied families are intimately intact. Some even argued that adoption was not biblical.

This social climate persisted right up to our daughter’s homecoming. Then came a whole new set of assumptions that moved from objections to comments about supposedly “having” to take the “last resort.”

This other – even darker – side was alarming, and at the same time, as parents now rearing a child, it was an enlightening lens on the situation. Here was this absolutely beautiful child of God in the midst of so many people who couldn’t see beyond the veil to what heaven looked like. At least, unlike some couples, we had unwavering, positive support from the people who mattered most.

We wish our experience was an anomaly to an otherwise open-door, open-home practice among Canadians when it comes to adoption, but it’s not. And the gap between knowing and doing adoption isn’t closing.

When you listen to members of adoptive families, the fears and objections of the general non-adopting population are there from sea to sea. Agencies helping with recruitment say it’s time to take them head on.

Could our culture be in the grip of a cult-like fixation on genetic ties first, genetic ties best – an attitude Christ repeatedly spoke out against?

This widespread low view of adoption isn’t just alive and well in Canada’s coffee shops, churches or schools. Sadly, it can encroach upon those inside the system as well.

Consider the experience of Albertans Tom and Esther Olfesrt, who have 10 children, six of whom came home through the process of adoption. They remember a social worker sharing her view of one of their children. The chances of the child growing into a healthy, well-adjusted young man were supposedly “zero.”

“We told ourselves we refuse to take the ‘no hope,’ but we will certainly take the child,” recalls Esther. “For the first two years I cradled his head in my hands every night and claimed his development for the Lord as he slept in bed.”

The Olferts thwarted the negative predictions by sound parenting, wisdom and prayer. Their son is now attending a post-secondary college and is a budding leader within their family and community.

Such successful stories about couples choosing adoption just for the love of it or the successful outcomes of the children play out every day in real life, but unfortunately, like so many other things, they often have not registered in Canadian mainstream thinking. (For more on the Olferts, see the online version of this issue at for an extra article by Jeff Dewsbury.)

To level the playing field, we need a new awareness in society. This can start with each of us thinking more carefully about how children and adoption are discussed in the stories all around us.

Media Storytelling

In a media-saturated world we are inundated with messages that appear as facts. Without some level of media savvy, we can find ourselves forming impressions without really knowing why. That’s why the abundance of negative stories of adoption is so problematic.

Such stories often quote welfare workers speaking from the perch of child protection and at a very vulnerable juncture in a child’s life. Or they quote a transient medical professional who has been brought in briefly to make a general speculation about a child’s so-called “chances.” Even when members of adoptive families are profiled or do actually get to speak, they are usually used to prop up a pejorative and patronizing view.

“When all we hear in the popular press on adoption is a Hollywood profile on adopting, adoption is actually stigmatized into an oddity. It sits outside of being a normal function of societal care,” says Lorna Dueck of Listen Up, a TV program that examines current affairs from a Christian perspective.

Media stories “end up focusing on the social and medical history of some adoptees or their adoptive parents, and we don’t get to the real issue that levels the playing field of how we tell stories, especially about vulnerable children,” says Dueck. (See her“ Lessons From the Past,” page 20.)

When it comes to adoption, how we tell stories as a society, as adults and as children, requires a fresh approach. Actually describing a child, especially a child in the system, also requires serious consideration.

Defining Special Needs

Pat Convery, who has worked in child welfare for over 35 years and is now executive director of the Adoption Council of Ontario, reports that there are 17,000 kids in foster care in Ontario alone and 9,000 who could be adopted (children whom the state has no active plans to return to their birth parents). Such numbers suggest how important it is to unpack terms, especially the label “special needs,” that get so easily tossed around.

Convery explains that “special needs” can mean many things. It may be used to refer to older children, where “old” means more than four or six years of age depending on the jurisdiction. Or it can refer to children needing to be paired as a sibling group, to children from cultural minorities, to those who may have experienced abuse or neglect, or to those who have been removed unharmed from environments deemed “at risk.”

“Special needs” is also applied to children with medical diagnoses or merely suspected medical conditions, for example, when the birth parents or grandparents have a suspected or medically diagnosed condition. In some jurisdictions, like Ontario, “special needs” can simply be applied toach i Id who has had to move at least once to get into foster care. Given the myriad of meanings ascribed to this term, it is no wonder that many couples who might otherwise give serious consideration to adoption will say they’ve thought about it but eventually dropped the idea altogether.

