Recognizing That Crucial First Year of Attachment

After years of advocacy, adoptive parents in Canada will soon be entitled to the same leave benefits as birth parents, a big win for children's rights.


There are many ways to welcome a child into a home besides giving birth. Thanks to the advocacy of humanities researchers, Canada is finally giving adoptive parents and other permanent caregivers equal time to bond with their children in their first year as a family.

Carolyn McLeod, professor of philosophy and women’s studies & feminist research at Western University, is the lead author of a key report released in 2019 that advocated for this change. Thanks to this research and other advocacy initiatives, the new attachment benefit for adoptive parents and other permanent caregivers has been added to the federal budget and is expected to roll out in the first quarter of 2024.

Adoptive parents were previously entitled to up to 35 weeks of paid, job-protected parental leave, just like birth parents. But until now only people who give birth have been entitled to an additional 15 weeks of maternity benefits.

The policy change will give equal time to new parents and children to bond in their critical first year together. Matching the additional 15 weeks of leave recognizes the unique challenges faced by people who gain permanent legal custody of children. It also helps Canada align with international standards on leave for adoptive parents.

McLeod and her co-authors argued that this “time to attach” is vital for children’s rights. Many have suffered traumas including grief over the loss of their birth parents, recovery from possible mistreatment by previous caregivers, or upheavals from multiple placements in foster care.

These experiences leave them feeling insecure, and it takes time and patience to form healthy patterns of attachment. Without them, children can be prone to acting out, sheltering from past harms through aggression, defiance, or other ‘survival techniques’. These are serious challenges that can ripple into their social behaviours both inside and outside the home.

It’s a steep learning curve for everyone in the household. Not having to worry about income or job security during that first year will help families tap into professional support and focus on their relationships.

The new benefit is also expected to help get more children into safe and permanent homes. In a survey conducted prior to the 2019 report, nearly a quarter of awaiting parents agreed that the old benefits system prevented them from considering adopting a sibling group, and nearly a third said it made it harder to be able to adopt a child with complex or special needs. These categories describe many of the children waiting for permanent homes.

“There might be an increase in adoptions period, but there might especially be an increase in adoptions of children who may not otherwise be adopted,” said McLeod in a press release.

“The outcomes for them if they don’t have that support — if they stay in foster care or in a group home — are generally poor. Too many of these kids end up homeless and many do not finish high school. To understand the challenges they face, it’s important for people to imagine what it would be like to go through life without parents.”

Setting new families up for success gives young people in the child welfare system the best chance at a stable and loving permanent home — a place where their needs are met, they feel secure, and siblings can stay together. It’s the kind of fresh start that these families deserve.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.