Adoptees face obstacles in Quebec
WE ARE ONE OF THE LAST provinces to open adoption records, leaving many unable to access details about their birth parents. An adopted child seeking answers often hits a wall of bureaucratic silence unless the parents decide to come forward voluntarily,
Her mother’s name is Camille and she is originally from Guyana. Armed with these scraps of information, Laila Mjeldheim came to Montreal from her home in Norway this fall on a mission to learn the identity of her birth mother.
Mjeldheim clings to the little she does know about her past: She was born in Montreal’s St. Mary’s Hospital on Oct. 8, 1976. Her 20-year-old mother, Camille, emigrated from South America in 1975 and was working in the travel industry when she got pregnant. Camille and Lorenzo, her 24-year-old Spanish-Canadian boyfriend, decided they weren’t ready to be parents.
Camille expressed that “she would love to be able to keep (her child), but eventually she decided that this would be a selfish thing to do,” according to official background information from Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, the agency that handled the adoption. She wanted her daughter “to have a father and a home that was ready for a baby.”
Camille named her daughter Shakira, the Arabic word for thankful, and gave her up.
But the mother’s dreams for her tiny daughter didn’t quite work out as hoped, and Mjeldheim’s search for information about her origins has since hit a wall of bureaucratic silence in Quebec — one of the last remaining jurisdictions where adoption records are kept from family members looking to reunite.
Mjeldheim even brought along a private investigator from Norway to help in her search, and he laments the dearth of basic facts available for her mother: a full name, or date of birth, a social insurance number, a working permit, immigration files, friends from the travel agency — even a clue as remote as the first letter of Camille’s last name or her zodiac sign.
“The information is there, but we can’t start with nothing,” said Ola Thune, a former cop with over 30 years’ experience who now works as a private eye. “To get anything, my impression is we have to change the law.”
As it stands, a child who was given up for adoption in Quebec cannot discover the identity of their birth parents unless the parents decide to come forward voluntarily.
In 2009, the provincial justice minister at the time, Kathleen Weil, put forward a draft bill to prise open the long-sealed records. The Liberal government proposed to allow adopted children to seek information in their files to identify their birth parents, while simultaneously allowing biological parents to veto this disclosure.
The bill died when the Liberal government lost the 2012 election. But in June, Parti Québécois Justice Minister Bertrand St-Arnaud talked about reviving it, stating it was the government’s intention to “consult on this important bill in the coming months.”
However, Paul Jean Charest, a communications officer from the Justice Department, said there is no timeline to reintroduce the bill.
Until then, adopted children like Mjeldheim remain in limbo. Experts say a legislative change such as the one Weil proposed would bring Quebec in line with current policy in much of the Western world.
“I don’t think (this provision) is drastic,” said Angela Campbell, an associate professor in the law department at McGill University who teaches family law. The main contention with the new disclosure rules, she explained, come down to the protection of privacy rights — offset by the fact birth parents could veto release of their information.
“The sense of identifying information and knowledge of origin is pitted against the right to privacy,” Campbell said. “That is where there is concern.”
The fact that changes were brought before the National Assembly is a leap forward for Caroline Fortin, the president of Mouvement Retrouvailles Quebec, a nonprofit network that helps adoptees and birth parents find each other and provides support through the process of reunion. The organization has been fighting since 1983 to amend the legislation that seals adoption files. It currently has about 14,000 cases of people looking to reunite with their birth parents or children.
Fortin said she believes the delay in changes to adoption law has gone on long enough, as 300,000 children have been adopted in Quebec since the 1920s and approximately 300 are adopted per year.
“We’re behind the other provinces, American states and European countries,” said Fortin, whose organization has been involved in consultations surrounding the amendments to the laws. “(The new laws) won’t obligate anyone to meet up, and we agree with that, but the information in those files can be fundamental for an adopted person.”
Besides the full name of the birth parents, many people who were adopted in Quebec also want to learn about any health problems their birth parents may have had, to which they could also be susceptible.
Ontario, for example, has open adoption records and a registry that allow those involved in adoption easy access to the information many in Quebec continue to search for. The province of British Columbia opened its records in 1996.
Fortin argues it is fundamental for Quebec law to catch up. “We should have that right to know … and it’s not just because we’re adopted that we have this right, (but because) it’s a human right.” For Mjeldheim, finding her mother is the key to overcoming a tragic past. After her birth mother gave her up, Mjeldheim was put in foster care before settling with her new family and brother named Thomas, who the same family also adopted through Batshaw. The Mjeldheim family then moved back to Norway when she was 6 months old.
