Canada·Go Public

'Broken' adoption systems leaves children stranded despite couple ready to adopt

A childless couple are giving up on adoption after battling what they say is a broken system that leaves thousands of Canadian children stuck in provincial care instead of placing them with willing families.

Adoption Council of Canada says the system is badly broken across the country

System leaves children stranded despite couple ready to adopt 2:20

A childless couple are giving up on adoption after battling what they say is a broken system that leaves thousands of Canadian children stuck in provincial care instead of placing them with willing families.

"It wasn't impatience that made us stop adoption — it was a loss of faith completely in the system. When you start to wonder, 'What the hell is going on?'" Lori Niles-Hofmann told Go Public.

What was going on, she said, were long, unexplained delays, no answers and no accountability.

"It's a broken system. Completely and utterly broken."

Niles-Hofmann and her husband, Martin Hofmann, have been trying to expand their family for more than a decade. When fertility treatments didn't work, they looked at adoption internationally and then locally.

The couple are educated, they describe themselves as loving and willing to welcome a child of any age into their home. They've gone through the lengthy screening process and were deemed "adoption ready" in Ontario.

The screening process took more than a year and included everything from financial checks to criminal background checks.

But despite all of it, they now believe they'll never be parents because of what they say is an inefficient and understaffed system.

"Cases aren't followed up on. There's no oversight … you start to wonder, how can we have trust in that to start a family?" Niles-Hofmann said.

"Heartbreaking decision to make in the end. We had to look at it and say, OK, this isn't the road forward for us. Obviously we can't be parents. You just have to know your limits."

In one case, they say they tried to adopt a four-year-old boy the system had flagged as a priority for adoption. Fourteen other families also expressed interest in the boy, but months passed and he was still in the system.

When the couple tried to find out why, they said, they initially encountered a "wall of silence" from the Toronto Children's Aid Society, eventually told the office was understaffed.

"I get that they are resource-stretched, but on the other hand I also have to be a bit cynical and say … you have 14 families open to have this child in their family and that's not a priority? That's what boggles my mind," Niles-Hofmann said.

The province of Ontario funds local Children's Aid Societies, but it's up to those local offices to decide how to spend the money. The branches often work in isolation, and those willing to adopt can be limited by the resources and ability of their local branch.

"You have so many power plays happening — you have different systems not talking to each other. It's fragmented and it feel like there is no way to navigate it," Niles-Hofmann said.

Kids 'stuck' in the system

The couple weren't looking to adopt a newborn. They were open to older children and those with disabilities.

The couple said they were eventually told the 4-year-old boy's file was just sitting on a social worker's desk untouched for months.

"This is not about us. This is about the kids that are trapped in the system … that's what keeps me awake at night."

Laura Eggertson is from the Adoption Council of Canada, an advocacy group. She's also adopted two children of her own.

Laura Eggertson from the Adoption Council of Canada says the system is 'broken" across the country. (CBC)

"The system is badly broken. Not just in Ontario but across the country," she said.

Eggertson said there are approximately 30,000 children legally eligible for adoption in Canada, but many "age out" of the system before they are matched with families.

Statistics offered by the Adoption Council of Canada suggest many of those children face a lifetime of problems.  

  • 68 per cent of homeless youth have aged out of the child welfare system without permanent families.

  • Only 44 per cent of youth in the child welfare system graduate high school, and only five per cent of those go on to post-secondary education.

  • 73 per cent of those who have aged out of the system are unemployed.

  • 41 per cent of youth in care have had a run-in with the criminal justice system.

Calls for national children's commissioner

Eggertson said some provinces made improvements. A few years ago, New Brunswick invested more money in the system and added more case workers. Alberta now subsidizes costs for parents who adopt from the public system.

Ontario does offer limited subsidies, but Eggertson said it's not enough, saying the issue needs to be fixed on a national scale, pointing to the Governor General's recommendation that Canada centralize the adoption system.

Advocates are also calling for a national children's commissioner to address complaints about the system.

Priorities shifting

Go Public put the issue to Mary Ballantyne, executive director of the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies. She said that, overall, it's a good system, but admits there are challenges.

Mary Ballantyne, Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, says staffing and resources are an issue. (CBC)

"Staffing is always an issue. Children's Aid Societies are working with tens of thousands of children and families every year. The resources are tight. People are always looking at ways to provide the best service with less and less resources," Ballantyne told Go Public.

But she added the delays in matching couples with children may be the result of a decrease in the number of children in need of adoption. She said that in the last few years, the priority has shifted to matching kids with family and kin, so fewer children go to couples outside family circles.

Go Public asked both Tracy MacCharles, Ontario's Minister of Children and Youth Services, and the Toronto Children's Aid Society branch about the Hofmanns' case.

MacCharles was not available for an interview. Toronto Children's Aid office didn't answer our questions, citing confidentiality.

Ontario is reviewing its Child and Family Services Act. The review should be complete later this year.

About the Author

Rosa Marchitelli is a national award winner for her investigative work. As co-host of the CBC News segment Go Public, she has a reputation for asking tough questions and holding companies and individuals to account. Rosa's work is seen across CBC News platforms.

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