Fredericton couple told they were too old and overweight to adopt demand changes

New Brunswick's Department of Social Development said David and Donda Holt were too old and overweight and not involved enough in their community to adopt their son, who is now four years old. But the Holts weren't about to stop fighting to become Michael's parents.

David and Donda Holt want changes to the system after fighting with the province to adopt son

A New Brunswick family engaged in a long battle to adopt their foster son, after being told they were too old and overweight to do so. 0:49

As a busy four-year-old boy races around his living room in Fredericton, David Holt can't bear to think of a quiet house.

But Holt and his wife Donda Holt nearly lost the chance to parent their son, Michael.

New Brunswick's Department of Social Development initially informed the Holts, who took in Michael as their foster child when he was a baby, that they were too old and overweight and not involved enough in the community to adopt him.

The rejection left them shocked, but they fought it and won.

Now, they want to see changes in the system to help other families.

"How many other people have run into this stonewall and have had the intestinal fortitude to deal with it?" David Holt said.

'The only secure anchor he had'

About a decade ago, the Holts became foster parents in Nova Scotia, with a focus on children with special needs. They didn't plan to adopt any of their foster children, but that changed when their daughter Shay, now 10, was placed in their home.

David Holt is now happily parenting four-year-old Michael and his sister, 10-year-old Shay, along with his wife. (CBC)

The family later moved to Fredericton, where they became foster parents to Michael when he was seven months old. 

"It just made sense for him to stay with us," David Holt said. "We were his mother and father, the only secure anchor that he had."

But when the Holts told social workers in late 2014 that they wanted to adopt Michael, David Holt said, they suggested the couple — in their late 50s at the time — were too old.

A rejection letter

A few weeks later, the Holts received a rejection letter that said they couldn't adopt Michael because they had been through a traumatic event in the previous year. Their adult son Korey, who was severely disabled and spent his final years in a special care home, had died three months earlier.

David Holt and his wife want to see changes to the adoption system. (CBC)

Holt said his son's death was sad but that the family had expected it, and it wasn't traumatic.

"To utilize this as the sole reason to decline our want to adopt was ludicrous."

The Holts appealed the decision and agreed to take part in a home study.

According to documents reviewed by CBC News, the family passed a similar home study in Nova Scotia without any issues.

The Holts were shocked when they received a three-page letter from Charlotte Mercier, the supervisor of adoption and children's residential services, listing reasons they were deemed unfit to adopt. 

Race, age, weight cited in letter

Among the reasons listed in the letter were that:

  • Michael is "mixed race" and the Holts are Caucasian.
  • David and Donda Holt are too old.
  • They're overweight and don't exercise enough. (A letter from the couple's doctor says they're fit to be parents).
The New Brunswick government told David and Donda Holt they were too old and overweight when they tried to adopt their foster son. 1:16

The letter also suggested the Holts couldn't do anything to improve their case.

"Even if at this point the Holts were to change their lifestyle and make a serious effort to improve their health, it is questionable whether or not they would be able to maintain changes long term, given their unsuccessful attempts in the past to do this," it says.

The Holts were devastated and felt the study should have focused more on their ability to parent.

"How does one know we had unsuccessful issues in losing our weight?" David Holt said.

'Pure joy'

The Holts reached out to Joan MacAlpine-Stiles, the province's former family and community services minister, for help, and she was shocked when she read the letter.

"I can't really believe that is actually on paper, that anybody would actually sign their name to that statement," she said.

"For one thing, it goes against the Charter of Rights [and Freedoms]."

The case struck a chord with the retired politician, who was adopted as a baby by a 60-year-old single mother.

She made Premier Brian Gallant and then Social Development Minister Cathy Rogers aware of the Holts' situation. The couple also provided documents that show correspondence with members of the premier's staff. As well, the Holts' 10-year-old daughter wrote a letter to the department in which she begs for Michael to stay with the family.

Joan MacAlpine-Stiles wants the government to take adoption decisions out of the hands of bureaucrats. She wants the decisions in the hands of a committee of social workers and judges. 1:25

MacAlpine-Stiles said the premier was "disturbed" by the letter and asked the department to review the case. A new home study was ordered, the Holts passed and in August 2015, they received an envelope that included information approving the adoption.

"Pure joy," David Holt said about the decision. He and his wife also credit MacAlpine-Stiles and the premier for helping them get the decision denying the adoption overturned.

Department declined comment

The Department of Social Development declined to comment on the Holts' case, citing privacy legislation.

In an email, spokeswoman Leah Fitzgerald said the department has made progress in reducing the number of children in the care of the minister. As of Dec. 31, there were 434 children in permanent care and waiting to be adopted, the statement said.

Joan MacAlpine-Stiles, New Brunswick's former family and community services minister, hugs four-year-old Michael. His parents credit her with helping them fight the province's decision not to let them adopt Michael. (CBC)

The premier's office also declined to comment on the case.

MacAlpine-Stiles would like to see the department create a committee of experts, such as social workers and members of the justice system, to make adoption decisions.

"I don't want this to ever happen to anybody else," David Holt said.

He and his wife believe they were rejected because of personality differences with staff in the department, but no one with the department would give a response to that belief.

Focus on what's best for kids, council says

Governments should be doing a better job of making it easier for parents to adopt foster children, according to the Adoption Council of Canada.

Laura Eggertson, the council's executive director, said firm restrictions around age and racial background don't often benefit children in the long run.

She would rather see a focus on what's best for children.

"In this case, I think it's remarkable, shall I say, that an issue of weight is something that would have been used to reject parents."

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