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NEW: Study by Jeannine Carriere (First Nations) (2007)

Promising practice for maintaining identities in First Nation Adoption

Study by Jeannine Carriere (2007)

Complete text here:


The purpose of this article is to explore the importance of identity in First Nation adoption. It is adapted from a PhD study completed by the author in 2005. The objectives of this study were: (1) describe how connectedness relates to health for First Nation adoptees, and (2) explore legislative, policy and program implications in the adoption of First Nation children. The findings suggest that, for First Nation adoptees, there is a causal relationship between connection to birth family, community and ancestral knowledge, adoption and health. The major finding is that loss of identity may contribute to impaired physical, spiritual, mental and emotional health for First Nation adoptees. This article provides suggestions on how identity can be preserved in First Nation adoption through programs, policies and practice.

As an Indigenous scholar, I wish to present my connection to this research. I am a Metis woman, adopted at birth in the Red River area of Manitoba. I was reconnected to my original family at the age of 12 when I met one of my sisters for the first time and life, since then, was never the same. Throughout my life I have met a large extended family and know through our genealogy that I am connected to the strong and courageous Metis history of Manitoba. This gives me great pride. In my life I have chosen western education as a means to survive and to get some important messages out to others through my social work practice about our ways of knowing and being. This is which is why I enjoy teaching at the University of Victoria in the Indigenous Social Work program. I also believe it is important to use Indigenous methodology as much as possible and will describe some of my research process within the limitations of this article. The topic of adoption being near to my heart and soul became the topic for my dissertation and it continues to be a driving force in my scholarly work and community affiliations.

QUOTE: This difficult journey is echoed in Crey’s (1997) reference to social workers as “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” As well, Flowers on My Grave (1997) is the story of Lester Desjarlais, a Dakota Objibwe boy from Manitoba, who committed suicide after experiencing extreme abuse. In this book, one of the Elders from his community, Maggie Blacksmith, tells of the days when private adoption agencies would receive funds between $5,000 to $10,000 for each child:

Big shiny cars would come onto the reserve, followed by the social worker’s car. When they left, there’d be a little Indian child sitting in the back of the American car, bawling their eyes out. The social worker always had a piece of paper saying it was legal. We know the social worker was paid but we’d have known right away if any parents got money, because we lived so close together and we were all so poor, money would have been very conspicuous. If parents tried to keep their kids, the social worker would call the Mounties. (Teichrob,1997,41).

A Summary of Recommendations

The following summarizes the recommendations provided by the participants in this study.


1. Information on birth family should be made available to adoptees as soon as they desire it.

2. Health information from birth families is preserved for adoptees.

3. Post-Adoption registries need to be revised to (a) allow access to other birth family members, such as extended family, and (b) provide information to adoptees when they want it.

4. Pictures should be available to birth families and to adoptees.

5. First Nation adoptees need to know which tribe and First Nation they are from.

Adoption Practices

1. Adoption of First Nation children should be in First Nation or Aboriginal homes if at all possible.

2. Connection to extended family and community should not be severed through adoption.

3. If First Nation children are not placed in a First Nation home, cultural training needs to be provided to adoptive parents.

4. Cultural mentors should be provided to First Nation adoptees to assist in reconnecting to their cultural heritage.

5. Adoptive homes need to continue to be monitored by child and family services agencies somehow.


1. The legislation on adoption of First Nation children needs to be explored further. At minimum, it needs to be open.

2. Customary adoption requires further support.

3. The rights of adoptees to receive all information about their identity, extended family and community of origin need to be defined further in adoption legislation, policy and standards.


1. Adoptees involved in search and reunion require support services to assist them in these processes.

2. Peer support groups for First Nation adoptees need to be established.

3. Counseling services should be made available to First Nation adoptees.

These recommendations have implications for First Nation adoption practice with policy and program implications. The analysis of adoptee recommendations lead to proposals for program, policy and practice captured as follows:

Recommendations for the Development and Delivery of First Nation Adoption

1. Open and Customary Adoption Programs across Canada

Throughout this study, all the participants, both the adoptees and key informants, discussed the importance of openness in adoption practices.

Openness could prevent the secrecy and hidden information that was discussed at length by the adoptees as one of their major barriers to their search. This secrecy and lack of information created undue stress about personal health information and not knowing possible relatives.

Furthermore, while some provinces in Canada, including Alberta, boast of having open adoption programs (Alberta Child Welfare Act, 2000; Ontario Child and Family Services Act, 2002), these programs continue to be developed and implemented under provincial legislation based on a non-First Nation perspective. Open adoption programs for First Nation children must be redefined based on an indigenous paradigm that is anchored in the reality of delivering child and family services both on and off reserve. A case in point is the recently publicized court hearing for five First Nation children in Saskatchewan that challenged the provincial policy on First Nation adoption.

Saskatchewan’s policy, similar to Alberta’s Policy Directive in the Adoption of First Nation Children, prevents First Nation children from being adopted without consent from the child’s First Nation. In this case, the Court of Queen’s Bench judge refuted the First Nation agency’s claim that it had the authority to “speak for the children” and ruled that there is no constitutional basis or Aboriginal rights related to equality, liberty and security in this matter (Province of Saskatchewan Queen’s Bench Family Law Division 503, 2004, p. 28).

