In whose best interest?
Cross-cultural adoption is condemned by Canada's First Nation leaders, but whose interests are they looking out for?
By MARGARET WENTE
UPDATED AT 3:25 AM EDT
Saturday, Sep. 13, 2003
Twenty-four years ago, Carla Newman was adopted at birth by a white couple. Her birth mother was a Cree from the Nisichawayasihk reserve in northern Manitoba. The adoption turned out to be a success, and she feels blessed to have been raised by such warm and loving parents. "I was lucky," she says.
Today, there are tens of thousands of native kids whose parents aren't able to raise them. But "cross-cultural" adoptions, as they're called, are no longer allowed. Phil Fontaine, the national grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, calls them "a form of genocide." Across the country, native bands are taking children away from white foster families in an effort to block adoptions and repatriate children to the bands, even if there is no family to adopt them there, and even if the kids don't want to go.
Ms. Newman got in touch with me after she read about Lisa, a 14-year-old part-native girl whose mother's band is insisting that she go back to live with them. Lisa is fighting to stay with her foster parents, the only family she's ever known. "If the reserve couldn't take care of these kids in the first place, how can they ever take care of them now?" she asks passionately.
Good question. And Ms. Newman's own journey back to her roots is a cautionary tale for anybody who thinks repatriation is the answer.
Carla's birth mother was an alcoholic. She was only 16 when Carla was born, and she already had another child. She gave up Carla willingly, and Carla always knew about her origins. She even met many of her relatives before her adoptive family moved away. Carla lives in Moncton now. She has a degree in business administration from the University of New Brunswick, and works with the government.
"I never thought of myself as being native," she says, a statement that would probably curdle the blood of Phil Fontaine. "Maybe I didn't have as much curiosity as some people because I knew my native family were only a phone call away."
In 1999, Carla got married, and she asked her native relatives to the wedding. (Her mother, who was still drinking, didn't come.) A dozen or more of them showed up, and urged her to come "home." Soon after that she flew to the reserve to attend the funeral of an aunt. "I was curious to get a glimpse of how my life could have been," she told me.
What she saw distressed her deeply. The sewage overflowed, the water was unsafe to drink, the lawns were mud. "The poverty sickened me," she recalls. "I listened to the cries of my young cousin looking at her mother in a casket." The girl's mother had died of alcohol poisoning, as had her father a few weeks before. "I wanted nothing more than to grab my young cousin out of that reserve and take her to the safety of my real home, to show her that that was not what life was about."
A major argument against cross-cultural adoptions is the high incidence of breakdown. Native activists argue that most of these adoptions are doomed. Typically, as the adopted child gets older, she starts acting out. She fails in school and gets in trouble with the law. Eventually, she runs away and winds up estranged from her adoptive family.
There are a thousand stories like this (the story of the Chrétiens' adopted son is one of them), each one sadder than the last. The standard explanation is that loss of culture is the cause of these disasters. The native child feels lost and adrift in a world that doesn't welcome him. Trapped between two worlds, he flounders. This is the case made by native leaders against cross-cultural adoption, and it is accepted wisdom among the social-work establishment. Undoubtedly there is some truth in it. Carla's brother is also adopted, and he had a harder time than she did, partly, she believes, because he knew nothing of his origins.
But there's another factor. It's so obvious, and so threatening to the project of repatriation, that even native social workers who believe it don't dare say so publicly. The real problem isn't loss of culture. It's FAS, fetal alcohol syndrome.
FAS kids of any race are brain-damaged. They have poor impulse control and a multitude of behavioural problems. They struggle in school. FAS is caused by maternal drinking during pregnancy, and on some native reserves the incidence of FAS or FAE, fetal alcohol effect, is upward of 30 per cent. The grotesque overrepresentation of natives in the prison system is also a product of FAS.
Carla spent a lot of time with her orphaned cousin, trying to help her with her homework. She was puzzled that the girl was so needy and so behind in school, until someone told her the girl had FAS.
Above all, FAS children need stability and structure. But what happens to native kids with FAS is guaranteed to make them worse. Their home lives are often violent and chaotic. If they're taken into care, they're bounced around from foster home to foster home. Any foster family that offers a stable home by way of adoption will be blocked by band politics. It is a recipe for ruin.
Currently, two Ontario families are fighting to adopt two half-native girls they have fostered since shortly after birth. But the birth mother's native band, 4,000 kilometres away in Squamish, is fighting, and the fight is messy, costly and prolonged. The band has deep pockets. Now it has launched a constitutional challenge in an effort to block the adoptions. The local children's aid society wants to send the kids back, too (where they will be placed with a single white woman with band connections), and this week Phil Fontaine weighed in with a letter to the judge that cited the usual "loss of culture" arguments. The constitutional challenge could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight, and the girls' would-be parents are out of money.
Three years ago, Ms. Newman went back to the reserve again, where she spent the summer working in the band's accounting office. Everybody told her how lucky she had been. They admired her success in life. She tried to talk to some of her cousins about going away to college. "Imagine what you could do if you went away and got educated," she told them. "Imagine how you could help First Nations people." But she couldn't connect. "It's really hard for them to grasp the concept of leaving the reserve."
Carla Newman embodies Phil Fontaine's worst fears. She will never go back to the place she came from, because she's found a better life. She has seen the life she would have had if her mother hadn't given her up. And she doesn't think that children who have found loving homes and parents should be made to suffer that fate either.
"Leave culture out of it," she says fiercely. "You're talking about people's lives."