Is our system of child adoption good enough?

Hundreds of couples seeking children get discouraged by waiting or red tape Hundreds more are finally rejected without appeal on debatable grounds Thousands of children are kept from waiting homes for religious reasons

ROBERT WALKER September 26 1959

Is our system of child adoption good enough?

Hundreds of couples seeking children get discouraged by waiting or red tape Hundreds more are finally rejected without appeal on debatable grounds Thousands of children are kept from waiting homes for religious reasons

ROBERT WALKER September 26 1959

Is our system of child adoption good enough?

Hundreds of couples seeking children get discouraged by waiting or red tape Hundreds more are finally rejected without appeal on debatable grounds Thousands of children are kept from waiting homes for religious reasons



A fairly well-to-do couple in their mid-thirties sailed happily into the Protestant Children's Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto one morning last spring. They hadn't the slightest doubt they were there for a few last formalities before they adopted a baby.

A likeable young caseworker who had led them through a seven-month examination process had returned to her home in England. A different worker, an older woman, smilingly ushered the couple to her office. If she had then leaned across her desk and slapped them both with a wet towel, they couldn’t have been more shocked. She announced regretfully that they couldn’t have a baby after all.

The husband, who is a radio announcer, recalled, T wasn’t angry. 1 was too stunned. I had a silly impulse to say. Testing, testing, one two three?’

"My wife lost her first baby and can't have another. Her obstetrician wrote us a letter of recommendation to the Children's Aid. A psychiatrist, who once treated me, told them we should have a child as soon as possible. Our first caseworker seemed to agree. She even said she was sorry she couldn’t be here to pick out our baby.

"the reasons the second woman offered for rejecting us didn’t make sense — we were ‘too happy together to risk breaking it up with a third person.’ ”

Social workers, in great demand, change jobs more often than most professional groups. It's possible this couple would

continued on next page

“By what standard does an agencj choose some and reject others?

have a child by now if they’d been able to keep their first caseworker. No lone worker makes the decision but. in the words of one adoption supervisor, “Caseworkers, in staff meetings, fight like lawyers for couples in w horn they believe.”

A different agency might have given the couple a child. The Protestant Children’s Aid in Montreal, for instance, is outspoken about "taking more risks" than other agencies. The husband believes they’d have been accepted if he’d concealed the fact of his previous psychiatric treatment.

This couple feel they weren’t told the real reason for rejection. Possibly, their inexperienced first caseworker was at fault in suggesting they'd been accepted before it was so. In any case, incidents like this are common enough to call for an appraisal of adoption practice in Canada. About eight hundred couples will be turned down by agencies this year and more than twice that many will withdraw applications voluntarily, discouraged by the waiting or the stiff requirements.

Last year Canadian judges signed final adoption orders for 11,641 children. With the current upward trend, about twelve thousand couples will succeed in adopting children this year.

About a quarter of these — three thousand adoptions — result from private placements. Without any agency as gobetween, orphaned children might be adopted by relatives. An illegitimate child may legally be located for a couple by a doctor or lawyer in this country — as long as he accepts no money — although professional social workers frown on this practice.

The other nine thousand placements are made by provincial departments of welfare or by what may best be called semiprivate but “recognized” agencies, one hundred and forty of them. Most are called children’s aid societies and are descended from philanthropic organizations of voluntary, amateur workers. These days, all workers get paid and the need for welfare work is beyond the means of pure philanthropy. The “recognition” is usually financial — grants from community chests and from municipal and provincial governments to a board of directors — since these agencies aren't officially licensed in Canada.

These societies may do all the placing, as in Ontario, or the sole agency may be the provincial department of welfare, as in

Protestant agencies haven’t got enough children; Catholics haven’t enough homes

One reason for a long wait may be agencies’ thorough child testing

Saskatchewan, or the work may be divided between the provincial government and the voluntary societies, as in British Columbia. It makes little difference to the mechanics of adoption.

