It’s been almost five years since philosophy professor Carolyn McLeod and a team of researchers at Western released a report arguing for equal parental benefits for adoptive families and others who provide permanency to children, to ensure they have time to attach to their new parents. Finally, McLeod and her team are celebrating a win.
The federal government’s fall economic statement announced a new 15-week employment insurance (EI) “adoption benefit,” matching the 15-week maternity benefit for those who give birth.
“It’s really a matter of equality, of recognizing this form of parenting and the value it has, and the challenges involved in it. We just don’t respect that form of parenting equally, if we provide unequal benefits for no good reason,” McLeod said.
“It’s also symbolic in recognizing this is an equally valuable way of becoming a family. There’s already stigma and bias associated with having a non-normative or non-biological family. I think that’s part of the issue, but the biggest part is ensuring we promote the well-being of these children and youth, which we don’t do if we don’t give their new families the time the kids need to attach to their parents.”
Adoptive families were already entitled to parental benefits, but not to the extra 15-week benefit associated with giving birth to a child.
The new payment, which also applies to surrogate parents, is expected to be rolled out during the 2023-2024 fiscal year, which ends March 31.
“It’s been a long time coming,” McLeod said, recalling the 2019 report and the advocacy work done on Parliament Hill before and after its release. The report, called Time to Attach: An Argument in Favour of EI Attachment Benefits, was produced for Ontario’s Adoptive Parents Association (now an association representing kin, customary care, and adoptive parents and caregivers), and for a similar national body: the Child and Youth Permanency Council of Canada.
Canada late to grant equal benefits
McLeod, herself an adoptive parent, was the founding chair of the board of Ontario’s Adoptive Parents Association. Her personal and volunteer experience inspired her research.
“It really was me wanting to contribute to improving the adoption system, because my own experience revealed to me that it was not functioning well – and that’s an understatement,” she said.
The chair of Western’s philosophy department, McLeod is a leading scholar in feminist philosophy, and known worldwide for her research on the ethics of adoption, parenting, and reproductive healthcare. She was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2021.
Most countries in the world already provide equal leave, McLeod said, calling Canada “an outlier on this front.” Her advocacy helped drive change.
“The development of this leave policy is a prime example of how research in the humanities is engaged with an ever-evolving society. This kind of engaged humanities allows us to tackle important societal and ethical issues,” Ileana Paul, associate dean of research in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, said of the new EI benefits.
McLeod’s work highlighted the necessity of providing children and youth time to attach to their new caregivers, a pivotal process that can be particularly difficult after losing birth parents or being removed from their home.
“Attachment doesn’t come easy. You’ve got to work at it, and you need to be able to devote the time.” – Carolyn McLeod, professor of philosophy at Western
“You’re not going to solve all attachment issues in the first year of a placement, but there’s evidence suggesting that first year is crucial,” McLeod added.
Children who are not well attached to their parents can express that need through defiance or other challenging behaviours, McLeod said. Having appropriate time to manage a transition when a new child enters the family can also impact caregivers’ willingness to welcome a child with substantial needs or to adopt a sibling group.
‘There might be an increase in adoptions’
The Time to Attach report advocated for attachment benefits for adoptive parents and others providing a permanent home to children, including extended family involved in kin care or the Indigenous model of customary care, where Indigenous children are raised in another family according to the customs of their band.
Included in the report were the results of a quantitative study, led by Western sociology professor Lorraine Davies, in which 974 adoptive, kin and customary caregivers were interviewed about attachment benefits. About one-quarter said they would be more likely to adopt children with special needs or siblings if they were assured the additional 15 weeks of leave and benefits.
McLeod hopes the introduction of the new paid benefit will provide more opportunities for kids who cannot be reunited with their birth families to find a permanent home.
“There might be an increase in adoptions period, but there might especially be an increase in adoptions of children who may not otherwise be adopted,” McLeod said.
“The outcomes for them if they don’t have that support – if they stay in foster care or in a group home – are generally poor. Too many of these kids end up homeless and many do not finish high school. To understand the challenges they face, it’s important for people to imagine what it would be like to go through life without parents.”
It’s not about pushing adoption. McLeod wants the government to ensure the new benefit is available to all families who provide permanency to children, not just to those that legally adopt children. She wants the benefit to be called an “attachment” rather than an “adoption” benefit.
McLeod recently appeared before a House of Commons standing committee as a witness to share expertise about the importance of time to attach, including the critique of the new benefit name and the need to extend it to all people offering permanency to children.
She’s driven by a desire to keep socially marginalized kids and parents from falling through the cracks.
McLeod also believes there must be greater support for birth families to prevent the removal of their children in the first place. Her current research focuses on marginalized populations, including Black and Indigenous communities and their distrust of child welfare institutions.
“We’re focused more now on the people who may lose their children, and the kind of injustice that they face,” she said.