Family's joy after years of heartache

By James Fuller

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The Neals had had enough. After eight-and-a-half years waiting to adopt a child, Amanda and her husband, Paul, decided to take control.

Tired of living life in limbo, waiting for a phone call, they were ready to up sticks and start afresh in Australia.

"It was a Monday morning," says Amanda. "Over the weekend we had done a lot of soul searching and crying and decided to get serious about a move to Australia. The first step in that process was to come out of the pool of adoption applicants with Child, Youth and Family (CYF).

"We had got to a point where we thought let's forget about kids, it's not happening. We didn't consult any of our family members on the move, we just wanted to put it all in motion before telling them.

"So I rang our adoption social worker from work and left a message saying I needed to discuss a few things. About an hour later she rang back and I told her we'd decided to withdraw from the pool. She said: 'Are you sure? Can I say anything to change your mind?'

"I'm really headstrong, and it was a big decision we had made, so I said: 'Well you can try but I don't think there's anything you could say which would change my mind. I don't want to do this anymore.

I'm sick of waiting and wondering if you're going to leave a message on our answerphone. So no, there's nothing.

"Not even if I told you your profile's been chosen?"

"I said some pretty choice words in response to that," she said. "But let's just say I didn't believe her. It was all pretty emotional from then on."

That phone call was five years ago and the Neals have just celebrated their sixth Christmas with adopted daughter Grace.

"It still seems surreal," says Amanda, who married Paul 13 years ago. The couple had begun trying for a family the same year.

"We tried for a year but discovered we had fertility issues which meant we only had a 5 per cent chance of getting pregnant naturally.

"As soon as we discovered that we decided to try IVF but we also applied to go into the adoption pool.

"We both felt it didn't matter how we had a child, it didn't matter if it was biological or not. So we opened the adoption door while we had ICSI (Intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection) in Hamilton."

The Oropi couple underwent two failed fertility treatments over six years, while being similarly unsuccessful in their quest to adopt. The growing realisation she might not fulfil her dream of becoming a mother was a difficult one for Amanda to accept.

"We were very much a couple that always saw children in our lives and couldn't imagine that not being the case. So it was very hard to realise it might not happen. We kept thinking, 'what are we going to do?' It took awhile to come to terms with and it's like a grieving process. You're mourning a loss.

"We knew that adoption was rare in New Zealand and we didn't have the money to think about inter-country adoption. We enquired about it but it was going to cost $35,000-$40,000."

In New Zealand, before a couple can adopt their suitability is assessed by CYF. The process involves seminars, case worker interviews, medicals, and financial and home study assessments. The final part of the process is a profile written by the prospective parents about themselves. It is this which the birth parents see and what they base their decision on.

"It's really hard compiling your profile," says Amanda. "I put ours in and then brought it back out again to change it. But, at the end of the day, you've just got to be who you are, be natural."

After seven-and-a-half years in the adoption pool, it seemed as though that approach had finally borne fruit.

"Our profile was chosen. We were so excited it was finally happening. We embraced it, told the whole family, bought everything. We thought our prayers had been answered.

"You're generally given 10 days, from the day the baby is born, to get prepared. The baby was born and it got down to day five.

"The mother was prepared to sign away her parental rights but then the father came in and said no. He didn't want the child but he didn't want it to be adopted either.

"It was like he didn't want the responsibility of a baby but he didn't want anyone else to have his baby. He wanted to have that control. So the child went into foster care.

"It was gut-wrenching. We had been certain it was going to work out fine. We didn't think for a second they would change their minds."

Amanda, who was 28 at the time, said she took a long time to recover emotionally.

"I got pretty depressed there for a little bit.

"I remember someone saying to me, when I hit absolute rock bottom, try not to think about it, just focus on other things. That's incredibly hard though when it's all you really want. You've got the fantastic relationship, you've got the money behind you, you want the baby.

"But I think both of us did do that to a certain extent. It was pretty much shut up shop, we have to get over this baby thing, we've got to focus on other things. So we threw ourselves into our careers."

Amanda, who works supporting adults with disabilities, says the birth of the couple's god-daughters helped them resume a normal life.

"When they were born that fulfilled a bit of the maternal and paternal thing because we were so hands on with them."

Even so, two-and-a-half years later, the couple felt they had reached an impasse and were exploring the option of moving overseas.

"Funny as it sounds, the more you think about it the more it doesn't happen. It was only when we'd decided to withdraw from the pool we got the news we'd been chosen by Grace's birth parents."

However, the emotions were different.

"It was more, OK this baby has been born, our profile has been chosen, we are going to meet the birth mother tomorrow ... but it still may not happen. I got excited. I cried and screamed with my work mates but then I rang Paul and I remember saying to him 'Don't get too excited, it's probably not going to happen'. We didn't fully embrace it because of what happened before.

"It wasn't until we met Grace's birth mum and birth grandma, and we walked away holding hands, that I said 'I think it might happen this time'. He said 'Shhh, don't say that.' It was like we were afraid to put it out there."