These agencies all have children in their care, but not all children are available for adoption; some are there temporarily because a father is in prison or a destitute mother is sick. Of those that are available for adoption at least eighty percent are the infants of unmarried mothers who turned for help to the agencies. Most of the other adoptable children have been taken from hopelessly broken homes. A handful are orphans.

Children s aid societies, children's service centres, child-welfare bureaus and provincial child-welfare departments have one common policy. The child is the client. They seek homes for children, never children for homes. Not even for a Winnipeg doctor who once called an agency after a patient’s child died. He asked it another could be rushed right over. It's never done that way.

If you want to adopt one of these children, you begin with an intake interview,’ probably by telecontinued on page 71

continued on page 71

Is our system of child adoption good enough? continued from page 17

“Jf only we could suspend religion for a while — just until we place all the children”

phone, and then visit the agency. After a get-acquainted session, sometimes in company with several other couples, where you can ask all your questions, you’re assigned your own caseworker, usually a girl hired out of college for seventy or eighty dollars a week. The agency checks only references you give them, but usually wants your clergyman, your doctor, your bank and character and job references.

Since these are all references you’ve chosen, they tend to be good. The caseworker depends far more on interviews with the couple together, the husband and wife separately, and visits to their home. She may ask if the baby will have his own room; why you want to adopt; how you like your job; what your own childhood was like; what you expect of the child and what you hope to do for him; if you’re unable to have children of your own, how you feel about that. Do you want a baby so you can be “like other people”? Are you just trying to hold a faltering marriage together?

Certain things can disqualify you right away. Single persons are rejected because there aren’t enough children to go around; so are those with heart disease, tuberculosis or cancer. People over forty aren’t usually considered as adoptive parents except for an older child. By law in most provinces, candidates must be at least twenty-five. The financially irresponsible, the obviously immature or neurotic, and the alcoholics are automatically weeded out as soon as their condition is detected. After this, however, the agency still has a surplus of worthwhile applicants.

The Canadian Welfare Council, a national clearinghouse for welfare information, has no exact idea how many children are in care — in institutions or foster homes — at any given moment. Probably twenty-five thousand. How many of these are adoptable? The definition has widened enormously in the last decade, to include children previously considered “too old" or too seriously handicapped. Most applicants still want healthy infants and about ten thousand of these are available.

Since only nine thousand are placed by agencies in a year, there would seem to be enough to go around. But most available babies are Roman Catholic and most applicants aren’t. By law or by tacit understanding, depending on the province, adoptive parents must have the religion of the child's natural father, or its mother if she's unmarried. Except in the Maritimes, where the balance is a little better, four Protestant families apply for every Protestant infant. Catholic agencies have four children for every home they can find. For every Jewish child there are twenty applying couples. This means that, while Catholic children go begging each year, eight hundred Protestant or Jewish couples are turned down; another two thousand give up and withdraw applications; and thousands more wait in line. Jewish couples have been accepted and then waited five years for a child.

Every social worker I saw, including the Catholics, deplored this imbalance. Miss Marion Murphy, of the Canadian Welfare Council in Ottawa, herself a Roman Catholic, told me about a nun she knew who was so distressed by the surplus of homeless Catholic children that she said

wistfully, “If only we could sort of suspend religion for a while — until we placed all the children — and then go back to it.”

Roland Hennessy. adoption supervisor for the Catholic Children's Aid in To-

ronto, says, “As a professional, I believe a child is better off in a home, as long as the home teaches some religion, than in the best of institutions. As a Catholic, 1 perfectly understand the church's position."

This position was set out years ago in an adoption trial in Boston by Judge Walter Considinc: “Not even the (natural) parents have the right to deny an immature child who has been baptized a Roman Catholic the privilege of being

reared in Catholicity.” Even where it isn’t recognized by provincial statute, this principle is observed in practice by Canadian agencies.

In Ottawa last year, an unmarried Catholic mother consented to have her child adopted by a Jewish couple because she knew the baby would wait a long time for a Catholic home. This was perfectly legal but when I asked William Bury, director of Ontario’s Child Welfare Department, if he thought the Ottawa case would be a persuasive precedent, he said succinctly, “Not a hope in hell.”

