Before Open Adoption

It wasn’t too long ago that most adoptions were considered “closed.” If the term needs defining for those who are unfamiliar, Wikipedia explains it like this:

“Closed adoption (also called ‘confidential’ adoption and sometimes ‘secret’ adoption) is a process by which an infant is adopted by another family, and the record of the biological parent(s) is kept sealed. Often, the biological father is not recorded—even on the original birth certificate. An adoption of an older child who already knows his or her biological parent(s) cannot be made closed or secret. This used to be the most traditional and popular type of adoption, peaking in the decades of the post-World War II Baby Scoop Era. It still exists today, but it exists alongside the practice of open adoption. The sealed records effectively prevent the adoptee and the biological parents from finding, or even knowing anything about each other (especially in the days before the Internet). The International Association of Adopted People does not support any form of closed adoption because it believes that closed adoption is detrimental to the psychological wellbeing of the adopted child. However, the emergence of non-profit organizations and private companies to assist individuals with their sealed records has been effective in helping people who want to connect with biological relatives to do so.”

Until as recently as the 1980s in the United States, many women who found themselves pregnant felt forced to hide their pregnancy, often leaving home for an extended “visit” with a relative to give birth to their child in secret—out of the public eye. Oftentimes, either a doctor or an adoption facilitator or lawyer would arrange for an adoptive family without much or any input from the birth mother and definitely without input from the birth family. Adoption, you could say, was often a quiet fix to unplanned pregnancy.

Due to input from all members of the adoption community (especially from adoption professionals who promoted the idea based on years of research and studies) a movement began shifting the trend toward open adoptions, which has provided the birth mother much more say in the decisions surrounding her adoption plan and the overall adoption process. Adoptees, too, have voiced their longing to have more information about their birth families (which for so long was impossible to retrieve), stating that having access to their birth family increased their sense of worth and identity, helped them feel as if they belonged rather than feeling as though they’d been abandoned, and provided them a sense of connection to cultural and ethinic backgrounds. In some cases, simply knowing what a birth parent looks like can make a world of difference to a child who looks in the mirror and wonders where he got his nose from or where she got her green eyes from. More serious reasons for wanting a connection to birth family involve needing lifesaving or life-changing medical history information.

Now, as a result, birth moms are generally able to choose the adoptive family for their unborn child, weigh in on the amount of contact she would like with the prospective adoptive family, decide on proceedings at the hospital, and have a voice in the type of contact she would like with her child after the adoption has been finalized.

What Is an Open Adoption?

According to Childwelfare.gov, “Open adoption is a form of adoption that allows birth parents to know and have contact with the adoptive parents and the adopted child. Adoption agencies or professionals you talk with may describe open adoptions differently. But in open adoptions, usually—

- Birth parents or other birth family members have some level of contact with the adoptive parents and the adopted child in some way, depending on what feels comfortable for everyone.

- Expectant mothers may take part in selecting the adoptive parents who will raise their children.

- Adopted children know they have been adopted and may have relationships with one or more members of their birth families.

- Communication between birth mothers (and sometimes birth fathers, grandparents, or other relatives) and adoptive parents may take place through letters, phone calls, e-mails, or visits.

- Families communicate in ways that feel comfortable to them. Some send pictures and brief notes. Others celebrate holidays together. The type of contact and how often it happens will depend on the needs and choices of everyone involved, and may change over time.

Open adoption does not mean parenting your child together with the adoptive parents. Like all forms of adoption, the adoptive parents will have the permanent legal rights and responsibilities for parenting and raising the child.”

That said, as with all adoptions (which tend to be unique), open adoptions come in all shapes and sizes. Some open adoptions involve a vast amount of involvement with regular visits and an extended-family atmosphere. Other “open” adoptions are much more closed off, possibly involving pictures or letters but with minimal or no physical visitation. The amount of contact and nature of long-term relationships is typically decided on before the adoption and worked out between the birth mom and adoptive family, under the guidance of an adoption specialist.

Different Kinds of Open Adoption

The two types of open adoption include fully open adoption and semi-open adoption. With a fully open adoption, birth parents (including the birth mom, father, and other members of the birth family) may request to have direct contact with the adoptive family (parents and child). In fully open adoption, typically both birth parents and adoptive parents have identifying information about each other, making it possible to develop an open and ongoing relationship.

With a semi-open adoption, an adoption facilitator (i.e., an agency caseworker or lawyer) may pass along information between the birth family (birth mom, father, and other members of the birth family) such as letters and photos. Unlike fully open adoption, however, semi-open adoption allows for birth parents and adoptive parents to maintain their privacy and withhold identifying information.

