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,

Montreal Gazette - - Front Page - LAURA BEE­STON SPE­CIAL TO THE GAZETTE

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.”

DARIO AYALA/ THE GAZETTE

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.

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