In Quebec, practices are further complicated by a law that says only illegitimate children may be adopted unless both parents are insane or dead. A fouryear-old whose parents were married but who abandoned him at two weeks is forever “unadoptable” in Quebec and he spends his childhood as a ward of the Children's Aid Society. Not long ago, the Protestant society in Montreal placed such a boy in Ontario, which is legal. He went to a previously divorced couple who had been rejected by the Toronto agency.

Agency people concede, in the light of the maze of regulations, that the system of adoption isn’t as good as it could be some day; their critics charge it isn't even as good as it ought to be right now.

Dr. Daniel Cappon, an associate In the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, who also happens to be the psychiatrist of the rejected radio announcer referred to at the beginning of this article, thinks current agency practice is worse than useless.

He allows that the agency’s problem arises from something it can’t control — “religious discrimination for the illegitimate, unborn child”—but he asks. "How do they decide the fitness of prospective adoptive parents and, especially, on what criteria do they reject them? They have no sensible criteria.

"A better, more equitable system would be simply first come, first served. All applicants go on a list. When your name gets to the top of the list you get a child whether a social worker likes you or not. An agency’s judgment in rejecting couples is exactly like the sentence of a court, with one unhappy difference. There’s no avenue of appeal.”

Dr. Raymond Keeler, another Toronto psychiatrist, thinks too many social workers have that dangerous attainment, a little learning. "They tend to know a little, rarely enough, about genetics, psychology and physiology,” he maintains. "For instance, when I was asked to see a boy having trouble learning to read, he was preceded by a social worker who spent half an hour telling me all about the boy’s ‘emotional block against read-

ing.’ I asked him if the boy were left handed because this often means the child is also ‘left-eyed,’ a simple cause of reading trouble. That, the worker didn’t know. I found it was the trouble.”

Public opinion of the agencies among laymen seems-to fall into two small groups and one large one. Successful applicants, not unpredictably, think all caseworkers are fine. Mrs. Gertrude Evans, of the Vancouver Children’s Aid Society, who has been placing adopted children in West Vancouver for years, fell seriously ill. About a hundred adoptive parents bought her a portable television set and the card was signed by all their children. Half the furniture in the new headquarters of the Protestant Children’s Aid Society in Montreal was con tributed by grateful adoptive parents.

Unsuccessful applicants are resigned, resentful or rabid. One forty-five-year-old woman, turned down by a Montreal agency on the ground she wanted a child to fill a neurotic need of her own, called her ex-caseworker to say, “Well, you’re not as smart as you think you are. I’m getting a baby my own way, never mind how, and you can go to the devil. Goodbye!”

The rest of the public, including applicants who haven't yet been successful or rejected, are rather wary. An image of social work as a profession hasn’t altogether supplanted the outdated image of the “district visitor,” a condescending, upper-middle-class spinster meddling in the lives of the poor.

Every Tuesday evening at the Protestant Children’s Aid in Toronto, in a long room off a long corridor, about a dozen couples exchange first looks with two women, professional social workers. This is the get-acquainted session. The agency has already checked just the easy things like the applicants' religion; if they were Catholic or Jewish, for example, they’d have been referred to other agencies.

One evening the Children’s Aid let my wife and me sit in. If you've ever experienced the courtroom hush just before a major trial, you have a clue to the atmosphere. We all sat down stiffly around a long massive table, the two workers at either end. Miss Evelyn Roberts, the plump, jolly little woman who heads the adoption department, began chain-smoking to prove it was allowed but she smoked alone for at least half an hour. I’m almost certain I was the only man in the room who hadn't shaved at dinnertime.

People gradually unbent and asked questions: What do you learn about your baby's real parents? Answer: All the agency knows. Does the real mother know who you are? She’s told what you’re like but never who you are. Once you're accepted, how long do you wait?

