Choice: Reality or Illusion When Navigating the Journey of Hope in Adoption.

Sandra Forbes, M.Sc., RSW, RPO,

Sandra Forbes

Registered Psychotherapist, Couple & Family Therapist, Social Worker


By Sandra Forbes, M.Sc., RSW, RMFT and Approved Adoption Practitioner

Freedom to choose is highly valued in North American culture. Choice is commonly viewed as central to life satisfaction. Around one of life’s most sacred institutions, the family, choices can inspire hope and joy, and often hold the promise of opportunity and change.

Questions of choice are at the heart of any journey into family formation: when to start a family, haw, and with whom are but a few. The process of forming a family can: raise hopes; elicit tears of joy; break hearts; tear families apart, and bring families together. This complexity is perhaps best observed in the process of adoption. A thread running through many adoptions is woven from both the reality and the illusion of choice. In this very tender area where futures are determined, the power to chose often alludes those most profoundly impacted by available choices.

This article explores questions of choice as they relate to adoption from the perspective of prospective adoptive parents (PAPS), children and birth families, and adoption practitioners. Consideration is given to how domestic and international practices, norms and values impact the extent to which choice is either granted or denied to those seeking the most compelling of outcomes: a family.

The Hopeful Heart(s): Prospective Adoptive Parents (PAPS):

The 2001 General Social Survey found that 7% of Canadians aged 20 to 34 did not intend to have children. This leaves 93% of Canadians who plan to parent. The majority of hopeful parents start out by looking to biologically conceive a child the “old fashioned way”. When this approach proves unsuccessful, many seek the assistance of fertility experts to help increase the chances of achieving pregnancy.

There are painful choices along this journey. Decisions that are made require careful and sometimes agonizing soul searching. How important is it for me to become a parent? How important is it to me to be genetically related to my child? Is it important to experience pregnancy? How much do I put my body through? Which doctor do I use or do I really have a choice? How much money do we have or want to spend? How many years do we try? Do we engage in new reproductive technologies like IVF? What about using a sperm donor? How will medications to increase the chances of conceiving affect my body and health?

The answers to these questions are influenced by many factors, most notably: access to information, proximity to medical specialists, financial resources, specific fertility challenges, and other health related factors. All of these issues raise critical choices that may each be life altering in their own way.

These choices are also informed by important contextual factors related to age, time, and vested interests. For example, when multiple unsuccessful attempts are made over time to conceive, biology has a way of moving in and determining choices. The research is clear, as women age their capacity to achieve pregnancy declines [Need to source a statistic here!]

Accepting the limits of one’s fertility can be extremely difficult. Letting go of options that may have existed in earlier years around something so deeply personal and important demands an ability to face and handle strong emotions, as well as a maturity of character. This can be a painful time as the losses related to not being able to give birth to a genetically related child are keenly felt by many.

Folks at this stage may entertain walking the path of adoption with their hearts in their hands. Having left behind a particular set of hopes and dreams, they begin a new journey into an area that is complex and typically unfamiliar. This transition carries its own set of challenges. Buoyed by the promise of regaining control over the process of family formation, a couple or individual may be required to accept, once again, the limits of the options before them.
Adoption processes, in many ways, ask participants to choose and take responsibility for a prescribed course of action, while having little control over the outcome. It is common practice for example, for adoption professionals to advise families to choose to either pursue pregnancy OR to pursue adoption. Choosing both is highly discouraged. The risk being that more than one child may enter the family at the same time, producing what is known in the adoption field as “artificial twinning”. Families find themselves feeling pressured to conform to suggestions given the extent to which adoption professionals perform a gate keeping function between prospective parents and the legal aspects of adoption. They are being asked by those in the field to let go of one hope to pursue another.

The Professional Perspective

As this example shows, the adoption experience is equally influenced by the professionals involved? Parents seeking to form an adoptive family must accept the presence of any number of ‘other players’ in what was, up until that point, a more private pursuit.

While legislation guiding adoption varies by province, prospective adoptive parents (PAPS) across the country work directly with an adoption practitioner who provides critical information and education, and who conducts a crucial family assessment known as the Home Study. This practitioner has the authority to recommend the PAPS for adoption or not. He or she will also identify the degree to which there is openness to any contact from birth family members as well as determining the age, sex and special needs (if any) of the child for recommendation. Although the recommendation and the family’s desires are often one and the same, this is not always the case. In this situation, the determination of the practitioner prevails.

In Canada, a licensed agency designated provincial ministry or authorized agent approves the Home Study. The same agent or one approved by the Provincial Ministry may facilitate the adoption process.

The agencies or licensees responsible for adoption facilitation receive a child’s referral or become aware of children who may need families. They take applications from families who are interested in adoption and compile the paperwork required to max a match. No agent or official can guarantee placement. The number of young healthy infants available for adoption has not kept pace with the number of people passionate about becoming parents through adoption. Domestically, there are thousands of children who need families, but healthy infants are rare. Prospective families who envisioned a healthy young infant are challenged with long wait times or compelled to open their hearts to an older child who may have special needs.

International Interests

For those looking to adopt from beyond Canada’s borders, the power to choose a specific country to adopt from technically exists, but is practically quite limited. Countries looking to place children in adoptive families abroad typically circumscribe the age, health, and marital status of desired applicants. There are few options for single applicants internationally, and next to none for those in a same sex relationship.