This legal precedent marks yet another instance where the right to culture and birth family connection are highlighted in a judicial process in which an individual judge makes a decision based on what he/she perceives as the lack of evidence to support an alternative decision. I would suggest that this study may have given her additional considerations for this matter.

Without doubt, this case will be appealed. The disturbing irony in this situation is that the focus is being misdirected. First Nation rights are being discredited while the same child welfare practices, such as poor matching and support, and the resulting untenable foster care drift for these children, are being ignored.

As well, customary adoption practices need to be revived in First Nation communities with adequate financial support (Alberta Children’s Services, 2000; D’Aguayo, 1995; YTSA, 2001). Although customary adoption is a traditional extended family value and practice for First Nations, the reality of poverty and the shortage of resources in extended family networks should not be insurmountable barriers.

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) must stop patronizing First Nation Child and Family Services by proposing that they develop adoption programs on menial budget allocations.

2. Financial Support for First Nation Adoption Programs

The recommendation for First Nation adoptive homes also requires adequate financial support (Rechner, 2001; Trocme, Knoke & Blackstock, 2004) for First Nation adoption programs.

INAC’s financial allocations for adoption must be reviewed by a Standing Committee on First Nation adoption comprised of First Nation Child and Family Services National Directors and representatives from the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). The Standing Committee could make recommendations based on research and statistics regarding the social costs of adoption breakdown compared to the benefits of financial support in the area of adoption to First Nation agencies. As well, child and family services on and off reserve should include adoption services instead of being limited to child protection services.

3. Adoption Registries

Some of the participants in this study discussed problems and experiences with adoption registries. Adoption registries should be revised to address the enormous demand for First Nation “friendly” adoption registries. This type of registry would clearly identify a child’s First Nation ancestry and be expanded to include extended family members. Also, registry staff should receive training in working with First Nation communities to provide the type of counsel required for First Nation adoptees
pursuing a search.
3.1 Veto
Veto issues related to registries need to be revised based on consultation with First Nation communities. The issue of treaty and collective rights need to be considered in developing policies around veto issues.

4. Adoption Social Work Practice
Adoption workers need to begin adoption work with a consultation session with the child’s First Nation community through delegated child protection workers or others who represent the interests of the leadership and community. Mirwaldt (2004) discusses the high number of Aboriginal children needing permanent care; “meaningful case consultation with the Aboriginal community is stressed as being
fundamental to good permanency planning practice” (p. 18).

4.1 Relinquishment Counseling
Participants recommended the need for counseling for their birth family members. This would include relinquishment counseling for both birth parents to ensure that adoption is the best choice. It also includes some encouragement to birthparents to provide as much information about each of the birth parent’s family and health histories. Any information about extended family and community of origin also should be collected at this time. For birth parents, there also is a need to ensure that relinquishment is truly the option of choice. A study focusing on young mothers involved with the BC child welfare system reports that, “In BC today, as has been true throughout the last century, those who are most likely to lose their children are poor, young, Aboriginal and come from families that have historical involvement with child welfare” (Rutman, Strega, Callahan & Dominelli, 2001, p. 6). Relinquishment counseling requires further study, but it is relevant for adoptees and birth parents due to life-long implications for those involved.

4.2 Photos
A number of participants mentioned that photos of birth families are precious. Photos of birth parents, siblings and/or extended family members should be saved for the adoptee. Photos of the adoptee saved in a resource, such as a Life Book, would be a valuable source of information and comfort to facilitate a future reunion for both adoptees and birth families. Adoptees in this study described the importance of ‘looking like someone’ for example. Life books can take the form of scrapbooks or collections of photos and history which can enhance connectedness for adopted children (Fulcher, 2002; Society of Special Needs Adoptive Parents, 2003).

4.3 Information on Birth Fathers
As discussed in this study by some participants, knowledge and information about birth fathers is critical for adoptees because it essentially is the other half of the parental equation (Coles, 2004; Menard, 1997). It is imperative that birth mothers provide this information to the best of their knowledge and that it becomes part of the relinquishing file documentation. This information can be a legislated requirement, but will require further consideration in light of privacy legislation.

4.4 Registration for Indian Status
Registration for Indian Status requires birth parents and adoptive parents to ensure that children, who are eligible, are registered as Status Indians at the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada registry. In order to preserve a child’s treaty rights as a First Nation person, adoption workers need to be diligent about identifying First Nation children who are placed for adoption. Some participants in this study described some difficulties in being registered.

4.5 Training for Adoptive Parents and Adoption Workers
Some participants in the study suggested that training might have assisted their adoptive parents to understand their background and culture. Training for adoptive parents and adoption workers should involve the development of a module that explains the rights of a First Nation child, shares historical information, and identifies resources where additional information can be obtained (Society of Special Needs Adoptive Parents, 2003). As well, a First Nation person should deliver this module. Additionally, research and training regarding culturally competent adoptive care of First Nation children is of great importance. Some of the adoptees in this study suggested that this training be included as part of the services provided to adoptive parents. In particular, non-First Nation adoptive families need information about the child’s home community, language and history. While sharing this information may be difficult in closed adoptions because of stringent confidentiality rules, adoption legislation and policies must address this issue.

