How Closed Adoption Hurts Birth Families

The effects of closed adoption on adoptees is well-documented. However, often the effect of a closed placement on birth families is overlooked.

Jennifer Mellon September 16, 2016

Closed adoptions refer to a confidential placement of a child where there is no identifying information provided to the birth family or adoptive family. Although this was historically the most common type of adoption in the U.S., over the past few decades it has become more common for birth and adoptive families to agree on some level of openness in their adoption plan. In closed adoptions, there is no identifying information provided either to birth families or adoptive families. The effects of closed adoption on child and adults who were adopted is well-documented. However, often the effect of a closed placement on birth families is overlooked. There are a number of disadvantages to closed adoptions, many of which can affect birth families.

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Birth Families Feel Alone
1. Birth Families Feel Alone

According to a 2012 survey by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, adoption agencies with infant adoption programs reported that only 5% of their placements were closed. This small percentage can lead birth families to feel as if they are alone in their adoption situation. Birth parent support groups often are filled with those who chose an open adoption plan. It can be hard to find others who can relate to the unique pain of a closed adoption.

2. Grief

Birth families often report experience a difficult grieving process because of the lack of information about the child. Birth parents in an open adoption have been shown to have better adjustment through the post-adoption period with more satisfaction with the process and are better able to resolve their grief.

3. Guilt

Lack of opportunity to explain to the child the reasons for placing him or her for adoption can allow feelings of guilt to develop. These guilty feelings can lead to birth parents believing that their offspring will not understand the reasons for relinquishment.

Feelings of Abandonment
4. Feelings of Abandonment

The Future of Child report by the Princeton Brookings Institute states that some birth parents report that they feel as if they are abandoning their child. The inability to communicate with the child makes some birth mothers, in particular, vulnerable to this feeling. They may feel as if their offspring will blame and hate them for rejecting and abandoning them.

Feeling Powerless
5. Feeling Powerless

The Future of Children report also states that birth parents may feel powerless. They have no knowledge of what is happening to their child and no opportunity to let the adoptive family know of significant events in their own lives. The adoption may also have been done during a time of duress, as the birth mother may have had little opportunity to make an educated decision on her own volition, choosing to place or choosing an open versus closed adoption plan.

Opened Against Your Wishes
6. Opened Against Your Wishes

When adoptions are closed, the files likely are also physically sealed. However, many states have created procedures that allow birth family members and adoptees to seek to “open” a closed adoption. This can be an emotionally fraught situation for birth parents who were promised confidentiality and anonymity when they placed their child for adoption. They may wish for their identities to be protected for a number of reasons.

Birth Siblings & Other Family Members
7. Birth Siblings & Other Family Members

Family members can also feel all of the various emotions felt by birth parents. Biological siblings may feel helpless and if a piece of themselves is missing. Birth grandparents may feel multiple emotions regarding the powerlessness associated with a closed adoption. There is often a void and feelings of loss associated with the placement of their sibling or grandchild. The desire to search can grow with time, especially as siblings get older and form families of their own.

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Jennifer Mellon

Jennifer Mellon has worked in the child welfare field for more than a decade, serving in varying capacities as the Executive Director and Chief Development Officer of Joint Council on International Children's Services (JCICS) and the Corporate Communications Program Manager for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI). Jennifer has served on the Board of the Campagna Center, which provides critical educational services to children and families in the DC Metro Area and on the Development Committee for the National Council for Adoption. She is the mom of three children and resides in Alexandria, Virginia.

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