Prior inter-country adoption practices impact who is eligible to place children with Canadian families. Where practices have been questionable, Canadian immigration authorities will either apply extreme vigour when reviewing applications or there may be a closure of the adoption process for Canadians, either on a short or long term basis.

The time between application and placement has gone up in recent years for international and private adoptions. Costs go up as time lines lengthen. Couple’s must keep their documents up to date and pay the professionals responsible for doing the work. Clearly, cost is a choice limiting factor. Adoption processes can be expensive ranging from 25,000 to 55,000 dollars including travel and in country fees.

The Best Interests of the Child

The question of choice must also be considered in light of the adoptive children themselves. The paramount consideration when placing a child for adoption relates to “the best interests of the child.” But, who decides “best interest”? Unless old enough to reason and speak, and asked by someone with authority, the child does not have a voice in the process of determining best interests. A set of professionals – ostensibly caring and compassionate ones - make the choices that shape a child’s future in the most profound way possible: by deciding placement or not in a ‘forever family’.

These decisions are impacted by dominant cultural norms, by the values and beliefs held by the adoption authority, and by federal and international laws. When determining a child’s best interests, the pervasive belief is that the birth family is the best family. There has been a move within the Child Welfare System in North America, for example, to look first to kinship connections for extra-parental support when parents are not able to provide safe care.

As intuitive as this may seem as a first step, this practice often means that a more complete range of potential care and/or adoptive options go unconsidered. To quote H. David Kirk, “Cultural attitudes do not appear to concede to adoptive parents a full place in the cultural sun of family life.”

Internationally, the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoption, adopted by Canada (?) in 1993 is designed to protect a child’s best interests, the rights of birth parents, and eliminate child abduction and trafficking. The convention requires that a search for a domestic family be conducted first, before international placement is considered.

This initial search for a domestic placement means that the children eventually eligible for placement overseas are toddler age and above - older than those who may be placed from non–Hague countries where the domestic placement search is not required and where protections against child abuse, abduction and trafficking may not be in place. This variability means that prospective parents and adoptive children are largely at the mercy of a broad range of adoption practices that are influenced by political, cultural and social norms and practices well beyond their individual control.

Birth Parents

Clearly, choices made by agency directors, adoption practitioners and/or orphanage authorities have a tremendous impact on everyone involved in the adoption process, including the birth families. These families are separated from their children in two ways: voluntarily and involuntarily.

Taking the step to voluntarily place a child for adoption is formidable. There can be tremendous pressure from extended family to parent the child. In some cases, the birth father may contest the birth mother’s desire to pursue adoption for their child. Options counselling is generally required in Canada before consent to adopt is given. These choices are heart wrenching, at best, and have lifelong implications for everyone involved.

Families who cannot afford to care for their children or who are affected by health issues, social problems, war or natural disasters may relinquish their parenting rights or have their rights revoked. Birth families may want a relationship with their children but be unable to parent. With a leaning now towards openness in adoption, many provinces allow and support some contact between adopting families and birth families.

Where a family lives will often determine the degree of openness. In many provinces, there are processes in place to facilitate varying degrees of non-identifying information, if not visits, between members. Each party has a choice to make about how much or how little contact they are agreeable to. There are often agreements negotiated at the time of placement. These agreements, however, are not legally binding and the extent to which they are followed is largely determined by the adopting family, ostensibly in their child’s best interests.

As adoptive children age, they may have more say in the amount or type of contact they want with their birth families. In some provinces (Nova Scotia for example) the children themselves must sign applications relevant to contact with the birth family that was not negotiated at the time of placement. Further to this, in my experience, there are times when the children want more information than was agreed to initially. This tends to happen at age 7-10, a time when birth families have moved on and may be less open to increased contact.

Prospective parents who hope to adopt a child within Canada will find that the more open they are to contact with birth family members, the more opportunity they may have to parent. Assurance of ongoing information about a child’s wellbeing brings peace to many birth families. It also brings continuity to the child who may have questions about his or her history or who has memories and relationships with birth or foster family members.

Understanding Choice

Is choice in adoption an illusion or reality? Most countries, including Canada, have children who need families and who are legally free for adoption. The majority (not all) of these children are toddlers and older. Many may have physical, emotional, psychological or behavioural issues that require resourcefulness and the development of specialized parenting skills to address. Many prospective parents have moved thorough visions of giving birth, to adoption, perhaps to international adoption, and now face another difficult choice: to wait a potentially long time or not to parent a child who may be older than they had anticipated and who may be facing physical, psychological, behavioural and or emotional challenges. The other option, of course, is to decide to live child free or with their current family size.

The idea that one can “just choose to adopt” is clearly an illusion. But, adoption is possible. In fact, it is necessary. There are children desperately in need of parents who envision and embrace human idiosyncrasies, are flexible in what they envision for their family, are very resourceful, and who live with an open mind and heart. Something we could all benefit from.

Sandra J. Forbes, M.Sc. RSW, RMFT is a marriage and family therapist and approved adoption practitioner who has worked in the field of adoption for sixteen years as an adoption practitioner, agency director, and placement manager. Sandra is presently on leave from her position as the Executive Director of The Children’s Bridge, International Adoption Consultants. She also has a private practice as a counsellor and adoption practitioner in Ottawa and Kanata and can be reached at 613-314-5952 or


comments powered by Disqus