Nunavut needs more ‘checks and balances’ for custom adoption process, lawmaker says

IQALUIT, NUNAVUT—A Nunavut politician says the territory isn’t doing enough to protect children under the practice of custom adoption.

“It’s wide open,” said Cathy Towtongie, a member of the Nunavut legislature. “We need some checks and balances for the Inuit child.”

Custom adoption refers to the practice of a child being placed privately with non-biological parents, usually an extended family member. Often, it involves the child of young mother being raised by grandparents or an older aunt or uncle.

Government agencies are not involved.

A version of the practice exists in all three territories, as well as northern British Columbia and Quebec, but it is most common in Nunavut. Between 2008 and 2015, almost 1,500 children were traditionally adopted — 95 per cent of all adoptions in the territory.

The practice has few controls.

Nunavut doesn’t conduct basic background checks, including ensuring the prospective parent doesn’t have a criminal record or isn’t on the federal sexual predator list. A guidebook issued by the government on custom adoption asks few questions of adoptive parents other than their name, address and ethnicity.

Towtongie said it’s time a practice rooted in tradition acknowledges the modern world.

“How can we ensure that the person adopting is not a child predator? There’s no screening process.”

Towtongie said the risks are real. Recently, she said a woman told her about a sexual predator who received a baby through custom adoption.

“Today, he’s in jail. But the child he adopted committed suicide. Who knows how many?”

Towtongie’s concerns in the legislature have been outlined before.

A 2013 report for the federal Justice Department concluded “there are no requirements under the custom adoption process for social workers to conduct safety checks of adoptive homes or criminal background checks of the prospective adoptive parents.

“Custom adoption requests remain highly fluid with few checks and balances to verify the safety of the child with any minimal criminal background checks or assessment.”

In 2003, the territory’s law reform commission made 28 recommendations to the territorial government on custom adoption. Eight years later, the federal auditor general pointed out that none of those concerns had been dealt with.

Nunavut’s rate of sexual violence is many times higher than that in southern Canada.

In the legislature, Family Services Minister Joe Savikataaq said most custom adoptions happen in small communities where people know each other.

“It’s almost always (that) the person giving up the child knows the person receiving their child,” he said.

“I would think the extended family would know the situation very well … They would not knowingly give that child up to a known predator or child sex offender.”

Towtongie said Savikataaq has a “rosy” idea of life in Nunavut’s small communities.

She said it’s wrong to believe there were no checks and balances to adoption in traditional times. Adoptions had to be approved by elders, she said, not only the parents involved.

Savikataaq said the Custom Adoption Act is under review. Government spokespeople have said a new act should be ready by 2021.

Child safety is only one of several concerns that have been raised recently with custom adoption.

A Nunavut judge has said rules around consent and eligibility aren’t always clear. Elders have said the numbers of custom adoptions have grown and are now more often to benefit biological parents unable or unwilling to care for the child instead of adoptive parents who can’t have one of their own.

Grandparents sometimes end up raising children without being consulted. In some cases, adoptions have been brokered through social media.

“We need to know children are being protected,” Towtongie said.

TORONTO STAR

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