It varies widely but averages nine months. After you get the baby, how long before it’s yours? By law probation lasts at least six months; in fact, it could be a little longer. Can the real mother ever get the baby back? No, a final adoption order, properly signed by a judge, has never been upset. The upsets you hear about occur in badly handled private placements, where the adoptive parents have nothing but a so-called consent, signed by the real mother.

One woman finally asked in a clear, silvery contralto: "What would make you reject the application?” Whether they knew it or not, there was a statistical probability one of these couples would be disappointed.

Miss Roberts could hardly be faulted for answering with generalities about good health, a good marriage and a happy home. The alternative would have been time-consuming, a lecture on social work, the shortage of children, and all her agency’s criteria. Except for good health, a good marriage and a happy home, these criteria aren’t precisely on all fours with those of other agencies. Standards, methods and provincial adoption laws differ.

In Montreal, both Protestant and Catholic agencies say they invariably tell a couple the truth about why they were rejected, even if it hurts. In most other agencies, many couples are given a spurious reason and may never learn why they were really turned down. Miss Anne Adler, of Toronto’s Jewish Family and Child Service agency, says, "It’s not our function to tinker with the marriage. Suppose we find the wife is actually terrified of adopting. Ought we to tell her husband?”

Workers in larger agencies, most of whom are university-trained professionals, say they aren’t unduly perturbed if an applicant has been divorced or has been treated by a psychiatrist. Smaller agencies in smaller centres, which don't always have professionally trained personnel, are quite frankly leery of such persons.

F. C. Promoli, executive director of the Children's Aid in Guelph, Ont., where only twenty-five children of all religions are placed annually, puts it this way: “We realize some couples who have been previously divorced have stable marriages and can be successful adoptive parents. We don’t always reject for this reason. But the ‘home study’ with such couples may require more developed skills than are sometimes possessed by caseworkers without professional training. So we tend to reject at first inquiry. The same with a person who’s had psychiatric treatment — he may be perfectly all right but we may not have the background to decide.”

The Protestant society in Toronto has more than twenty workers for about seven hundred placements a year; the Protestant society in Montreal makes five hundred placements a year with eight workers. Montreal caseworkers arc unwilling to spend months with a couple who won’t make the grade, so they discourage the doubtful applicants early. They finally reject only a handful. In Toronto, they look them over longer. Eightytwo couples had to be turned down by the Protestant agency last year even though another three hundred backed out voluntarily.

It’s usually thought desirable to match the intelligence of the child with that of the parents, even though only the crudest tests of infant intelligence are available. It’s sometimes assumed a baby will inherit roughly the intellectual level of the natural parents. Roland Hennessy, the supervisor at the Toronto Catholic agency, told me proudly of placing a "high

average” baby with a university professor and his wife. Miss Winona Armitage, superintendent of Child Welfare Services for the Manitoba government, is just as proud of a successful placement with a Winnipeg professor, "even though the intellect of that baby's mother can only be called 'borderline.’ ” She feels intellect is only one of many factors, and in every other way the baby and the parents are a good match.

Most small agencies and a few larger ones still try to match physical traits, like the size and coloring of child and parents,

even though most professionals see this as less and less important. David Weiss, a chunky, handsome bear of a man, who’s executive director of Montreal's Jewish Child Welfare Bureau, says it couldn't matter less what people look like. "As long as they feel alike they’re a family.”

Applicants themselves often insist on certain traits. (You can get a laugh in any gathering of social workers just by saying. "Blond, blue-eyed girl, less than a month old.”) In some agencies, such insistence only means you wait a little

longer. In others, you’re courting rejection out of hand, because the agency wonders if you really want any baby or if perhaps you're trying to duplicate a baby that has died.

The Protestant agencies in both Winnipeg and Montreal have placed Negro children with white families while most other agencies wouldn’t dream of it. Some insist on a doctor’s testimony that a couple is physically unable to have children. Others don’t bother.

