When the adoption process goes wrong

When CapeTown-based single mom Cara, who had wanted another child to love and a sibling for her 11-year-old son Kyle, met a pregnant mom via the internet in January 2012 who wanted to give her baby up for adoption, she thought her prayers had finally been answered. Sadly, though, it wasn’t to be. She ended up living an adoption nightmare.

“When we first got chatting over email, *Amanda explained to me that she was in a desperate situation. We got chatting over BBM, I got two social workers in Joburg to meet her to see that she was legitimate. She was, so I flew over and met her myself.
”The adoption agency I am registered with doesn’t have hundreds of birth mothers available, and suggests that you source the adoptive mother yourself, following which they handle the legalities.

Pay attention to the fine print

“Amanda was happy with my profile, and we were all good to go with an open adoption. This is where all parties know each other [see 'NB: Open adoption' advice at the end of this article for a full description of an open adoption], the adoptive parents can be present at the birth, and even exchange photos (if there is a post-adoption agreement) regarding the child in the future. Since we were going with this type of adoption, we asked her to come live with us. We flew her down on 19 February.

“This was just as well as she wasn’t taking care of herself, and I could see how much worse she looked than when I had met her the month before. I ultimately wanted what was best for my baby and the birth mother, so I immediately took her to the gynae,” she says.

As Cara suspected, Amanda hadn’t gained any weight and her baby wasn’t growing or coping in utero. On 24 Feb, after staying with Cara and her family for 5 days in Cape Town, she was told that she would have to deliver immediately, and Christopher was born at 32 weeks at the Kingsbury hospital in Cape Town. He was in ICU for two weeks, and Cara was declared his mother as he was placed in her (and the hospital’s) care right from the start.

Financial and emotional costs

Cara paid the R160 000 doctors’ bills. And she took care of Christopher after Amanda flew back to Joburg when he was a week old, in critical condition in ICU. After two weeks in intensive care, Christopher was discharged. Cara took care of him and bonded with him for a total of 59 days. But on day 59, she got the call to say she had to give him back. Why? Anytime before day 60 a South African birth mother is legally allowed to change her mind, and there is nothing you can do to fight it.

When it comes to adoption in SA, it’s not simple; there are two basic ways of doing it. One, preferred by the majority of social workers, is to have the baby placed in a temporary baby home where matched babies are looked after by volunteers during the 60 day period to allow the birth mom time to change her mind without it impacting on the new adoptive family. If the birth mom does not change her mind, the adoptive parents would fetch the baby after the 60 days has elapsed.

The other way – much riskier - is to have the baby placed immediately with its adoptive mother.

“This is what happened with Christopher. Amanda gave him up to me as soon as he was born. She had no interest in expressing breastmilk for him (to feed him through his tubes) when he was in ICU and we really never thought we’d see her again after she flew back to Joburg, despite his grave condition. I was the one sitting by his incubator. I was the one crying,” says Cara.

For 59 days, Cara loved and looked after her baby. She sat by his side when he was in ICU, and when she brought him home, she took Espiride so that she could stimulate breastmilk to feed him. She also got the necessary baby gym equipment to make sure that she could tackle any developmental delays that he might have as he had been diagnosed with floppy baby syndrome.

Was it all just a ‘scam’?

“We didn’t even know if he was going to survive. But he did. We had no idea his birth mother would come back as she’d shown absolutely no interest in him whatsoever. But she did. As the birth mother, she has the power. I honestly believe that it was an adoption scam.”

Once Amanda decided she wanted Christopher back, the court ordered her to stay with Cara and her family for a week to learn her baby’s routine. As a prem with special needs, it was essential that he was taken care of properly, and given the right formula etc.

“She left after four days, telling the social workers that it had been hell for her. Even though we’d put our pain aside, and sat with her at the dinner table, it still wasn’t enough for her. She refused to let us teach her to feed him properly and he wasn’t feeding enough. He was starting to look pale (I think it was so confusing for him as to where I was) but eventually, after five days, she took him back to Joburg,” says Cara.

According to Cara’s mom Dawn, losing Christopher who they all adored so much, was almost worse than losing a child as there’s no closure. They still worry about him every day, and whether or not he’s being given the right formula, and how he’s developing considering his special needs and considering that Amanda didn’t want to know about them.

Don’t forget any other siblings involved

“I set up a Facebook page for Christopher where my friends could talk to me as they just didn’t know what to say to my face. My older child, Kyle, has been in therapy for 5 months too and was equally shattered to lose a little brother that he’s been waiting for for 5 years. I’m heartbroken and now, like all moms, I sit and wait again for the next baby. Deep down, I still pray that maybe Christopher will come back to me even though I know that if his birth mother is declared unfit, he will automatically go to his granny or aunt. That’s what our law says.”

The facts

Terri Lailvaux, a councellor in Kenilworth specialising in infertility, adoption and crisis pregnancy only knows of one agency in SA that advises moms to source their own babies:
“All the main adoption agencies frown upon sourcing your own baby, and do not recommend you take that route.” she says. “The adoption process should be handled by social workers from day 1 and the matching should take place by qualified social workers – not emotional birth moms and emotional want-to-be adoptive moms. This scenario only happens when people are looking for a white or Indian baby. There are so few available that a social worker might say “we cannot help you at all” or “If you can find a birth mom (of a white or Indian baby) and bring her to us, we will do the adoption for you but this is not recommended”.

“While Cara’s story is horrific, it’s also very unusual, and I wouldn’t want it to put people off adopting or to put the vast majority of social workers in a bad light as they are doing really great work in hard conditions,” she says.

She adds that if people want to adopt then they need to go through a registered adoption agency, and the standard procedure is for babies to be placed at around 3-months-old and then none of this can happen.

This situation can only happen when:

1) People advertise themselves on the internet (as Cara did) and then try to handle things directly.
2) When people go to a registered agency and insist on getting a new born baby. Most agencies will refuse this demand but there are is a tiny minority who continue to place newborn babies and they do occasionally have retractions.

NB: Open adoptions

According to Terri, it’s also important to note that an open adoption – like the one Cara had - also refers to matching that takes place by social workers with no contact at all between the two parties until the paper work is finalised and then the birth mom (who no longer has any rights) hands the baby over to the new parents. It’s a once-off meeting followed by posted photos for 2 years (as per the standard adoption agreement).  An open adoption does not necessarily mean that the parties know each other. 

For more info go to Adoptmom.
*Birth mother, *Amanda’s name has been changed

Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on Parent24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of Parent24.

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