Reasonable Doubt: Adult adoption laws leave out the people who need it most

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I provide pro-bono legal services to youth members of the Federation of British Columbia Youth in Care Networks ( FBCYICN)—a provincial, youth-driven non-profit organization. Among other programs and services, they advocate for youth in and from government care (foster homes, for example) who are between ages 14 and 24.

I've been approached many times by members who are over 19—adults under the law—who want to be adopted by supportive, interested adults in their lives. Even though these adults are excited to make the formal, life-long commitment, B.C. law has a restrictive residency requirement for adult adoptions. Youth over 19 are not eligible for adult adoption in B.C. unless they were living with their prospective parents when they moved out on their own as a teen, or when they turned 19.

These requirements leave out a lot of people who want to be adopted (and the families who love them), and has a particularly harsh and unjust effect on young adults from government care.

There is not much awareness about the large population of young people in our province’s care. There are more than 9,000 young people in government care in B.C. at any one time; according to the Tyee, one in 20 British Columbians are directly affected by the system. Children and youth end up in government care for a variety of reasons, primarily that the government determined they do not have anyone legally capable of looking after them. In most cases, the government has seized them because they believe their parents are incapable of looking after them for reasons of neglect or abuse.

Needless to say, many children and youth end up in care due to some of the most heart-wrenching stories you can imagine. The Tyee recently posted an excellent interactive piece on the ties between youth homelessness and foster care that helps shed light on the challenges that children and youth in care face.

According to Jules Wilson, executive director of the FBCYICN, the lack of permanency is a key problem that youth from government care face:

One of the biggest issues our membership has identified over and over again is their lack of permanency while in care and after they “age out” of care when they turn 19. Youth in and from care want and need stable, healthy and supportive relationships with caring people who are there for the long haul. Without those relationships, it’s easy for anyone to lose their way—with housing, school, jobs, all the key aspects of well-being—and find support in unhealthy relationships and coping behaviours. 

Many youth in care do not have foster parents. They might live in group homes. If they are 16 or older, they might be living independently with government support—living alone in an apartment paid for by the government with some supervision from social workers. You didn’t read that wrong—many youth in care live alone by the age of 16—a time when most of their peers might be learning to fold their laundry. Even youth who live in a foster home might have negative experiences in that home, or in many cases, be shuffled around from foster home to foster home over the years.

At the age of 19, youth in care "age out" and are no longer government wards. According to Wilson, aging out of care at 19 can be a rough transition for youth from care. They no longer have foster parents (if they even had them in the first place). They are on their own. They might not have a family couch to crash on, a house to go home to during the holidays, or the emotional support and practical guidance that comes with having parents or reliable family members. This is in contrast with the growing majority of the rest of their peers who rely on their families well into their twenties.

The reality is that many people from foster care, no matter what their age, want nothing more than to be adopted into a family and to have that family be "official" and legally recognized. That makes sense to me. Adoption (like marriage, for many people) represents a promise to form long-lasting and durable bonds of support, commitment, and love. That can be an extremely powerful promise for someone who has not had a consistent and reliable parent in her life.

Jennifer is 26 years old. She spent much of her childhood in foster care. She is a resilient, bright, caring woman who completed university and now works in the child-serving sector. When she was 16, she transitioned to an independent living arrangement, where she lived alone in an apartment paid for by the government.

As a teenager, Jennifer met Karen and Doug, long-time foster parents. Jennifer became extremely close with Karen and Doug. She never lived with them, but they played a significant role in offering her support and raising her. Jennifer thinks of Karen as her mom and Doug as her dad. They both consider Jennifer their daughter.

Doug was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. One of his last wishes is for him and Karen to formally adopt Jennifer. The law will not allow it. Jennifer never lived with Karen and Doug as a child, let alone before she started living independently.

The fact of the matter is that this residency requirement for adult adoption has disproportionately unjust consequences for people from care. Many young adults who grew up in care are simply ineligible for adult adoption because of the unstable circumstances of growing up as government wards.

Most children and youth from foster care do not have one permanent foster home. They typically bounce around from home to home and may end up in an independent living arrangement with no guardian at all. Further, they do not always live with the supportive adults in their life at the moment they turn 19 or start living independently.

The value in having your familial relationships legally recognized is not only emotional or psychological; like marriage, adoption changes legal relationships in beneficial ways. For example, without a properly executed will, children who were not officially adopted might be precluded from inheriting their parent’s property. It is also more difficult to be added to your parent’s health or disability plan, which can have an obviously large impact on young adults from care.

This residential regulation on adult adoption is obviously in place to prevent fraudulent adoptions, but this overly broad prohibition ends up harming the very people who could benefit most from adult adoption. To me, the law’s inability to see Jennifer, Karen, and Doug as a family is as confusing as it is unfair. To Wilson, the issue is simple:

For many of these young people, it has taken too long to find loving, supportive and healthy adults who want to be in their lives—and if they do, we should make it easier for them to become a family.

(Writer's note: Names in this article were changed to protect privacy.)

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