But her adoptive father became a violent alcoholic and was convicted of child molestation in 1985 for abusing Mjeldheim over the years. After she confided in a downstairs neighbour, child protective services stepped in at school and removed her and Thomas from their home.
The children waited in foster care while their parents divorced and their father served 10 months in prison for his
“We’re behind the other provinces, American states and European countries.” CAROLINE FORTIN
crimes. Her preteen brother started hanging with older kids at the orphanage, lashing out and abusing drugs.
Eventually, the two children moved back in with their mother. But Thomas’s drug abuse and dark episodes spiralled further. In 1997, the family of three came back to Montreal so the children could see their country of origin, and so that both children could put in a request with Batshaw to reconnect with their birth parents.
“My mom thought it was important. She was seeing what was happening with my brother and thought this
“The sense of identifying information and knowledge of origin is pitted against the right to privacy. That is where there is concern.” ANGELA CAMPBELL
might help us heal in some way,” said Mjeldheim. They opened two files with Batshaw. They waited. In 1990, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stated that a child shall “have the right to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without lawful interference.” Where a child is deprived of some of these identifying elements, governments “shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to reestablishing speedily his or her identity.”
Canada became a signatory to the convention in 1990, ratifying it in 1991.
In 1993, The Hague Conference on private international law declared in its Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption rulings that authorities in the state of origin “shall ensure that information held by them concerning the child’s origin, in particular concerning the identity of his or her parents, as well as the medical history, is preserved.”
The child “has the right to access such information, under appropriate guidance, in so far as is permitted by the law of that state.”
If Mjeldheim, a Norwegian citizen, had been adopted in Norway, she would have had access to the information in her files, which would include the name of her birth mother and father, as soon as she turned 18. But since that information falls under Quebec’s adoption law, and because her adoption was “local” at the time, her files are on lockdown.
The Batshaw Family and Youth Centre, where Mjeldheim’s adoption is registered, is one of 16 regional adoption agencies in Quebec, but the only centre serving the anglophone and Jewish communities. According to Manuella Piovesan, the program manager for adoption, Batshaw receives as many as five requests per week for adoption disclosure services.
Right now, her office is processing 75 requests. In the last five years, Piovesan says, her staff of five investigators has been able to locate the missing party 80 per cent of the time. Batshaw has access to the birth parents’ names, and contacts them (or tries to) when a request is put in. Then the parents can either agree to a meeting or turn it down. In approximately 20 per cent of cases, the birth mother or adopted child declines to reunite.
Madeleine Bérard, Batshaw’s director of youth protection, is eager to see a resolution of Quebec’s adoption law. “Every situation is unique and what comes with this process is an extremely high level of sensitivity and emotions that this process triggers for everyone. But we understand it’s not as easy as just signing your name and finding a person, which is why it’s being so well regulated.” It was 2001 when Mjeldheim’s brother Thomas finally received a letter from Batshaw.
“(We are) very sorry to inform you that our search for your biological mother has come to an end,” it read. Dianne, his birth mother, died in 1996. The notice included two letters she wrote to him, as well as a request from her family to meet. Prior to her death, Dianne had come forward to Batshaw requesting a search be undertaken to find her son. She told her brother, Rick Saul, to keep looking if anything happened to her.
“She talked about him a lot, hoped she could meet him one day and basically got silence on the other end,” Saul said in a phone interview from Toronto. “She always wondered what the likelihood would be of meeting him.”
Batshaw told Thomas in the letter they were “sorry that it did not work out as you had hoped.”
Thomas was devastated, Mjeldheim said. He died of an overdose in 2007.
Mjeldheim her self was contacted by Batshaw in 2004 and told that “after an exhaustive search, we have been unable to locate your birth mother … therefore we are closing your case.”
Then she met Thune, the private investigator, and decided to try again. Her file has been reopened. Batshaw has told her it will do everything possible find Camille. The wait time for such services, however, can be anywhere from three to five years.
If the law changes and if more information from her files can be released, or if someone steps forward with information after hearing her story, Mjeldheim believes she can find Camille with the help and support of her friends. At least that’s the hope.
“I’m going to be married next August and it would be a dream to invite her,” Mjeldheim said. “That is like a dream. I don’t expect that, but in my imagination, that would be the top.”
Laila Mjeldheim, who grew up in Norway after being adopted from Montreal parents, is in town with private investigators trying to find her biological mother.