Law’79 grad helps children at home and abroad
(April 7, 2017)
“There is no issue more important than the welfare of a child.”
It’s also a question that Ted Giesbrecht, Law’79, a founding partner of the Kitchener-Waterloo law firm Giesbrecht, Griffin, Funk & Irvine, has grappled with throughout his career as a practitioner and leader in child welfare and adoption.
“All of us, as lawyers, have been given a gift – a chance to study a fundamental system of how to regulate society and how to conduct ourselves,” he says. “With that special gift we have the ability to help people, so I think it is incumbent upon us to find a need and then do what we can to serve that need.”
Serving that need has led Giesbrecht to assist children and adoptive parents around the world. After a personal introduction to the field – he and his wife adopted their two children in the 1980s – Giesbrecht joined a group of government authorities and lawyers in the mid-1990s to help review and update standards and guidelines for adoption in Ontario. He also became an adoption licensee and was later asked by Professor Nicholas Bala, Law’77, to update a textbook chapter on adoptions for the second edition of Canadian Child Welfare Law.
Giesbrecht’s adoption work went international in 2009 when he travelled twice to Ethiopia to help stabilize a children’s transition home.
“The adoption agency was filing for bankruptcy protection, but the trustee accounting firm was unfamiliar with adoption and child protection law,” he says. “They knew that I practised in that area and had a good practical and academic backing, so they asked me on short notice to go to Addis Ababa to ensure the children were well-cared for and to assist the Canadian adoptive families who had been stranded. I established a budget, paid arrears and worked hard to help 15 families obtain visas.”
This experience opened up new sub-specialty in international emergency adoptions for Giesbrecht, work that has taken him to Ukraine, South Africa, South Sudan, Guatemala, and Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.
“It’s a challenge obtaining visas, ensuring that a proper and legal process is being used and that the protections of the Hague Convention are implemented and utilized,” he says. “Systems of birth and death records can fail in a disaster, and we take steps to prevent the trafficking of children and ensure that birth mother and father consents are voluntary and given without compensation.”
This international work rests on expertise that Giesbrecht developed over many years in Ontario, including 10 years in a quasi-judicial role reviewing decisions of Children’s Aid Societies in disputes over the placement of a child for adoption. “It is very interesting work because we are dealing with matters of profound importance – a child has been placed with a couple, sometimes for two years or more, and the placement is being challenged by the Children’s Aid Society,” he says. “I felt that these were important decisions and needed to be well-reasoned.” Over a decade, only two of his decisions were appealed and both were upheld on review.
Outside his work in adoption, Giesbrecht has a varied practice assisting families and businesses in estate planning, real estate and elder law, including as legal advisor to the Waterloo Region Elder Abuse Response Team.
“Twenty-five years ago I helped the team get chartered,” he says. “Ever since, as legal advisor I receive phone calls from police, doctors or team members to intervene in potential physical, emotional or financial abuse situations. My duty is to establish whether the affected persons are capable of making their own decisions and assisting them if they are capable, or if they are not capable, to help them find people who will assist with that decision-making and to set right the wrong that was suffered.”
Giesbrecht also spends much of his time volunteering and serving on local boards, and credits his time at Queen’s with sparking this volunteer ethic. “Queen’s introduced me to volunteering through the legal aid project and also at the school governance level, where I was a Faculty Board representative,” he says. “I had the opportunity to see student volunteers and professors sit and work together to deal with the issues of the day. This gave me the motivation to volunteer on many other boards.”
This commitment to his community has not gone unnoticed. Giesbrecht has received the Ontario Adoption Award presented by the Adoption Council of Ontario, as well as the Outstanding Volunteer Award from the Province of Ontario. In 2016, he was awarded the Coulter A. Osborne Award by the Waterloo Region Law Association, given to a member who has shown integrity, comity and beneficence in professional and public life. While initially surprised to receive the award, Giesbrecht says that it has opened up mentorship opportunities and the chance to reflect on what makes for a successful and rewarding legal career.
“The best thing about this award is that young people ask about my career and how I came to enjoy my practice so much,” he says. “My advice is to find something that you are passionate about and get involved. You will find that your days will fly by and your efforts will bring you deep satisfaction.”
By Emily Lieffers