Are International Adoptions Opened or Closed?

While closed adoptions have become rare in the United States, they are still common with international adoptions. Travel.state.gov offers country-specific information here. In some instances, the orphanage or institution where your child may be living may provide adoptive parents with social and medical history paperwork that includes identifying information.

Pros of Open Adoption

According to Kinshipcenter.org  about 55% of domestic adoptions are open adoptions. Research has shown (and it is widely accepted today) that adopted children do better with open adoptions because they are better able to understand how they came to be adopted. There is no mysterious puzzle to solve years later because open adoption lets children ask questions about their family background.

In her article “7 Reasons Open Adoption Is Beneficial To Adoptees”, Sarah Baker writes, “People who were adopted deserve the same benefits others take for granted.” She cites the following seven reasons why open adoption is good for adoptees:

1. It gives adoptees increased sense of identity

2. Adoptees and their adoptive families can access medical knowledge

3. It permits understanding of the adoption placement situation

4. It allows for more love

5. Adoptees can find out why they were adopted

6. It fosters relationships with siblings and other extended family

7. It lessens adoptees’ fear of hurting their adopted parents’ feelings

Although some adoptive parents may be nervous about open adoption and what it will mean for their family dynamic, studies have shown that removing the unknown can actually result in stronger parent-child relationships. Furthermore, removing the mystery of a child’s birth family history allows the child to live in the present and be present. It is common for adopted children in closed adoptions to wonder, worry, and fantasize about for years, if not a lifetime, the birth family they may never know.

For birth parents, the pros of open adoption are clearer: they are able to have a say in selecting a family for their child, continue a relationship with agreed-upon communication, and be there to answer important social and medical history questions as those become important to the adopted child down the line.

Cons of Open Adoption

The cons of open adoption for adoptive families may include feeling pressured to keep up visitation despite changing circumstances like career changes and moves, medical situations, or a variety of other factors that may come into play (such as boundary issues) that may cause adoptive parents to reconsider the parameters of an open adoption agreement.

Children may also feel confused, depending on the situation, and it is important that adoptive parents ensure consistent and clear communication (even if that means bringing in a counselor) to help a child understand her or his family dynamic.

Birth parents obviously lose anonymity with open adoption. And while transparency is typically a good thing, a birth parent may not wish to share identifying information with an adoptive family in some situations. In other instances, birth parents may feel pressured to keep in contact even if or when their life circumstances change and make it harder to do so. Some birth parents enter new relationships, decide to move (making visitation difficult), start families, or go through other life changes that cause them to reconsider just how open of an adoption is comfortable for them. Similarly, the adoptive family may also make life changes that may impact the open adoption agreement.

While mainly focusing on the benefits to all parties involved in adoption, the Adoption.com article “Is Open Adoption Right for Me?” reminds that “as with any relationship, there are some limitations. These issues might include maintaining healthy boundaries with birth parents and adoptive parents or trying to juggle multiple relationships with the birth families. Most disadvantages with open adoption can be resolved through honest and effective communication.”

Who Is Impacted by Open Adoption?

Open adoption does not only impact the lives of the birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptee, but also the extended family as well. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and others can all benefit from an open adoption and provide an adoptee with a sense of completeness in knowing where she is from, that she has birth family who love her, and that her adoptive family is okay with her curiosity about this other part of her life.

Ask the Experts

While there is much research out there pointing to the benefits of open adoption, you should speak to your adoption agency and social worker to really get a better feel for what open adoption could mean for your family. Stepping into the unknown is always scary, and getting the facts helps to put things into perspective. For instance, it is a common worry of adoptive parents (and birth parents too) that open adoption will be confusing for the adopted child when, in fact, this has proven over the years to not be the case. Adoption facilitators, social workers, and support groups are great resources that specialize in helping families clarify the roles they play and will play. Furthermore, it never hurts to reach out to other adoptive families who have chosen to go the open adoption route to see how they manage.

No two open adoption experiences are the same. It’s important to take the time to understand the impact it will have on your family before deciding what sort of open adoption you might consider.

Are You Open to Open Adoption?

If you are interested in open adoption, you should be sure to research. Start with learning what adoption is and what it means for all members of the adoption triad (the birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptee). It is only with knowledge and understanding that you will better comprehend what sort of adoption is best for your family and for the child you hope to adopt.

While open adoption can be beneficial, make sure to ask all the right questions before making a decision. When in doubt, make the choice you are most comfortable with. Both your present and future family are depending on you.

To learn more about open adoption, check out Adoption.com’s Guide To Communication In An Open Adoption.