A child advocate says that "children get lost quite frequently in Canada" following international adoptions because of lax rules around transferring custody from the adoptive parents to other families.

"There are many cases where it's like, where exactly is this child?" says Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a Saskatchewan judge who is the B.C. Legislature's special Representative for Children and Youth.

Few rules exist in Canada to ensure that children adopted abroad are kept in good hands and aren't handed over by the adoptive parents to someone else. 

It's an issue highlighted by the case of Moses Gilbert. CBC's investigative show the fifth estate found that the four-year-old Liberian boy was adopted by B.C. parents in 2005, but given away to a Texas woman who they met online months later, in an act commonly dubbed "re-homing."

Moses Gilbert, age 5

In 2006, five-year-old Moses Gilbert was given away by his adoptive parents in B.C. to a woman in Texas that they'd met online. (CBC)

The adoptive parents said Moses was destructive and violent, though they are quoted in an adoption magazine article a few months earlier as describing described him as "fundamentally a gentle child."

Working on a tip, B.C. social workers tracked down Moses and returned him to Canada, where they put him into foster homes until they placed him with a family two years later. 

The case raises numerous questions about what's allowed and what's illegal. 

What is 're-homing'?

Re-homing refers to the act of placing an adopted child into another home. It's not a legal term. Turpel-Lafond notes the term has a "very warm and positive sound to it," as though a child is seamlessly passing from one safe home to another.

However, she says it can be quite disruptive for the child because there's little oversight to ensure the child's rights are met. She says theses transfers happen outside the systems set up to protect children. 

It is not to be confused with "adoption disruptions." This is when an adoption is in process, but is disrupted or stopped before it's finalized.

Is re-homing legal?

In Canada, parents are allowed to place their children in another person's custody without going to court or informing the authorities. An adopted child, once the papers are finalized, is treated the same way as a biological one in this regard.

child silhouette airport

Parents who adopt children abroad undergo far less official scrutiny. (Shutterstock)

However, in B.C., for example, the transfer of an adopted child to another home wouldn't escape official scrutiny. There, the receiving couple would be required to notify an adoption agency and have a home study completed.

Still, there are ways to temporarily give custody of a child to someone else that could stay under the radar. 

Why is it better to go through official channels?

Child welfare officials look at a range of issues including a caregiver's capacity and history, but also the needs of the child. They ask questions about whether the caregiver is suitable, whether they have a criminal record or any involvement in child welfare. They'd also examine whether their parenting strategies are aggressive or hostile.

Is anyone keeping track of adopted children?

One problem here is that international adoptions typically go through private agencies. These companies may do post-placement reports, but they are not generally required by law. Some provinces require follow-ups with parents who adopt abroad, but there's no coordinated effort among provinces to keep tabs on an adopted child if the family moves. 

No national body tracks what happens to adopted children. Adoption is a provincial responsibility. Only a few provinces track what happens to international adoptees, including B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan. 

How often does re-homing happen?

Since only a few provinces keep tabs on international adoptions, we only have a partial picture. For example, in B.C., two of the 113 internationally adopted children that came to the province last year were re-homed.

Alberta officials say they've only had two cases in the past five years and Saskatchewan had nine in the past three years. In Ontario, there was only one case out of the 136 international adoptions last year.

Why are the laws so lax?

Turpel-Lafond says that in Canada we tend to assume that everyone acts in the best interests of the child. But, she says, it's necessary to have proper investigations and controls to ensure children have a voice.

Part of the reason these things happen is because child welfare services are "grotesquely underfunded" in almost every province, she says. 

The child advocate says stronger federal legislation would also help improve the situation for children adopted abroad.

With files from the fifth estate