However, the visit had an impact.

"The birth mother was going to hold on to Grace for a bit longer but she met us and thought that was where Grace needed to be. It was seven days from the Monday of the phone call to the following Monday when we got her.

"It doesn't sound long but it's a horrible waiting period. I didn't tell the family this time until the night before we were due to get Grace.

"When the birth mother signed the consent and she and her mum brought Grace to us, they stayed with us the whole day, explaining what she was like, different things to do with her, feeding and all that sort of stuff. It was really wonderful to spend that time with them to get to know them."

Grace was 3 weeks old when she came to the Neals and the first night was a highly emotional one.

"They tucked her into her bassinet, said their goodbyes, gave us a hug and told us if we had any questions to just ask. They also arranged their first visit. After they had gone, I remember coming back in and just dropping to the floor, as dramatic as that sounds. I couldn't believe this was for real. I still felt they were going to turn around, tell me it was all a joke, and they wanted their baby back.

"It took probably a week for me to start thinking there's no way anyone's coming to take my baby away."

In New Zealand "open adoption" - which places an emphasis on continued contact between birth and adoptive parents - is encouraged for the child's benefit.

The Neals have enjoyed a wonderful ongoing relationship with the birth mother, who was 17 when she gave birth to Grace.

"Right from day one we said we would be as open as possible and we are extremely close.

"We went to Grace's birth grandmother's house just the other day. Grace's birth mother, who is in Australia with her partner, wanted to see Grace open her Christmas presents over Skype, so we did that ...

"We're very open about everything. We want her to have no questions. We don't want Grace to hit those pre-teen years and think she wasn't loved or wanted. She was wanted by her birth mother but she wanted more for her than she could give at that time.

"Grace is completely at ease with it. One of her pre-school teachers was adopted and her birth family have just contacted her. She was telling the kids how she's going to meet her birth sister and mother. And Grace spoke up. 'Do you have a birth mummy too?' She said 'Yes I have, why have you?' And she told her she had and what her name was."

Grace is a spirited, confident 5-year-old, who started primary school in September.

"She's perfect," says Amanda. "That sounds corny but that's what she is to us."

The bubbly youngster is into "anything girly" but growing up on a lifestyle block - which is home to a cow, a goat, three sheep and three chickens - she's not afraid to get her hands dirty either.

"She got a quad bike for her birthday. So she goes down on the farm and rides her quad bike with her dad, or she puts her gumboots on and goes down to the paddock and stands in the manure."

Watching mother and daughter interact is like watching any other parent-child relationship.

"She had bad reflux for a start," says Amanda. "There was a fleeting moment where I worried that she was rejecting me, knowing that I wasn't her mum, but that soon passed.

"Other than that there's never been a worry of her not being attached to us. Grace is as bonded to me as if I gave birth to her and her grandparents are as bonded to her as they would be a blood relative. Which is how it should be."

Christmas and New Year are described as "full-on" but Amanda wouldn't have it any other way.

"You feel complete. It was never the fact that I needed to carry a baby, it's never been about that for me, whereas for some women it is. I just felt this was what I was put on earth to do. It's an overwhelming feeling. This is what you battled for for all those years. Obviously there's a higher power and I was given her."

Amanda says those couples who have not been blessed with children should not become disillusioned.

"There's always hope. Never give up. I kept a journal of our journey from the time we found out we had fertility problems. I wrote something to myself in the front of that journal. It said: 'Remember you will one day be a mother, but it's going to be a long, hard journey.' That was nine-and-a-half years before Grace arrived."

Amanda says Grace has recently had an impact in another area, family decision-making.

"We've just gone back into the adoption pool again," says the 36-year-old.

"I was perfectly happy and settled but it was Grace who said 'Mummy are you ever going to have another baby? A brother or a sister for me?' I asked her if that's what she wanted and she said 'Yes, it would be nice.'

"I was like far out," she says rolling her eyes. "Here we go again."

Adoption within New Zealand

  • In 2011, 53 babies were adopted outside of the family (step-parent adoptions not included) within New Zealand. Five of these were adopted within the Bay of Plenty.

  • CYF currently has 25 couples who have applied for adoption in the Bay of Plenty.

  • Legislation surrounding adoption has not been updated since the Adoption Act 1955.

  • Same-sex couples cannot adopt at the moment. Individuals can apply to adopt but not with a same-sex partner.

  • Similarly, unmarried heterosexual couples cannot adopt. The 1955 act calls for a spouse.

  • All prospective adoptive parents, irrespective of whether they are looking to adopt from New Zealand or abroad, must first be approved through the Child, Youth and Family assessment process.

  • This includes a series of seminars, case worker interviews, medicals, and financial and home study assessments. Individual cases vary, but applicants can expect the process to take around six months.

  • The process of being matched to a child is hugely variable, as it is dependent on the birth parents choosing the applicants' profile. It can range between a few months to many years.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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