Inuit orgs renew discussion on custom adoption

“I think Inuit have to come to a decision as to what it means to them"


Custom adoption is by far the most common way to adopt children in Nunavut, and most Inuit want to keep it that way.

The traditional practice has for thousands of years involved one family giving a child to another family to raise.

But Natan Obed, the director of social and cultural development at Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., says there is renewed discussion between Inuit organizations and the government of Nunavut about how to make custom adoption work better in the 21st century.

That discussion comes largely on the heels of a report published earlier this year, in which consultant Helen Roos found evidence the Nunavut Inuit were being exposed to human trafficking and child exploitation.

Roos’ work included anecdotal reports from a doctor at the Qikitani regional hospital, police, front-line social workers and government officials working in child protection about attempts to sell Inuit babies, children and teenagers — raising concerns that the practice is sometimes abused.

“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 assessments,” Roos wrote in the report.

Obed has been clear: Inuit organizations have not been formally made aware of any issues with custom adoption.

But he acknowledged that the territory’s high birth rate, coupled with high rates of poverty, create risk factors for abuse of the system.

“It is something to be taken seriously and it should be reviewed,” he said. “And I think there’s a lot of political will now.”

Traditional adoption was once a verbal agreement between two Inuit families, most often employed to ensure couples who couldn’t conceive had children and that orphans had parents.

But many Nunavummiut acknowledge the reasons behind the practice have shifted over time.

In 2000, when the Nunavut Law Review Commission looked at custom adoption, it heard that some parents give up children as a way of dealing with unplanned pregnancies.

There are also a growing number of children adopted into non-Inuit homes, in and outside of Nunavut.

The commission made 28 recommendations on how to strengthen the adoption process, although the government has yet to address them.

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

Registered adoptions make their way to the government of Nunavut’s Department of Family Services, the last step in a process that takes an average of six and a half years to complete while documents wind their way through court.

The department’s director, Peter Dudding, said this backlog can leave children in limbo, in terms of issuing government identification or knowing who acts as the child’s legal guardian.

But Dudding said that while dozens, sometimes hundreds, of adoptions reach his department each year, there are still adoptions that occur outside of the system.

Custom adoption is recognized under the Aboriginal Custom Adoption Recognition Act, which was inherited from the Northwest Territories when Nunavut was created in 1999.

The purpose of that legislation itself is to create a mechanism for Inuit to obtain birth certificates rather than a system for government regulation of adoptions.

This means the best interests of the children are still largely decided by Inuit parents and the larger community.

There are aspects of the practice Dudding’s department have been able to improve: the 26 custom adoption commissioners appointed under the act to oversee and approve adoptions recently took part in group training and received updated program manuals.

Although his department hasn’t fielded specific concerns about cases of abuse within the custom adoption system, Dudding recognizes that Nunavut’s children can be vulnerable.

“There’s a pent-up demand for adoption in general,” Dudding said. “We have to take notice of it, but frankly, in terms of what the next steps would be, we need more research, more information.”

“I think ensuring that Inuit really are very much involved in addressing this kind of consultation and decision making about this Aboriginal right is extremely important,” he added.

From the perspective of the GN, changing any Aboriginal right would have to be done carefully, Dudding said, without taking away from the roles Inuit play in the process.

“Custom adoption is meant to be a very positive, culturally fulfilling activity,” Obed said. “I think Inuit have to come to a decision as to what it means to them.”

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