They are the stories that make the headlines – weeping adoptive families saying final goodbyes to distraught, confused or hysterical children, couples telling stories about life-altering adoption scams or parents relating how their adoptive child’s behavioural problems has negatively affected their lives. It may make for good TV but how common is it for adoptions to go wrong?
The short answer is not often. In a country where only about 2 000 adoptions take place annually, most proceed slowly but uneventfully. But even if they are uncommon, tragic stories do affect peoples’ willingness to adopt and their expectation about how it will proceed. So, can these tragedies be averted and what, if anything, can you do to ensure that your adoption doesn’t become one of these headlines?
This two part article examines the biggest pitfalls experienced by adoptive parents – problems with the process, and attachment challenges – and how to minimise their impact.
When things go wrong with the process
The adoption process that best protects your family involves using an accredited adoption social worker to match you with an available child. A social worker will evaluate your and your family and determine if you are eligible to adopt. At the same time, another social worker will ensure that your child is declared legally adoptable. When you are eligible to adopt and your child is adoptable, the two social workers will match you together. If you follow this process, there are rarely problems with the legalities of the adoption (occasionally social workers make mistakes but the majority proceed smoothly).
So, if there is an adoption process that can save you from heartache, why not use it? Well, there are several reasons why many people choose a higher risk strategy:
- The first reason is that social workers are sometimes not able to provide families with the children that they are requesting. For example, many white, coloured and Indian families are looking for same race babies. But, in South Africa, demographics have resulted in a huge number of black children in need of adoption but not many children of other races. For this reason, some social workers prefer to place black children. So, if you would like a white, coloured or Indian child, you may have to wait for ages for one or even employ a different strategy for adopting. This is why many parents opt to find a child themselves.
- Secondly, families sometimes fall in love with a child (often through volunteering at Places of Safety or other connections to the child). In these cases, the child must be made adoptable for the adoption to proceed.
- Finally, very occasionally, a birth mother may approach you directly and ask you to adopt her child.
In all of these cases, things can go wrong. So if you don’t follow the mainstream process, how can you best safeguard your family? Here are some tips:
1. Avoid “do it yourself” adoptions
I recently read an article about adoption in the online version of a reputable baby magazine. It was a well-written but rather unremarkable until I got to the comments section which literally took my breath away. The comments contained a number of posts from women offering their unborn children up for adoption. Alarming as this was, it was not as shocking as the number of women who responded saying “thanks, I would like to take your baby”. I wish that I could talk to those women longing to be moms. I would say: “Yes, it is possible that some of these offers are legitimate but then, I guess, it is possible that you may have won the UK lottery too”. For the most part, you should beware of anyone who approaches you and offers you a child, especially on the internet. Babies are actually quite hard to find so it is unlikely that this is real. Sadly, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Like other con artists, adoption scamsters prey on your deepest desires and hopes, targeting vulnerable families who are desperate for a child (in particular those wanting a same race child). These fraudsters are sometimes pregnant, but not always. Some do ask for cash in exchange for the child (this is a crime and considered to be trafficking, so if someone asks if you want to buy their child you must alert the police). Most however are not that brazen and instead ask you to pay for their expenses (medical bills, flights to your city so they can be close to you when the child is born, food so that the baby is well-nourished in the womb, pregnancy vitamins, baby clothes – the list can be endless). Then, when the baby is born, the mom is either un-contactable or her baby tragically dies. Or, she hands over the child and even signs the consent form but then “changes her mind” during the mandatory 60 day cooling off period following the signing of the papers (by law, birth mothers do have the right to ask for their child back during this period). In all cases, the result is the same: heartache, disappointment, an empty cot and sometimes a much depleted bank balance.
But, what if an actual pregnant woman makes contact in the real world – not in cyberspace – and suggests you adopt her child? Well the answer is simple: proceed with caution and get professionals involved as quickly as possible. Often in “do it yourself” adoptions, people try to steer clear of professionals (social workers and adoption attorneys) citing costs and time delays as the reasons. But, in truth, if the pregnant woman is a fraudster, involving professionals is the best way to flush her out. Social workers have a knack for spotting imposters and they are also harder to con because they aren’t invested in the outcome in the same way that you are. And if the mom is legitimate, the participation of the social worker will protect her, and of course you. In addition, the Children’s Act specifies that you cannot adopt without the assistance of an accredited adoption social worker so you may as well include one early in the process to qualify you and the birth mother and ensure that the baby is taken care of until the 60-day cooling off period is complete.
Remember that no-one can stop a mom from asking for her baby back during those 60 days but professionals can use the law to protect you financially and, to some degree, emotionally during this process.
2. If you do find a birth mother who wants to place her child for adoption at birth, opt to use a “kangaroo mom”
If you (or the adoption social worker) do find a legitimate birth mother who is willing to give her child up at birth you have two choices. You can either take your baby home, and hope that the birth mother doesn’t change her mind during the cooling off period after she has signed the papers. Or, you can make use of a kangaroo (kanga) mom to care for your baby until the 60 days are complete. The role of the kanga mom is to provide your baby with around the clock care while you are waiting. When interviewed, kanga moms openly state that biological mom do change their minds – often more than once. This is sometimes because it is an adoption scam but in most cases, it is the result of emotions, post-partum hormones or family pressure. It is completely understandable that as a mom, you want to care for your new baby from birth. But, if you choose not to use a kanga mom and the birth mom decides that she wants her child back, you face the trauma of parting with your baby when you have already bonded with her and consider her your own. This is particularly heart-wrenching if you have other children so if possible, please don’t risk it.
3. If you find or fall in love with a child, ensure that she is adoptable
So, what if you have been volunteering at a Place of Safety and you fall in love with a child? This happens all of the time and some Places of Safety even encourage it. If you find yourself in this situation, the first thing to do is to find out if the child is adoptable. Has the biological mother given her consent and if so, has it been more than 60 days since she signed the papers? Has the biological father been informed (either directly or through an advert in relevant newspapers) and if he is present, has he given his consent? What about the family? I have heard many people say, “oh, it will be fine – she was abandoned, nobody wants her”. Sadly, they are probably right but the risk is that your child is the one abandoned baby that someone does want, and just because a child was abandoned, doesn’t necessarily mean that she is adoptable. In terms of the law, social workers are obligated to try to find the child’s family (usually through relevant periodicals) and they need to wait three months following the abandonment before they can complete the legalities of declaring the child adoptable. As tempting as it is to take a child who isn’t eligible for adoption home with you, remember that if you do, there is a chance that your decision will result in disappointment and loss for you and your family.
When we adopted we were fortunate to be able to follow the safe adoption process. It meant that we waited quite a long time for our daughter but thereafter the adoption proceeded uneventfully, without any nasty surprises. Not everyone is so fortunate but if you follow the guidelines in this article you can hopefully avoid being one of the tragic headlines. If possible, don’t choose a risky adoption strategy. But, remember that if you decide to find your own child or if you fall in love with one that may not yet be adoptable, it is best to get help from an accredited adoption social worker as soon as possible to safeguard your family from heartache, and emotional and financial loss.
For more information about adoption, overcoming infertility and our story, please visit www.becomingamom.co.za