Family Helper > Heart of Adoption > Diane Riggs Search this site: 
Custom Search

Since 1990 adoptive parents have got less leave than birth parents


Diane 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 Insurance

Canada'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 Parents

Faced 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:

  • Adjustment issues. Whether parents adopt or women give birth, the family needs time to get used to the inevitable changes that occur when a new child comes home. Parents who adopt older Canadian children from foster care may face extraordinary challenges helping their children adapt to a new placement while facing some serious adjustment issues of their own. Parents who adopt internationally may have to address medical concerns common to children from the orphanage or region, and figure out ways to communicate with a child accustomed to a foreign language.
  • Physical challenges. The maternity benefit aims to help women through the physical changes and challenges of pregnancy, delivery, and recovery, but the degree to which women are incapacitated by pregnancy and delivery varies tremendously. Adoptive parents' experiences are similarly variable. Some parents, while preparing to adopt, experience debilitating physical side-effects from failed infertility treatments, the stress of home studies and training, the frustration of waiting, and the nightmare of never-ending paperwork. Parents who travel to bring children home must navigate rules in a foreign country and, upon arriving back in Canada, deal with the whole family's jet lag. Like birth parents, adoptive parents commonly lose sleep, are initially overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for a child, and are anxious to be the parents their children need.
  • Emotional stress. When the realities of parenting prove much harder than birth or adoptive parents imagined, feelings of sadness, loss, frustration, guilt, and inadequacy can lead to depression. Most people have heard of postpartum depression, but there is also growing recognition of post-adoption depression syndrome or PADS. Studies suggest that more than half of adoptive mothers experience PADS to some extent, and the incidence is even higher for parents who adopt children with special needs and those who adopt internationally.

Issues Unique to Adoption

Though the vast majority of core issues are the same for new birth and adoptive parents, distinct differences remain:

  • Heightened attachment and bonding challenges. Leave equality advocates point out that birth parents get to start bonding with their new child during pregnancy while would-be adoptive parents are still mired in forms, classes, and uncertainty. Birth parents can also give their children proper care from day one, and witness the child's growing attachment in a matter of weeks.
    Infants in healthy families who consistently meet their needs attach very quickly. Children whose needs are met infrequently or unpredictably in infancy and early childhood may struggle to trust that an adult can be relied upon to meet their needs. Even if a child arrives in an adoptive family before age two, attachment is by no means automatic.
    Parents who adopt children from foster care cannot even begin to promote attachment until their children are months, years, or more than a decade old. And, due to attachment issues created early in life, children's transitions into new families can be hard on everyone. The children are not likely to bond with the new family (or the new family with them) in the first few weeks after arriving.
    With additional time off, adoptive parents can begin to ease the new child into household rules and routines. They can take time to learn about the child's habits, preferences, and goals, and engage in activities that will bring the family closer together. They can develop structures and rules that will help keep the child safe.
  • Realities of adding an older child to the family. When a new baby comes home, the most pressing concern is having a car seat as well as enough diapers, formula, clothing changes, and burp cloths to keep the baby well fed and comfortable while parents learn the ropes. Parents who welcome older children into their life must also provide food and clothing, but have many other tasks to complete to see that the child has a good start in his new home.
    First, there's the issue of records. Adoptive parents need time to review and reference their children's placement, health, and mental health records (and make certain check-ups and immunizations are current). Then there's the need to enroll children in school. If the child has challenges in school, parents may need to negotiate for special services and supports.
    Outside of school, children may need to attend therapy sessions, have medications monitored, and access other services. There is a lot to juggle, and if families do not have time to put all the pieces together when the child joins the family, the balancing act will quickly grow more difficult and stressful.
  • Public perception of adoption. Since most women and couples add children to their family one pregnancy at a time, society often views families who adopt as falling outside the norm. News coverage often reinforces this sense by insisting that children who join a family through adoption be clearly identified as such. Take for example CBC News. In a July 2002 story, they felt compelled to identify Jean Chrétien's 33-year-old son as "Michel Chrétien, adopted son of the prime minister."

The Case for Equal Leave/Benefits

Statements 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,, 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.


Heart of Adoption  
Articles to inform and inspire

Fertility Adoption Adoption Resource Central Post-adoption Family Tree

Contact: Robin Hilborn,
Box 1353, Southampton, Ont. N0H 2L0 Canada
©2009 Robin R. Hilborn
Updated Jan. 12, 2009

Family Helper


About us    Copyright    Privacy    Disclaimer