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Since 1990 adoptive parents have got less leave than birth parents
CANADIAN ADOPTIVE PARENTS FIGHT FOR EQUAL FAMILY LEAVE BENEFITSDiane Riggs
September 1, 2008
Friends Hannah and Josie are elated about the prospect of being first-time parents. Both have had a rocky journey toward parenthood, and are looking forward to taking leave from work to welcome and bond with their new children. Under Canada's Employment Insurance Act, Hannah and her partner Philip have up to a year of leave to share with their daughter. Josie and Brian, who are adopting a first-grader from foster care, have substantially less time off.
Brian, like many other adoptive parents in Canada, is upset. He asserts that, by giving adoptive families 15 fewer weeks of leave than birth families, the government is effectively endorsing a view that adoptive families are somehow second rate. All growing families should be able to enjoy the same level of leave and benefits.
A History of Employment InsuranceCanada's first employment insurance program was created by the legislature in 1940. By 1983, the federal government had introduced an unemployment insurance benefit for birth mothers and adoptive parents. The benefit for both was 15 weeks of paid leave.
After a birth father brought suit claiming that the benefit discriminated against fathers who wanted to spend time with their new children, the law changed again. In 1990, Bill C-21 replaced the 15-week adoptive parent benefit with a 10-week "parental leave" for any parent in a birth or adoptive family. Birth mothers retained their 15-week leave benefit, so birth families effectively gained 10 weeks of leave, while adoptive families—entitled to only the parental leave—lost five.
The amount of leave has increased since then, but the inequality has remained the same. Effective for families whose children were born or placed for adoption by December 31, 2000, provisions of the newest law allow for 35 weeks of parental leave plus 15 weeks of maternity leave for birth mothers. An additional two-week waiting period (during which parents are on leave but awaiting benefits) makes it possible for birth families to spend up to a year at home with each new child born into the family.
Before Bill C-21 passed and stripped adoptive parents of equal leave, adoption supporters began to organize and fight the proposed change. After the law passed, a group called Adoptive Families Together for Equal Rights (AFTER) lobbied the government to recognize adoptive families' distinct needs and reinstate the adoptive parent benefit. According to Jennifer Smart, one of AFTER's former leaders, the group petitioned, wrote letters, approached the media, and prepared human rights claims that were all denied.
In 1996, a case filed by two adoptive mothers and the Adoption Council of Ontario resulted in a victory. A judge ruled that the federal Unemployment Insurance Act (as it was then called) contravened the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Sadly, the federal attorney general successfully appealed the ruling and adoptive parents' hopes were dashed again. Just this January, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear an appeal by an adoptive mother who had been fighting in court since 1999 to obtain benefits currently reserved for birth mothers.
Common Issues for New ParentsFaced with another judicial defeat, Canada's adoption community, led by the Adoption Council of Canada (ACC) with support from NACAC, is pursuing a legislative angle. Specifically, ACC and NACAC recommend that Canadian legislators "[amend] the Labour Code to provide an adoptive parent leave with the same level of benefits provided through maternity leave." In short, birth and adoptive families should have the same total amount of leave and benefits.
As ACC points out, birth and adoptive parents share many of the same issues when adding a child to their family:
Issues Unique to Adoption
Though the vast majority of core issues are the same for new birth and adoptive parents, distinct differences remain:
The Case for Equal Leave/BenefitsStatements and policies that set adoptive families and their children apart from all other families and children fly in the face of efforts to make children who were adopted feel that they are fully vested members of a real family. Unequal treatment reinforces the unfortunate perception that adoptive families are somehow less valued or valid than other families.
As Jennifer Smart—now project coordinator for a study at Queen's University—argues, "Governments who give out privileges to some families while not extending the same to other families are creating social injustice."
Ultimately, of course, vulnerable children are the victims of the injustice. Cindy Haftner, who sits on ACC's board and is executive director of the Adoption Support Centre of Saskatchewan, states that the government is not equitably safeguarding the best interests of all its children. "It is in every child's best interest," she emphasizes, "to get the best start possible in a new family."
Michael Grand, an adoption researcher and graduate psychology professor at Guelph University in Ontario, notes that it would cost the government very little to give adoptive families an extra 15 weeks of leave. In the population at large, relatively few families adopt. And in leveling the leave, he asserts, the government would endorse "public recognition of the legitimacy of the [adoptive] family form."
Backed by NACAC, ACC, and adoptive families throughout Canada, an equitable leave program that entitles birth and adoptive families to the same amount of leave and benefits seems only fair. Sadly, as Grand explains, it is not quite that simple. If adoptive parents—who, like birth fathers, cannot claim maternity leave—are granted additional time off, birth fathers may again cry foul. The prospect of subsuming maternity leave into a more generic family leave policy could also upset some advocates.
To effectively promote leave equality, we must refocus citizens' and lawmakers' attention on Canada's children—those born and adopted into the nation's families. Do they not deserve to begin life with a new family on equal footing? Adoptive families are not asking for more leave than birth families receive, or angling for an unfair advantage. At the end of the day, they simply want the government to provide the best possible leave and benefit package for all families, regardless of how they elect to grow.
Diane Riggs is editor of Adoptalk, quarterly newsletter of the North American Council on Adoptable Children in St. Paul MN.
©2008 North American Council on Adoptable Children
First published as "Adoptive Parents in Canada Fight to Equalize Family Leave for All" in the Fall 2008 Adoptalk.
Published at Family Helper, www.familyhelper.net, on Jan. 12, 2009. Jennifer Smart's account of founding AFTER appeared in Adoption Helper, July 1996. In 1997 she received an Ontario Adoption Award from the Adoption Council of Ontario for her work on behalf of adoption causes. She edited Post-adoption Helper, nos. 1 to 9.
For more on Canadian leave benefits, see Fight Workplace Bias Against Adoptive Parents.
For more on post-adoption depression, see Post-adoption Depression: From the Heart of an Adoptive Mother.
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