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What still needs to change in BC’s adoption process

‘There’s not enough resources behind getting those kids actually to the parents,’ says Spencer Chandra Herbert

An election is kind of like having a newborn, Spencer Chandra Herbert says.

“I thought election campaigns were stressful — well, raising a baby is a whole other level of it,” he laughs.

It’s the campaign hours, says the proud first-time father and incumbent NDP MLA for Vancouver-West End. “You’re often up early and often up late. It’s the same as raising a baby.”

His husband, Romi, also laments the lack of sleep, sort of. “I’m doing great. Missing lots of sleep, but this guy is pretty good,” he says, as their two-month-old, Dev, gurgles quietly in the background on speaker-phone.

In some ways, Chandra Herbert says, his political work — first as the youngest person at the time to be elected to the Vancouver parks board in 2005, then as the youngest MLA elected to the BC legislature in 2008 — has helped prepare him for parenthood. It’s about accepting responsibility for the well being of others, he says; only with Dev it’s much more personal.

As he and Romi dive headfirst into raising a baby, they say they want to be the best parents they can be, which includes questioning what it means to be fathers. “We focus on being parents,” Chandra Herbert explains. “There’s so many gendered stereotypes about what being a dad is versus what being a mom is that I don’t think are all that helpful. What I think you need to do is to be a good parent who loves your kid.”

Romi and Spencer Chandra Herbert with their baby, Dev.
BC NDP

But the road to parenthood wasn’t easy for the Chandra Herberts.

It’s still hard for them to talk about the time several years ago when homophobia upended one of their chances to become parents. They had been so close to finalizing an adoption, when one of the child’s relatives intervened and convinced the birth parents not to go through with it because the Chandra Herberts are gay.

“I don’t want to go down that road too much because it was a tough moment,” Chandra Herbert says.

He and Romi spoke out at the time but opted not to take the case to BC’s Human Rights Tribunal because they felt it would be unfair to have the baby start its life wrapped up in a court battle.

“That was hard, but at the same time you have to get up and get back at it, otherwise they win,” Chandra Herbert says.

After four or five unsuccessful years stalled within the adoption process, a friend stepped up and offered to help the couple have a child through surrogacy. On Feb 14, 2017, they welcomed Dev into the world.

Looking back on the adoption process, the Chandra Herberts have concerns, although not directed at ministry or agency staff, who they say are working their hardest. Rather it’s the system itself they find problematic.

One of their biggest concerns is the level of duplication that people seeking to adopt both from a private agency and through the government have to endure.

“You have to fill out a 72-page questionnaire, have six visits to your home to be inspected, undergo criminal record checks, pay thousands of dollars, and that’s only for one system,” Chandra Herbert says. “If you want to be involved in the BC government [ministry system for] children waiting to be adopted, you have to do that all over again.”

They also expressed serious concerns about how opaque the process was.

“It was forever waiting in expectancy. And then what got hard was we stopped getting any phone calls. All of a sudden nothing was happening,” he says. “So we’re stuck in a system of waiting and wondering, ‘Did I say the wrong thing? Did I write the right thing but send the wrong picture? Why is that we’re not getting chosen?’”

No matter this election’s outcome, Chandra Herbert is hoping to find bipartisan solutions to these issues with BC’s adoption system.

He would like to see a one-stop process, a single form to fill out and a single group of people to meet with, so “you don’t get sent through multiple hoops with multiple expenses both for yourself and for taxpayers.”

Last fall the provincial government launched a new website aimed at making the adoption process smoother for British Columbians and encouraging more people to adopt.

The Adopt BC Kids site is now approaching the six-month mark since it went live in October 2016, and so far more than 200 families have signed up for it.

A representative from the Ministry of Children and Family Development was unable to speak with Xtra due to rules governing media communications during an election period. The minister, Stephanie Cadieux, also declined Xtra’s request for an interview, but in a press release at the time of the site’s launch said the government is moving BC into the 21st century when it comes to adoption.

“We heard from adoptive parents that the old paper-driven, ministry office-based system was cumbersome and just too slow. Adopt BC Kids allows people to manage their application online and helps streamline matching functions for adoption workers, helping us find the right family match for waiting children, quicker,” she said last October.

Dev, held by dad Spencer Chandra Herbert, strikes a pose.
BC NDP

The site, a first of its kind in Canada, offers a searchable online database of foster children available for adoption.

Advocates like Karen Madeiros, executive director of the Adoptive Families Association of BC, which provides province-wide support and education for people considering or in the process of adoption, say the site is a step in the right direction.

“It’s actually, surprisingly, been a very simple process for families. There’s not been a lot of disruptions or concern,” she says. “It still has lots of potential and lots of work to be done on it, but it is functioning and meeting the needs at the moment.”

In the past, prospective parents reported geographical inconsistencies in the system depending on the region in BC that they were trying to adopt from. Madeiros says Adopt BC Kids has changed that and now all families are treated equally no matter their location.

Though the new site does not merge private and public adoption applications as Chandra Herbert suggested, Madeiros says it may address concerns around transparency and the system leaving prospective parents in the dark.

“Before [families] filed an application, it disappeared behind closed doors, and the only way they could find out what was happening with their application was by phoning and trying to speak to someone,” she says. “[Now] they can go online and see where they’re at. As things get completed, they get completed up on the site. It does put some of that control to access their own information into their own hands.”

Chandra Herbert says Adopt BC Kids — which did not exist when he and his husband were going through the adoption process — will certainly help promote adoption, but he still thinks there’s more that needs to be done.

“What still hasn’t been fixed is once people get into the adoption process there are a number of barriers of multiple forms, multiple this, multiple that, paperwork exercises that don’t seem to serve the kids very much,” he says.

“There’s not enough resources behind getting those kids actually to the parents and getting those want-to-be parents to those kids.”

Back on the campaign trail, Chandra Herbert is primarily focused on the priorities of his West End constituents, such as affordable housing, an increase to minimum wage, and better childcare options.

But if re-elected, he also hopes to work across party lines to help children in foster care and waiting for adoption find their “forever homes.”

Even if he’ll be running on fewer hours of sleep for the next few months.