Sunday, January 16th, 2011 | Author: mjward

Several provinces placed Aboriginal children for adoption in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Manitoba, the last to stop this practice, declared a moratorium in 1982 out of concern over the problems experienced by these children. Since then, there have been continuing reports of difficulties. The official inquiry into placement practices of Manitoba agencies found that a number of children whose adoptions had broken down were coming before the courts on criminal matters. Later accounts have suggested that adoptees were subject to physical and sexual abuse, committed serious crimes, and/or suffered severe psychological damage. However, there had been little follow-up of these young people.

One agency that placed many Aboriginal children from Canada in the United States was Tressler Lutheran Services in Pennsylvania, finding homes for 206 such children between 1974 and 1986. Of these, 14 came from Saskatchewan in the early 1970s, the remaining 192 from Manitoba from 1974 until 1982. Following the 1982 moratorium, adoptions of Aboriginal children involved only re-placements following disruptions. All children were adopted by Caucasian families.

The agency provided on-going support services following adoption finalization, including groups for both adoptees and parents. Thus staff had contact with many families and/or heard how they were faring. Agency personnel came to believe that families with Aboriginal adoptees were reporting an unusual number of problems. Calls came from widely scattered families who did not know each other, telling of similar difficulties with their children: severe acting out, seemingly complete unconcern about their adoptive families, and leaving their homes, often heading north. In view of continuing reports of difficulty in these adoptions, families were contacted in 1994 to learn both problem levels during the children’s development and level of adaptation in early adulthood. This followed a similar follow-up that occurred in 1984 when the children were younger.

Information for the 1994 study came from two sources–agency records and interviews with the adoptive parents. With the assistance of a student on summer placement, Dr. Barbara Tremitiere of Tressler Lutheran Services located parents who had adopted a total of 100 Aboriginal children (53 families with 52 males and 48 females). About one-fourth of children had been adopted before age six; half between six and ten years; and one-quarter between 11 and 15. This group contained many of the families interviewed in 1984. Dr. Tremitiere conducted telephone interviews with parents using a guide with both closed and open-ended items. The interviews covered the history of the placement, the types of problems encountered during the developmental years, the ages at which these occurred, and the adoptee’s present adaptation. The severity of problems was based on parents’ reports and may therefore have shown some bias.

In 1994, most of the adoptees had reached adulthood. There were five deaths: one boy had died of natural causes; another was killed accidentally after his return to Canada; two boys, who did not know each other and whose parents had believed they were doing well, committed suicide; and a young woman was the victim of a serial killer. Most of the survivors were in their twenties. Most grew up in two-parent families. Over three-fourths of the children lived in homes with other Aboriginal children. About one-third of the families had four or more children.

Most of the 95 surviving adoptees were in touch with their adoptive parents. This included some who had returned to Canada. A number had resumed contact after an extended period. For about half the contact was frequent. Most parents knew where their children lived. Children who lived at home, more females than males, were less likely to have serious difficulties than those living out of the home. The majority of those at home were either in school or had graduated from high school. They were not necessarily free from problems; one family, for example, had just made arrangements for their pregnant daughter and her boyfriend to move in with them. Parents had no information about the living situations of 30 of their children. The others were evenly divided between stable and problem environments (e.g., involving substance abuse, criminality, or violence).

Nearly half the adoptees had experienced some difficulties involving identity issues. There was a significant jump in such issues in adolescence. Problems also tended to be more severe during these years. Perhaps as a result of problems in school, educational levels were low. Only a third had graduated from high school, with 8 percent having some college. For one-fourth there was no information, largely because they were no longer in contact with their parents. Although problem levels declined in late adolescence and early adulthood, a high proportion of the adoptees continued to experience difficulties. Indeed, parents rated the general adjustment of fewer half their children as satisfactory. Surprisingly, there was no correlation between age at adoption and the presence or degree of problems. This finding may reflect the fact that problems were so pervasive that any advantage coming from early placement eventually disappeared. The 17 adoptees who experienced no major problems were mainly female. Ten were in families with other Aboriginal children who did have problems.

Staff at Tressler undertook a follow-up study of other adoptees placed transracially during the same period as the Aboriginal children. All parents had a similar background. Analyses showed that Aboriginal adoptees fared much worse in all areas than African-American, Vietnamese, and Korean children placed in Caucasian homes.

Why have Aboriginal children had more problems in their adoptive families than others placed transracially and internationally? While there are no clear answers, possible explanations are explored in “Canadian Aboriginal Children Adopted by American Parents. Part 3: Why the Problems?”


Holtan, B., & Tremitiere, B. (1966), August). Looking back: An outcome study of Canadian Indian, Vietnamese, and Korean adoptees. Paper presented at the annual conference of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, Dallas, TX.

Kimelman, E. C. (1985). No quiet place (Final report of the Review Committee on Indian and Metis adoptions). Winnipeg: Manitoba Community Services.

Tremitiere, B. T., Ward, M., & Polesky, G. G. (1996, October 28). Native Canadian children in American homes: Parents’ perceptions of outcomes. (Unpublished paper)

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