And yet at home and settled in, adoptive families are doing just fine. They’ve gleaned a wisdom that comes from having sorted through what’s relevant and what’s not.

Church in the Public Square

The role of Canada’s churches and Christian humanitarian organizations in the public square are significant. As a pool of volunteers and activists, we are second to none. Christian communities must continually seek ways to exemplify the core doctrine that all humans are made in God’s image and possess inherent dignity and worth. This doctrine, along side other core doctrines such as justice and mercy, affects all aspects of our caring.

The role for Canada’s churches must be based on solid teaching with sound exegesis and sensitivity to cultural application. The Christian worldview is about agape love, not rescues, not filling voids or seeking status. And this love isn’t an option either. There are some firm and dreadful warnings in the Bible about not embracing others – embracing children properly, in particular.

Canada’s churches can offer support to agencies by connecting at ground zero in some simple but profound ways.

Convery, back at the Adoption Council of Ontario, speaks very positively of the One Church, One Child program started in Chicago in 1981 by Rev. George Clements.

Clements’ idea was brilliant in its simplicity: invite each church to commit to welcoming a child in government care. Give the child rides to Sunday worship, to other church programs, to the occasional birthday party, and help him or her to be part of a community.

Connecting with the children changed lives forever. All of a sudden kids were being adopted. “And you know who most of them are adopted by?” laughs Convery. “The volunteer driver, the person who says, ‘Sure, I can give them a ride, no big deal.’ “

Clearly, once a child is welcomed as a real flesh-and-blood member of the community, the myths and ideas of who the child may be melt away, and the child becomes seen for who he or she is – “just a kid.”

A whole package of love is worthy of unveiling. Churches can pray for a renewed heart and mind towards all of Canada’s children. Churches who already pray for their government ministers can pray especially for those Members of Parliament who will be studying adoption and children’s care issues during this coming year.

Churches can also invite a local agency representative to come to a Sunday morning service perhaps every November to speak about what the agency is doing. Churches can make room for them to leave a poster and offer to distribute the agency newsletter to congregants year round.

We have heard of church communities that support snow-suit campaigns at their local Children’s Aid Societies and of grandmothers who hold quilting bees so there may be a hand made gift for every child leaving care. Some churches even come together to hold fundraising events to assist couples in paying the expenses of private or international adoption.

We know of one church that held a Christmas dinner for all the staff and volunteers of their local Children’s Aid Society to say thank you for the work they do, to pray for them and be available to help. It made an amazing difference.

And let’s not forget to celebrate. International adoptive parents Jeff and Melinda Dewsbury of British Columbia were given a surprise “waiting shower” by their friends-as were we! (See also “New Digs for a Deserving Family,” page 12.) Our family also proudly remembers the day our first child came home from the process of adoption. Staff and affiliate leaders at The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) literally smothered our girl with flowers and gifts and beautiful cards expressing love for and over her. The same followed for our second child.

Towards a National Strategy

For several years now, in quiet conversations with various people and groups inside and outside church communities, we have been talking and thinking through the labyrinth of policy and social challenges, and ways in which we can all do right by Canada’s children.

The EFC, especially through its Centre for Faith and Public Life, has consistently promoted the protection of children in law and public policy. The work of the EFC transcends political personalities and election outcomes. The EFC’s vital role in the public square provides a stable vision of a quality of life over generations.

The EFC mandate is also to gather people together to investigate what they can do better together than alone. As an umbrella association, the EFC is bringing together individuals and a variety of organizations this November to explore collaborative long-term initiatives for all children and discuss strategies forgetting Canada’s adoptable children home. And the EFC will also be closely tracking the policy work of the House of Commons committee looking at adoption.

Our personal goal is to speak not just to policy issues, but to collaborate widely to generate a surplus of government-approved healthy homes waiting for children. Children should not have to wait to come home, nor should they grow old without a mom and dad of their own. If there is to be a waiting list, let it be a host of families waiting to welcome a child home.

How we tell stories, how we practise love and life, how the state, the media, individuals and families and church communities care for Canada’s children – all of us can do better.

Bruce and Tracy Clemenger are co-editors of an upcoming book and study guide, A Mom and Dad for Me: Coming Home Through the Process of Adoption, by 35 Canadian adoptive families and others who work with Canadian children, to be published in 2011. Bruce Clemenger is president of the EFC. If you or your organization have ministry plans related to adoption, or you want to share your adoption story, let us know at