"Then I cried, and that was that."
Not every mother manages to walk away. Lawyers say that the two weeks before and after a birth is the rockiest time for a birth mother, whose denial system can no longer protect her from the truth. About 10% of the time, a birth mother cannot give up the child she has promised to an adoptive couple--or she does, and then decides she wants the baby back.
Adoptive parents, who may have decorated a nursery at home and spent hours shopping for baby clothes and toys, can barely speak of losing a baby. They often refer, with a protective degree of detachment, to having had a "relinquishment." Diane Connors recalls happily thinking of the months before her adoptive baby was born as her "pregnancy"--as close to the real thing as she would ever get. Some adoptive mothers even have baby showers. And then a birth mother changes her mind. Either the baby never comes home, or worse, becomes part of a new family only to be taken back weeks, or even months, later, after the baby and adoptive parents have closely bonded.
Connors and her husband, Steve, came to Durand Cook looking for a baby and had an "idyllic" experience, which yielded their daughter, Connors says. They went back for a second child and soon got the call they were hoping for from Cook. "He said, 'I have a sure thing for you,' " Connors recalls.
It turned out to be anything but. After four months and more than $8,000--the $2,500 first installment of Cook's fee and more than $5,500 in living expenses for the birth parents--Connors got a call from the doctor in Northern California saying that the baby, a boy, had been born. He sounded a bit hesitant, but Connors was too excited to dwell on that. She hopped a plane and went directly to the hospital.
She was not reassured by what she found. According to a delivery nurse, the father had gotten drunk after the birth, returned to the hospital and insisted on holding his child.
Connors called a counselor she was in contact with, who agreed to go talk to the birth parents. Connors called her again from the airport, where she had gone to pick up her husband and daughter. The counselor said Connors' instincts were right. There was a problem with the father giving up the baby.
When her husband and daughter arrived, Connors had numbing news. "My daughter ran off the plane and said, 'Can I see my baby brother?' " she recalls. "All I could think of to say to her was, 'I think there's been a mistake. I think this isn't our baby.' "
(Adoptive parents can, and do, back out as well. Leavitt estimates that it happens in only one of 200 cases, and then usually because the adoptive parents find that they underestimated the magnitude of the commitment or because they are having marital problems.)
Without a baby, again without hope, having lost whatever was spent on the birth mother and at least part of the legal fees, adoptive parents search for an explanation. Often, they chide themselves for moving too fast, for ignoring what seem, in hindsight, like warning signs. Often, they blame their lawyers.
But adoption lawyers are quick to point out that the final responsibility for asking questions rests with the birth and adoptive parents--and that, even with careful inquiries, there will always be unavoidable failures. Clients also must take responsibility for some of the financial gamble. Cook says he makes it clear to clients that it is not his policy to refund his fee; he prefers to encourage them to re-apply the $2,500 to another try. David Radis has a policy of charging $400 for his initial consultation and waiving the rest of his fee if an adoption falls apart. Karen Lane bills on an hourly rate for completed legal work, "usually $600 to $1,000." Leavitt has no set policy but would not refund if he felt that he had tried to warn clients away from a risky situation.
The 10% failure rate may be excruciating to the parents who fall into that category, but it is an acceptable level of risk to the lawyers. Leavitt points out that, for a woman in her late 30s, a natural pregnancy and birth presents even greater risks.
But an independent adoption is not a natural birth, and success statistics do not mean that everyone walks away happy. Psychotherapist Annette Baran is co-author with Reuben Pannor of "The Adoption Triangle" and of a chapter on open adoption in the upcoming "The Psychology of Adoption." She preceded Pannor as director at Vista del Mar and is now in private practice. Her concern is for the birth mother: She has seen these women in counseling after the fact, and what she finds is "an amputated individual in most cases. It isn't resolvable. There is a lingering pain. Forever." She and Pannor would like to see an overhaul of the system, incorporating the two things that adoption lawyers would like to avoid--a longer decision-making process for the birth mother and a greater emphasis on counseling.