NEWS: Nunavut June 11, 2018 - 8:00 am

Nunavut MLA wants better screening of Inuit custom adoptions

"What if we adopt out an Inuk child and the person adopting is a known sexual predator?"


Cathy Towtongie, who represents Rankin Inlet North-Chesterfield Inlet in the Nunavut legislature, wants better screening of potential custom adoptive parents in the territory, to prevent babies from being handed over to child sex predators.

Towtongie’s questions last Thursday to the acting minister of family services, Joe Savikataaq, about holes in the custom adoption screening process, followed comments made earlier in the legislature by fellow MLA John Main of Arviat North-Whale Cove, who had asked what Nunavut plans to do about the high rate of sexual abuse of children.

But Savikataaq’s responses to Towtongie in the assembly suggest that he has a rosy view of how custom adoption actually works in Nunavut.

“Everyone in this custom adoption is for the betterment of the child,” Savikataaq said June 7 in the legislature. “A lot of this is some young girl has a baby and she’s too young, and the parents and her decided that this child should go to this family because they want one and they would love it. That’s the whole theme around custom adoption. It’s for two different families, one to want to give the child and one to receive it. They both have the best interest of their child in mind.”

But Towtongie said that these days she would not want “to go on assumption that a child is not being given to a child predator.”

“My question is, in Aboriginal custom adoption, why are criminal record checks not used today? It’s an open adoption. I would think criminal record checks in terms of Inuit custom adoption in order to protect the child could be used,” Towtongie said.

“I believe in today’s society that we need some type of a screening process for homes. These elders had a screening process. If Family Services can produce a screening process for homes, it would enable us to know whether a person adopting is a child predator. That’s what we need. What if we adopt out an Inuk child and the person adopting is a known sexual predator?”

But Savikataaq said that with custom adoption, “it’s almost always with the person giving up the child knows the person receiving their child.”

“I would think the extended family would know the situation very well. Anyone who has a baby, they love that baby, they give it up for a reason, but they love the baby. They would not knowingly give that child up to a known predator or child sex offender. Nobody would do that. That just does not make any sense at all.”

But that has happened.

One mother gave up her child through a custom adoption to a household marked by sexual abuse, domestic violence and neglect, with the child ending up in the temporary custody of the office of the director of children and family services.

And a 2013 report prepared for the federal Justice Department, which documented stories of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Nunavut, found custom adoption in Nunavut may also contribute to the vulnerability of Inuit to human trafficking, since these adoptions do not involve the same scrutiny as formal adoption.

“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,” the report said.

In another case that ended up in court, a judgment nulled a botched custom adoption certificate that was issued without the consent of the child’s mother or grandmother.

Savikataaq also told Towtongie that “you cannot do custom adoption, to the best of my knowledge from an Inuit to a non-Inuit family, because that is generally not custom adoption.”

But that also takes place.

A Nunavut woman reached out and found adoptive parents in another province by reaching out on a Facebook swap and sell page.

And some parents on an online adoption forum, who have been successful in adopting newborns from Nunavut, say more and more mothers, who are willing to see their children adopted outside Nunavut, go south for their birth.

That’s because, if the baby is born outside Nunavut, there is less interference, so it’s more like a private adoption, they say.

Between 1999 and 2010, almost 3,000 children were custom-adopted in Nunavut—82 per cent of them newborns, according to the Government of Nunavut in 2014.

The auditor general of Canada and Maligarnit Qimirrujiit, the Nunavut Law Reform Commission, reviewed the custom adoption act in a report issued in 2000, with 28 recommendations to improve the Aboriginal Custom Adoption Recognition Act.

Those recommendations called for legislative reform, standardized policy and increased documentation, saying “there is a strong consensus that something does have to be done before custom adoption is continued in the current haphazard way.”

In 2011, the auditor general of Canada had also touched on custom adoption in its report to Nunavut’s legislature on youth and family services in Nunavut.

That report recommended “that the responsibilities are made clear with respect to the safety and best interests of the child, and ensure that the act continues to meet the need to reflect Aboriginal customary law.”

Savikataaq told Towtongie the custom adoption act was going to be looked at and reviewed in terms of “if there is any way we want to make it work better.”

But he said “we don’t want to hinder the process so that it makes it too hard for a custom adoption to work.”