Historically in most cultures and societies, extended family and friends took in orphaned children. The move was done openly and the child’s identity was maintained. This type of informal adoption was quite common in Canada until the early twentieth century when institutionalization and legal adoption became the practice. It was at this time that provinces began to amend child welfare legislation to seal adoption records and provide for confidentiality in adoption practice.

The intent was to protect all parties to the adoption; the child and birth parents from the stigma of illegitimacy and the adoptive parents from the public acknowledgement of infertility. Because of the mores of the times, unmarried women who became pregnant were sent away , or went on their own accord to maternity homes so that “no one would find out.” Many were subsequently advised not to see their child and to “start afresh.” For years, and sometimes lifetimes, feelings remained unexpressed. The adoptive parents also had little opportunity to deal with the loss issues related to infertility, just as the birth parent’s role as a parent was diminished.

Adoptive parents often did not tell their child about the adoption thinking it would be in the child’s best interests not to know, and were encouraged to see the adoption as if it was the same as biological parenthood. The “as if born to” concept was further institutionalized when birth registrations were legally altered to indicate the adoptive parents as the birth parents. Thus the veil of secrecy was complete.

We have learned from the experiences of many adult adoptees that when they have been denied information about their origins, it has had a negative effect on their sense of self and their overall mental health. Birth parent support organizations have also spoken out about the grief and sense of loss their members have endured over the years. They couldn’t “forget” as they had been advised, and felt there was something missing in their lives because they did not know what had happened to their children.

Prior to the 1970s, the vast majority of women with an unplanned pregnancy placed the child for adoption. Because of changing social conditions, including the increased availability of birth control, legal access to abortion and changing attitudes to illegitimacy, there were dramatic decreases in the numbers of infants being relinquished for adoption across Canada.

In many provinces the status of “illegitimacy” was repealed, so that children had the same rights as those born to married parents and there was less stigma to single parenthood. Unmarried parents, usually single mothers, were offered support services and social welfare benefits if they wished to keep their children. As a result, fewer children were relinquished for adoption by their unmarried parents.

The numbers of infant adoptions declined from 3,521 annually in 1981 to 1,698 in 1990 and now are closer to 700. These numbers reveal a striking change in the role of public agencies. In the 1970s, the vast majority of infant placements were handled by public (government) agencies. In 1981, they handled 78% of infant adoptions, but by 1990 private agencies were placing approximately 60% of available infants. Today, most infant adoptions are processed by private agencies, with a very few infants placed by provinces that do not yet allow private agencies to take on this role.

The decline in numbers resulted in long waiting times for prospective adoptive parents seeking infants. Many decided not to wait for up to six years in some provinces for public adoptions and adopted from outside Canada. Intercountry adoptions increased during this period and have remained steady at approximately 2,000 annually over the past decade.

Adoption practice has had to respond to changing community values, the decline in the numbers of infants available for adoption and the increased knowledge about the effects of closed adoptions on all involved. There has been a dramatic move away from secrecy towards openness in adoption practice. The increase in private agency facilitation of infant adoptions is largely due to the willingness of the agencies to offer birth parents much stronger involvement in the selection of prospective parents and in the placement process. The research is clear. The more birth parents have control over the placement, the exchange of information and the possibility of some type of continued contact, the better their adjustment to the decision to place their child.

The majority of infant adoptions processed through private licensed agencies are open to some degree. One agency notes that it has had only one traditional “closed” adoption in the past five years, and that was at the request of the birth mother, not the adoptive parents who are open to contact if she changes her mind.

Most agencies involve the birth parents extensively in the planning for their child. Birthparents are provided with profiles describing three or more prospective adoptive families selected by the social worker. The birth parents usually select one of the families. Most often the family selected is comfortable with the arrangement and the placement proceeds. This kind of openness is standard practice in most licensed agencies across Canada and has also become the practice in some public agencies and government departments. The level of post placement openness varies from moderate, or semi-open features, for example, helping to choose the adoptive couple, receiving pictures and letters, to more direct contact with the adoptive family, such as meeting the couple, visiting or phoning.

The legislation in B.C. and two other provinces supports the practice of open adoption. B.C. legislation focuses on informed choices, openness and the rights of children. It allows for voluntary openness agreements to be negotiated between the birth and adoptive families, and the contacts can include extended family members if the adoptive parents agree. These arrangements are not enforceable in law, so they are made consensually, and often with the assistance or mediation of agency social workers. The arrangements can and do change over time, as the birth and adoptive families work out any difficulties. There are currently no guidelines in policy to assist the parties to decide on what basis to choose the various forms of openness.

Some social workers create ceremonies or celebrations as a part of the process, using candles, flowers, music and poetry to commemorate the decision to place the child and maintain the kind of contact both families are comfortable with. One ceremony recently helped an aboriginal extended family that was resistant to the decision by the birth mother to place her child outside the family to realize that they were not losing the child, but sharing her with the adoptive family. The contact began in the birthmother’s hospital room. By the end of the session, the birth family was embracing the adoptive parents as part of their extended family.

We know from personal experience, and research in the United States that birth parents report less worry and more positive feelings towards placing the baby if they have had even a moderate form of openness. Equally important, Hal Grotevant of the University of Minnesota and Ruth McRoy, University of Texas have found in their study (1997), that adoptive parents have less fear of the birth parents reclaiming the child in those circumstances where the birth mother is in direct contact with the adoptive family. This study also indicates that in those families with contact, higher levels of collaboration between the adoptive parents and birthmother predicted better emotional adjustment of the child. Since this study followed children only into adolescence, more research needs to be done on the long term effects of openness on the child and on circumstances that may contra-indicate full openness.

The lack of Canadian research in this area is an issue. Relevant follow up studies could help us to improve practice, particularly related to the more open forms of contact that appear to be on the rise.

Philosophy and practice about openness are far ahead of the legislative frameworks in most provinces and territories. David Kirk (1964) in his landmark work Shared Fate, clearly moved practice away from pretending that adoption is the same as biological parenting and towards more honesty and openness. Yet the legislation in most provinces still requires birth certificates to be amended to indicate the child is “as if born to” the adoptive parents, continuing to enshrine secrecy in the process.

A further issue related to the desired policy of honesty and openness in adoption relates to traditional adoptions from the past, when information about the origins of the adoptee was not shared to preserve the confidentiality of the birth mother. Although there are now three provinces that have legislation permitting disclosure of identifying information to adult adoptees, many other provinces lag behind in their legislation, policy and practice in this area. Some have active or passive registries, but there are often long waiting times for service. As more provinces/territories move to open records, policies need to take into account the impact on all parties to the adoption.


Grotevant, H.D., & McRoy, R..G. (1997) The Minnesota/Texas Openness in Adoption Research Project

Kirk, David. (1964) Shared Fate

Sandra Scarth, adoptive parent and President, Adoption Council of Canada
October, 2004

The Adoption Council of Canada (ACC) is a national, charitable organization. Our mission is to inform and educate Canadians on all aspects of adoption; promote the placement of waiting children; promote openness and honesty in adoption and work toward legislative reform.

This article written originally for Imprint Magazine of Ontario