All these details, removed from their larger context, suggest that selection prac-

tice in Canada is a marc’s nest, contradictory, inconsistent, even capricious. In fact, the area of agreement is larger than the area of disagreement, but it’s vague, not as precise. Every caseworker and supervisor talks long and easily about what they do want in a parent; they answer briefly, almost inarticulately, when asked what they don’t want, or for reasons why they reject.

They aren’t, by the way, necessarily looking for rich people. Fifty percent of adoptive parents in urban centres have incomes between four and six thousand

dollars and it’s lower in small towns and rural areas.

Talking of other desirable characteristics, agency people all use strikingly similar language, words like “unselfish, flexible, accepting, outgoing, warm, responsible, mature and loving.”

“For instance," Evelyn Roberts told me, "during an interview with one couple, it came out casually that they’d recently lost a thousand dollars because neither had read the fine print in an offer to purchase a home. They'll never make the same mistake again but they were able

to laugh easily about it. Neither blamed the other. 1 liked that.”

All these qualities seem desirable but rather abstract. Are the caseworkers skilled enough to identify them and do they really result in successful adoptions? The only way to answer meaningfully is to study performance methodically. Social work, however, is short of three things, money, personnel and up-to-date statistics.

Dr. E. J. Rosen, psychiatric consultant to the Protestant agency in Toronto, is just beginning a twenty-year study of the

relative success of placements where the natural parents were mentally ill but as far as he knows it will be Canada’s first.

Dr. Donald Brieland, a Chicago psychologist, has just completed the first study ever made in North America of how consistency and uniformly social workers apply their standards. One hundred and eighty-four social workers from twenty-seven agencies took part: “The findings are not of an order to create complacency,” Brieland remarks, “but neither are they grist for the detractors of modern social-work practice.”

Tape recordings of five interviews with couples actually applying for children were played for the participating social workers. They were asked their impressions of the couples’ attitude toward children. Over the whole experiment, the social workers were in agreement three quarters of the time. Even this much disparity must be hair-raising for anyone considering applying for a child. Brieland suggests shopping different agencies but in a given Canadian city there’s only one agency you can try.

Commenting on the study, Miss Adler, of the Toronto Jewish agency, says, “It represents one worker’s decision in a controlled experiment. Actual decisions are made by more than one person. A worker may get so attached to some couple, or even so hostile, she loses objectivity. That’s why there is a check on her.”

Miss Roberts, supervisor at the Toronto Protestant agency, says: “This

study shows our adoption practice needs improvement. We do keep trying to discuss our work with each other so our judgments will be as consistent — and as fair — as possible.”

Dr. Rosen, the Toronto agency’s consultant. is on the side of the social workers who, he thinks, haven’t the respect they deserve as professionals, especially from psychiatry, another infant discipline that's in no position to criticize others. "I’m a psychiatrist,” he says, “and I certainly would not suggest I'm as competent as they are to make an adoption placement. At this stage, in the infancy of adoption practice, different people are looking along different avenues for the answers. So are cancer researchers. The inescapable fact is that someone has to do some kind of selecting until more children are available.”

More children have been available since the provinces began campaigning — even using want ads in Ontario — to find parents for hard-to-place children, the older, handicapped, even epileptic. An applicant to the Sackville, N.B., Children's Aid, wrote: “The little fellow needs a home even if he does have fits.”

This has resulted in no relaxation of standards. If anything, agencies are even tougher when placing these children with special needs. "So they should be," says Dr. Keeler. “They're playing with fire by placing children like that. Even eighteen months as an infant in an institution, lacking a 'mother figure,’ will do a child literally irreparable psychological damage. It's a harsh line to take, but I believe illegitimate children ought to be placed within weeks or not at all.”

Nevertheless, every year more people want to take a chance than can qualify or be accommodated. When Chatelaine magazine published an article about a homeless, five-year-old girl with a harelip and cleft palate, she was easily placed; the agency had a response of two hundred letters from which to choose. One couple mailed a snapshot of themselves and their eleven children. They wrote, “We always have room for one more.”