Though they are rare, and most adoptions go through seamlessly, revocations by birth parents happen.

In BC, birth parents have 30 days from the time their child is born to change their minds and decide to parent their child.

Usually those 30 days pass by, albeit slowly, and the parents can breathe a sigh of relief. For others, it’s not quite so simple.

Ann and Greg’s first adoption was textbook. About five months after their homestudy was signed they brought home a newborn baby boy. The 30 days came and went without incident, and the overjoyed parents settled into life with their little child, Daniel.

Eighteen months later, they decided that it was time to welcome a new child into their family. Two years passed without any proposals. The couple was so determined that they arranged to register with a second agency in the hope that more birth parents would see their homestudy.

Finally, in May 2003, Ann came home to be met by Greg who explained, “I’ve come home to set up the crib.” The birth parents of a two-week-old baby boy had chosen them and wanted to meet them.

Ann and Greg spent a nervous few days meeting the birth parents and the baby. Ann remembers the young couple showing signs of indecision—they asked if Ann and Greg would delay taking the baby home by one day, and they did not turn up for a planned visit with the baby. Ann says they should have seen this, and the fact that the two young people had not told any of their family about the pregnancy, as red flags. On the day they were to bring him home, the social worker called to say that the parents had changed their minds. At the last minute, they had told a relative about the baby which prompted the reversal.

“The hardest part was telling Daniel that he was not a big brother. He had held the baby, and talked to him. They even looked remarkably similar,” says Ann. “I told him that his ‘tummy mummy’ had decided that she wanted to be his mom. She had not meant to make us sad, but she had to do it. We did not want to blame the birth parents.”

The family returned home and tried their best to resume a normal life. “We got through it by me talking about it a lot and Greg not talking much at all,” laughs Ann. They wrote a letter to the baby’s parents wishing them the best with their beautiful boy. Their agency checked in with them regularly during this period.

Three weeks later their homestudy was chosen again. Ann and Greg told fewer people about the child, yet to be born, that might join their family. This time the birthmom’s family knew about the pregnancy and were supportive of the adoption plan. Ann and Greg felt relatively reassured. At the hospital, the birth family saw them off as they put the baby in the car seat and headed home.

The next day, Ann and Greg’s social worker called with those agonizing words, “She’s changed her mind.” Though the couple had the option of keeping the baby for a few more days, Ann said, “I couldn’t do that to Daniel. So I asked the social worker to come straight over.” Once again, they had the painful task of explaining to Daniel that the “tummy mummy” had changed her mind.

The second revocation, coming only one month after the first, was a crushing blow for the entire family. Ann and Greg were asked if they’d like to put their adoption plans on hold while they tried to recover, but they decided against it.

Unbelievably, 30 days later their second adoption agency called with another proposal. “Our attitude was, if it’s meant to be, it will happen,” says Ann. Asked if they’d decided to take another leap of faith she replied, “No, I think it was just stubbornness.”

This time they told just one person about the possible adoption. They met with the birthmom, Jen, four days before she gave birth, and when the little boy was born they travelled with Daniel and Greg’s mother to the birth parents’ community. Given all they had been through, Ann and Greg were understandably nervous when they went to the hospital. They met Jen again, along with her parents and brother. “It was very emotional for all of us,” says Ann.

As they were leaving, Daniel saw that the birth grandmother was weeping. He looked at his mom and said, “Tell her not to cry, Mommy; we always give the baby back.”

This time they didn’t have to. Jen remained solid for the entire 30 days and even e-mailed the family reassuring them that she was very happy with her decision.

Ann, meanwhile, was being ultra-cautious. She couldn’t bear to tell too many people about their new arrival in case the unimaginable happened. She recalls smuggling the baby in and out of the house and avoiding neighbours. Finally, on day 31, she turned up at a friend’s house and proudly introduced baby David. She says, “The fun of unveiling David to people made up a bit for all the tears we had shed.”

Since then, the family and Jen have developed a strong bond and are in regular contact.