Adoption workers also need to be trained to be culturally competent in working with Aboriginal children and families. For example, some of the adoptees in this study were not sure which tribal background they were from so they assumed a tribal ancestry which was inaccurate. They suggested that training for adoptive parents might have alleviated this.

5. Cultural Plans
Cultural plans should be mandatory for First Nation children. These plans contain provisions to maintain contact with the child’s First Nation community and culture and are signed by both the adoptive parents and representatives of the child’s First Nation community. This practice should be mandatory in the adoption of all First Nation children (Fulcher, 2002).

6. Repatriation Services
First Nation agencies need to be supported in repatriation services for adult adoptees. This support should be provided through Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in their funding for child and family services. This is a critical service that should be free for adoptees who wish to be reconnected to their First Nation community.

7. Counseling and Peer Support for Adoptees
If needed, First Nation adoptees should be provided with therapeutic supports and interventions to assist with loss issues connected to adoption. These interventions can range from Western approaches, such as individual counseling and peer support to traditional indigenous methods, such as ceremony and meeting with Elders. There are resource implications for any of the approaches, and resources should be provided as part of the repatriation services for First Nations on and off reserve.

8. First Nation Community Mentors
First Nation Child and Family Services Agencies (FNCFA) need to establish a resource list of community mentors for adoptees who return to their home community. The names of these individuals can be recorded at the Band Office of the child’s First Nation. Mentors could provide family history and other required information to adoptees or assist in making linkages with extended family. Training for mentors should be funded and provided by FNCFAs through resources from repatriation budget allocations.

9. Health Information
Adoption files should contain family health history for both birth parents as a mandatory requirement and be provided to the adoptive parents during the adoption process. Adoptees in this study provided examples of how this lack of information impacts their lives and the life of their children.

10. First Nation Adoption Legislation
FNCFAs, First Nations, provincial governments and the federal government should keep working toward legislation in Canada that would contain provisions for First Nation adoption. The rationale for this recommendation has been spelled out clearly in this study – First Nation communities across Canada have jurisdiction over First Nation adoption. How this ensues however may vary by jurisdiction and a number of options may be explored depending on the customs and traditional community-based laws and protocols around adoption.

For the most part, the story of First Nation adoption remains mostly in the hearts and minds of adoptees themselves, and the body of literature is incomplete without these valuable stories. However, First Nation adoption is a sensitive subject that has presented several challenges to scholars. For example, there are legal issues related to privacy legislations that must be considered. Legislators view the privacy of all parties in the adoption triad as important. In fact, some adoptees do not want to speak about their experiences because it is too painful. However, scholars may overcome some of these barriers by working with local community agencies, such as the Yellowhead Tribal Services Agency in this study. The best interests of First Nation children are part of a debate that stems from a colonial legacy. Alfred and Corntassel (2005) state that:

Contemporary Settlers follow the mandate provided them by their imperial forefathers’ colonial legacy, not by attempting to eradicate the physical signs of Indigenous peoples as human bodies, but by trying to eradicate their existence as peoples through the erasure of the histories and geographies that provide the foundation for Indigenous cultural identities and sense of self (p.2).

Societal issues of racism and poverty with health-related outcomes are priorities that need to be addressed in First Nation communities, but issues related to First Nation children are not addressed by simply implementing ‘culturally relevant’ programs and services.

For natural parents and for adopted people, it is not forgetting your past and your history that allows you to move forward with your life. Rather, it is acknowledging the past and honoring its impact that makes the present more meaningful and allows you to look to the future with confidence (Robinson, 2000, p.57).

I reflect on my research question and the research results, now knowing that connectedness and health for First Nation adoptees are related in a significant way.

There is a link between knowing who you are, where you come from and how you feel as a whole person. This connectedness has been explored and described through the voice of those who know. I trust that it may assist you in positions of power and decision-making that the responsibility to change someone’s life is the Creator’s work, not ours as mere human beings.

All my relations!


1. Some of the adoptees interviewed for this present study were involved with the Manitoba First Nation Repatriation Program. As such, some of the findings in this study replicate the findings from the
Evaluation of the Southern Manitoba First Nation Repatriation Program.

2. Identity is a sub-category under the core category of loss.

Bio: Jeannine Carriere (Metis adoptee) has been working in the field of Aboriginal child welfare for over twenty years. Jeannine has an MSW from UBC, a BSW from the University of Manitoba and currently completed a PHD in Human Ecology, Family Studies at the University of Alberta. Jeannine also teaches in the Faculty of Social Work, for the University of Victoria. In her PHD work, Jeannine examined the issue of First Nation adoption. Her research involved interviewing First Nation adoptees from across Canada and holding focus groups of First Nation Elders, and professionals in the area of adoption. This course of study has provided some valuable insights into the connection of identity to resilience for First Nation adoptees and other related health issues from a holistic perspective.

Published in First Peoples Child & Family Review, Volume 3, Number 1, 2007

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