Openness, family, and heritage


Siobhan Rowe
Focus on Adoption magazine

From their own experiences, Sandee and Aaron Mitchell knew that openness was vitally important for all their family, especially their son.

Being an adoptive mom isn’t the only adoption connection in Sandee Mitchell’s life. In fact, adoption weaves itself right through her past and present.

Sandee’s interview with Focus on Adoption was initially to be about how Sandee and her husband Aaron came to adopt their child, Devin. Before we talked about that, though, we were diverted by two other adoption stories, stories that guided how Sandee and Aaron would approach their adoption of an Aboriginal child.

The first adoption story took place seven years ago when Sandee helped her sister, Joanne, search for her birth son. Joanne had a baby boy when she was 14 years old and now, as an adult with another child, was anxious to find her first son. Sandee and her sister are Anishnawbe from the Algonquin and Ojibway people.

The sisters had some non-identifying information obtained from the Children’s Aid Society of Ontario. They knew that the child’s adoptive parents had kept his birth name, Jesse, and that he was born deaf. In the past such flimsy information may not have been enough to launch a search. Thanks to the Internet, a visit to Google uncovered a link to the Deaf Connection website and someone who could, possibly, be Jesse. Sandee e-mailed the person and wrote, “I am looking for a boy born on September 28, 1974, in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Is that you?” He replied in the affirmative. Sandee had found her man—Jesse was her nephew.

Sandee clearly remembers the first questions Jesse asked: "What is my nationality? Do I have siblings? and, Do you know my birth father?" Jesse had spent his entire life wanting to know the answers to theses questions. Jesse has now met over 100 birth relatives and he’s obtained status with the Kipawa First Nations. His birth and adoptive families enjoy a good relationship.

So close, yet so far

It wasn’t just reconnecting with Jesse that guided Aaron and Sandee. Aaron, also an adoptee, had tried to contact his birth parents but was told that his birthmom hadn’t told her husband about Aaron, or his adoption, and still didn’t wish to. Since then, by a series of coincidences, Aaron now knows who both his birth parents are. Sandee teaches in the First Nations Community Studies program at Camosun College on Vancouver Island, and a student from the same province in which Aaron was born, and with the same birth name, started to attend her class. It turned out that this woman knew most of Aaron’s birth family. Despite this, Aaron has respected his birth mother’s desire not to be contacted. “I was satisfied just knowing that I was Acadian, and that I had roots and history that were attached to real people,” recalls Aaron.

Both these stories made Aaron and Sandee determined to have an open adoption. They were also aware that the majority of children available for adoption in BC are Aboriginal. Those two facts led them to apply to the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) to adopt. They assumed that it would be a relatively smooth process. Then, as is so often the case in adoption, something unexpected happened that changed the whole situation.

During a conversation with a new colleague, Sandee mentioned that she was planning to adopt a child. Her colleague commented that she was aware of a young Aboriginal woman who was pregnant and considering an adoption plan. That led to a meeting with Andromeda a few weeks later. Andromeda was 17 and felt placing her unborn baby within her family and community was not an option.

Andromeda was also quite clear that she wanted to make the decision about the family her baby was to become part of, and she didn’t want her Band or MCFD to take the lead. As Andromeda was not involved with MCFD, the adoption would be facilitated by MCFD under the Adoptions Act Ward Placement Policy. “MCFD were very helpful and supportive of our process” says Sandee. That didn’t mean it was easy sailing. Though the couple had applied to adopt a year earlier, their homestudy still wasn’t finished and Andromeda was anxious to finalize things before she had the baby. Sandee recalls how stressed she was, “I called MCFD. I was crying because I was so upset that things were taking so long and was scared that the adoption might not happen.” Thankfully, right at the last minute, the homestudy was signed off.

Encouraging openness

Sandee and Aaron talked a lot to Andromeda before the adoption. They wanted her to be sure that she was making the right plan. Openness was one of the subjects they were keen to discuss. Though Sandee and Aaron respected Andromeda’s wishes, they encouraged her to rethink her preference for a closed adoption. “When we first started talking about the adoption, Andromeda was considering a closed adoption but through some conversations, I told her that I was open to having some contact and I would like to stay connected so, in the end, that’s what we decided,” explains Sandee. Over the following months that limited openness has expanded into regular contact.

There was another reason Sandee encouraged the idea of an open adoption. “I’m so aware of the importance of growing up knowing who you are and where you came from. I am also very aware of the history of First Nations and the child welfare system, and this has left me with a strong desire to stay connected for Devin’s sake. To grow up having a sense of pride is something I did not have, and I really want Devin to know the rich culture and teaching of the Lax kw’alaams people.“

Though Sandee and Aaron haven’t yet visited Andromeda’s home community, after Devin came home they had a ceremony to acknowledge their openness and asked friends and family to witness and support them in staying connected. “Andromeda brought her uncle and some friends. It was a beautiful day and everyone involved was very touched and impressed with the level of trust and love that we had built,” explains Sandee.

Learning from the past

As a teacher in First Nations Education, Sandee meets many Aboriginal adults who grew up disconnected to their roots and culture, and she sees the pain that causes and also how making those connections enriches lives. “The impact of colonization continues to plague our people today. I have met so many people who are hungry for knowledge and connection with their Aboriginal roots,” say Sandee. “It can be hard for non-Aboriginal people to understand the devastating impact of the loss of one’s culture and identity.” Sandee urges non-Aboriginal families who adopt Aboriginal children to view cultural connection as seriously as they would their child’s education. Though it might seem daunting, parents need to push through their personal comfort zones and do it. “There are always First Nations people around who will help,” says Sandee. “Cultural connection and a strong identity is the best gift that you can give children, especially adopted children.”

Despite understanding that there is still a great dealing of healing to be done between First Nations people of Canada and the child welfare system, Sandee is optimistic about the future. She is aware of six Aboriginal families in the Capital Region who have adopted Aboriginal children; she and Aaron also plan to adopt another child. However, she is concerned that given that there are so many Aboriginal children waiting for families, MCFD must prioritizes and make more of an effort to recruit more Aboriginal families and provide a faster turnaround. “Unless MCFD is properly funded and resourced, many children will wait for families needlessly,” she says.

Sandee also plans to work with First Nations communities to encourage more Aboriginal people to adopt. “We need to return to our teachings and beliefs around raising children. Children are sacred and, historically, if you could not raise your children, someone in your family or community would naturally take on that role,” explains Sandee. “Aunties were considered your mothers, and uncles were father figures, they were responsible for the well being of the children in their family. I very much care about Andromeda, as I do Devin—she is our family too.”

Sandee, Aaron, and Devin are now settling into their new life together, and Andromeda is working hard toward completing her Grade 12 with the hopes of becoming a nurse. They can now all move on knowing that, as a result of his adoption, Devin has neither lost his birth mother, nor vital connections to his cultural heritage.

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