Adoptive parents say province is in dire need of subsidy program

TheStar.com – parentcentral.ca/parent/newsfeatures
May 13, 2011.   Laurie Monsebraaten, Social Justice Reporter

Stephanie and Mitchel Bergman were overjoyed in July 2005 when they adopted a baby girl and her two brothers, ages 2 and 4, through Toronto’s Jewish Family and Child Service.

But even before the adoption became official in January 2007, the reality of the challenge ahead began to sink in.

“The four-hour tantrums. The hyperactivity. It was non-stop,” says Stephanie Bergman. “To this day I don’t feel comfortable taking them anywhere on my own.”

The eldest, now 10, has been diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a form of brain damage caused when women drink during pregnancy. The learning delays and challenging behaviour of their two younger children, now 7 and 8, support a similar diagnosis.

If they had remained in foster care, the province could be spending upwards of $100,000 a year in care and therapy for them. But under Ontario’s adoption system, too many parents like the Bergmans receive next to nothing.

“When we adopted them we were told they were happy, healthy children who just needed a loving home,” says Stephanie Bergman.

“We love them more than words can express,” she says. “But we’re drowning.”

Adoption advocates were encouraged last month when Queen’s Park introduced legislation to remove legal barriers preventing about 80 per cent of Ontario’s 9,000 Crown wards from being adopted. But they were upset that adoption subsidies weren’t part of the package and worry the province won’t go far enough to rescue parents like the Bergmans.

The couple’s eldest son needs constant supervision. His younger brother is growing increasingly aggressive. And their little girl is socially withdrawn.

The children need anger-management training, grief counselling and play therapy.

The parents need FASD training, in-home support from a child and family worker who specializes in children with the disorder and regular respite care for themselves so they can catch their breath.

They are asking for a post-adoption subsidy of at least $500 per month for each child to help pay for these costly — but crucial — services.

They hope by speaking publicly about their experience that the Ontario government will step in to give all adoptive parents equal access to financial support and ensure their vulnerable children get the help they need to heal from their abusive pasts.

Currently, adoption subsidies are the responsibility of the province’s 53 children’s aid societies. Since there is no provincial funding earmarked for subsidies, the money comes from general revenues on a case-by-case basis. It means some families in some parts of the province get generous help, while others get nothing.

To date, 46 societies have subsidy agreements with about 2,000 families. While foster families receive about $18,000 annually per child, the average annual subsidy to adoptive parents last year was just $4,350.

Adoption subsidies were one of the key recommendations of the province’s 2009 Expert Panel on Fertility and Adoption. The panel called for a massive overhaul of Ontario’s adoption bureaucracy with a view to doubling the number of adoptions within five years. It proposed subsidies for all those who adopt local children over age 2 and every child with special needs.

When Children and Youth Services Minister Laurel Broten announced the long-awaited legislative changes, she promised to study the subsidy issue. In an interview this week, she stopped short of pledging a universal system and instead said she is looking to develop province-wide eligibility criteria to decide which adoptive parents should qualify.

“We are seeking to put in place a targeted approach,” Broten said, adding she is consulting with children’s aid societies across the province to determine how best to proceed with a “revenue neutral” plan.

It has left parents like the Bergmans with little hope that help is on its way.

The expert panel called for annual subsidies of between $9,000 and $15,000 per child — or 50 to 80 per cent of what the average foster parent now receives. Additional funding for costly medication, therapy and dental care should also be available, the panel said.

These subsidies would save taxpayers about $28 million within five years and up to $36 million annually after that, as more Crown wards are adopted and the administrative cost of monitoring them in foster care drops, the panel estimated.

Of about 8,300 Crown wards in Ontario in 2009-10, just 993 were adopted. But the panel said adoption subsidies would go a long way to encouraging more people — especially foster parents — to adopt.

Alberta and many U.S. states provide monthly subsidies to all adoptive parents, regardless of the child’s needs, the panel found.

“Ontario is out of step. It is urgent that we develop a provincial subsidy system,” the panel said in its Raising Expectations report.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the Bergmans describe their family life while their children play on the driveway. The kids shoot hoops, ride their bicycles and scooters on the sidewalk and dart in and out of the house for drinks or trips to the washroom. To a casual observer, they appear like any other happy, active siblings.

“But at any moment, we can have a blow-up that can last for hours,” says Mitchel, pausing to tell the oldest not to ride on the road and to remind his daughter to “look both ways” as she crosses the street.

“We are parenting very hurt, angry children,” says Stephanie, who says the boys were in four or five different foster homes before they were adopted.

Their middle child remembers life with his birth mother as a time without hugs, when he ate his meals while confined to a crib, she says, tears welling in her eyes.

That may explain why he is so angry today and will fly into rages for no apparent reason, she says.

The couple’s daughter went into foster care at four months and spent the next 14 months of her life in a home for developmentally handicapped children. She had no muscle control and appeared “like a rag doll” when she was adopted, Stephanie adds.

Their eldest was diagnosed with FASD in 2009.

“We have been told by several professionals to just give him back,” she says.

But the Bergmans have refused to give up on their kids — and on their quest for the help they need.

“These kids need us,” Mitchel says. “They need the stability. They need consistency.”

The family is grateful to Jewish Family and Child Service for paying about $2,000 for an assistant so their eldest son can attend summer day camp with his brother and sister. The agency also reimbursed the Bergmans for about $2,000 in play therapy costs in 2009. But requests for similar help last year were denied, the couple says.

The agency says Ontario’s Child and Family Services Act prohibits them from discussing individual cases.

Howard Hurwitz, the agency’s director of children’s services, says all adoptive parents are offered ongoing or one-time adoption subsidies. Some families may not be happy with what they receive, he acknowledges.

“There needs to be a province-wide strategy, consistency and money from the province,” he says. “There is no question we are dealing with a patchwork system and that it is challenging for adoptive parents.”

Expert panel member William Falk says the government must look to the best practices of children’s aid societies like Toronto, Guelph and Ottawa and move everyone up to their level.

“We need to improve the system, not just pay for what is already happening,” he says.

“People who think that it is a problem paying for parenting do not understand the difficulties faced by these kids and their adoptive parents,” says Falk, who is also an adoptive parent of boys aged 12 and 4.

“Many kids need lifetime supports and the families who are willing to step up to this challenge deserve our society’s support,” he says. “This is cost-saving and good social policy.”

On the Bergmans’ driveway as the children play in the warm spring sunshine, the parents’ love is palpable.

“Friends who have seen our struggles often ask me if I regret adopting them,” Mitchel confides.

“We are so very, very lucky to have them. We got them so quickly, when so many people can wait years and years,” Stephanie says.

“My life would be boring without them,” Mitchel laughs, his face suddenly breaking into a wide smile.

“Yes, there are challenges,” he says. “But they are just so much fun.”

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