Prof. Michael Grand

Building families through adoption has been around for a long time, but the way adoption is handled in Ontario has changed considerably in the past few years. One of the prime movers of that change, U of G psychology professor Michael Grand, has just published a book that takes a keen look at adoption and how this new understanding has − and should − affect public policies.

The book is not just an academic treatment of the issues. It’s a highly readable book with insights into the changing face of adoption, new reproductive technologies that also affect families, and the need for evidence-based legislation and policy that reflect current family life.

Grand has been a strong advocate for greater openness in adoption. “Imagine that I say to you ‘I know something really important about you, something that could affect your future health or other decisions about your life, but I’m not going to tell you about it,’” says Grand. “That’s essentially what adoptees were told.”

His advocacy work contributed significantly to the passage of current adoption legislation that allows adoptees to have their identifying information once they are adults, with some restrictions. Grand was disappointed by these restrictions, which he says research has shown are not needed, but sees the changes overall as a positive step forward.

The book’s title, The Adoption Constellation, reflects Grand’s systemic model of adoption. “The most traditional model in the past was the adoption triad: the birth parents at one corner of a triangle, the adoptive parents at another, and the adoptee at the third,” he explains. While the triangular model makes it look as though the participants are all equal, Grand points out that in fact they are not. “For example, the birth parents have little power beyond the time of placement. This model is static, and no one beyond the triad is said to influence the experience of adoption. Thus, this model makes little sense.”

Grand says a systemic model is needed instead, one that includes all the people involved in the adoption experience. “I include siblings, both birth and adopted, and the extended families, as well as social workers, teachers, religious leaders and legislators − from the closest relationship to the farthest. A constellation model allows for them all to influence the experience, and recognizes changes in relationships over time. Some may drift away, some may become closer.” He adds that when there is a shift or pull on any one part of the adoption constellation, the other participants are also affected.

He also questions another long-held tenet in the adoption field: that when children are taken from their birth families, an “irreparable psychic wound results.” Grand says he appreciates that this view recognizes that adopted children may experience the pain of loss, but disagrees with the idea that all adopted children are ‘walking wounded’ and likely to have future issues with intimacy, trust and caring.

Grand recently spent a sabbatical at the Kinship Center in California, where therapy is provided for families who have adopted children who have experienced significant trauma. Even with these troubled backgrounds, children can find strength and connection. While adopted children may be vulnerable, Grand points out that it is the relationship with the adoptive family and, particularly, how they deal with the adoption narrative that can make all the difference. “When adopted children struggle, it’s often because they feel they don’t matter to anyone,” he says.

Another major theme in the book is trust. “Children often act out in difficult ways not because they are adopted, but because they have never had experiences that showed them adults can be trusted. They can’t trust adults to tolerate their strong emotions, to protect their secrets, or even not to abandon them,” says Grand.

His experience with the challenges of adoptions has led him to formulate some ideas for new approaches. One is the idea of extended guardianships for older children and teens who don’t want to give up their family names and identity but still long for a safe, loving, permanent home. “I’d recommend this as a first choice, not a last resort,” he says.

He also suggests that when adoptions break down, reintegration of the child into the birth family should always be considered as an option. “If the birth family is now able to provide a safe and secure setting for the child, kin should be reunited,” he points out. “I think that if a child becomes free for a new placement, the family of origin should be the first to be looked at.”

Grand also discusses issues around reproductive technologies. “The lessons we’ve learned in adoption should be applied to situations with donated eggs and sperm, surrogate mothers and other forms of assisted reproduction,” he says. “Children born in these ways have the right to know their histories. If we think that there is a problem with adopted children who want access to information, we are going to see something much bigger with the hundreds of thousands of children conceived through technology. They have a need to know and a right to know.”

The book ends with a chapter about the Coalition for Open Adoption Records (COAR). Grand was a founding member of this organization and, in this chapter, he details the strategies taken to encourage the province to make adoption records available for adoptees and birth parents. The process was often frustrating. As Grand says, “Some legislators never let a well-researched fact get in the way of a strongly-held opinion.”

His hope is that his book will help people in jurisdictions where adoption records are closed to find a way to change those laws. Openness, he says, is essential. “Openness helps everyone in the adoption constellation. It heals relationships,” he says. “We live in a time when lip service is paid to the idea of openness. I hope we can get to a place where openness is the norm. May this book give courage to adoptees living with an incomplete narrative and feeling the pain of loss. I hope it will reassure others that the desire to know about one’s birth family is not a rejection of adoptive family. It’s about determining who you are as a complete person.”