Though Colleen and Peter did not have two revocations in a row, like Ann and Greg’s, their story is a mix of extreme grief and overwhelming joy. Once their homestudy was signed-off, they waited for five months for news. Colleen recalls feeling like her entire life was on hold. When the call came, they were ecstatic.

An expectant mom, who was still in the process of deciding whether to parent her child, had chosen them as prospective parents. Their social worker told them, “You can buy a car seat but that’s it!” Colleen’s colleagues at school, the friends she had told, and their family were all caught up with the excitement. Four days later, they heard that the young mom had decided to parent her baby.

“Everyone was supportive,” recalls Colleen. “‘Your time will come,’ they said, but it was still very upsetting.” To make it harder, Colleen’s best friend was pregnant, and she recalls seeing babies everywhere.

A week later, she received a call at work. The same young mom had changed her mind and wanted to meet them. After a frantic day and night of packing, booking flights, and no sleep, Colleen and Peter flew north.

They paced their hotel room, not speaking as they waited for the mom to arrive. When she came, they showed her photos of all their family, their home, and their community. They really liked her, and she was very positive about their meeting. She told them that she would call at 9am the next day with her decision. They waited for the call for three hours. At noon, the birthmom’s boyfriend came over with the baby and they set off for the airport—they had missed one flight already. Colleen recalls hearing the pre-boarding announce-ment at the airport, “When it said that families with children should board, I thought, ‘Wow! That’s us!’”

It was Halloween, 14 days after they had brought baby Charlotte home, when they got the call that the birthmom had changed her mind. “I was not naive to the possibility. You enter adoption knowing this can happen. Despite my misery, I didn’t blame the adoption system or the birthmom,” says Colleen. “In two weeks, we’d had a world of memories. I was crying so much and, meanwhile, I had kids knocking on the door trick-or-treating.”

This nightmarish scene continued all that night but, despite their anguish, Colleen and Peter put together a letter and photo album for baby Charlotte, gave her a beautiful bracelet, and packed her belongings. They even managed to think positively. “We realized that having Charlotte for just two weeks reconfirmed that we should have a family, and that we could unconditionally commit to a child,” says Colleen.

The next day, a few minutes before Charlotte was due to leave, their social worker called them to say that she would, in fact, be staying. It took five days before the papers were signed and Colleen and Peter could be absolutely sure that Charlotte had officially joined their family.

Since then, the family have developed a good relationship with the birthmom.

At Charlotte’s baptism, her dad said, “Hearing that Charlotte would be leaving was the worst news in the world. But I’d never have given up those two weeks with her, ever.”

The couple are planning to adopt another child. Colleen feels more prepared this time. The first adoption educated many of their family and friends about adoption, so Colleen expects to have a little less explaining to do next time.

Though no one can be truly prepared for a revocation, Colleen, like Ann, has a philosophical attitude: “If this happens you must have faith that the child is meant to be with the other family.”

Both these moms found it hard to be so out of control during their adoptions, though Ann rationalizes that by saying, “Biological parents can choose to start the process of having a family, but they also don’t get to choose how it will end or take shape.” Both moms believe that their experience tested their commitment to the adoption process. But, much like a difficult pregnancy or delivery, once a loving bond is developed with a child, the difficult memories fade and the pain receedes to be replaced by the joy of life with their children.

Red flags

There are no guaranteed red flags, but here are a few to consider:

  • The birth father doesn’t know about the adoption plan. If he has not been informed of the birth of the child or the adoption plan, he has six months to claim parental rights.
  • The birth parents’ families do not know. Most reversals are as a result of last minute interventions by birth grandparents.

Face the issue

  • Before adopting a child, consider the possibility of reversal by a birth parent. If you have a partner discuss it; don’t pretend it never happens.
  • Discuss revocation with your social worker and ask what sort of support they offer and how they handle such situations.
  • If you are adopting a child from the US, be aware that different states have different revocation periods.