Though open adoptions have become more commonplace, little has changed in the world of open adoption agreements. There is not really a template for what these agreements should entail as open adoption agreements are a fairly new concept and not legally enforceable in many states. Even those states that do state they legally enforce their open adoption agreements, there are many loopholes, stipulations, and faults with the law.
Open adoption agreements typically benefit birth parents by allowing them to remain a part of the child’s life even though they have placed the child. Adoptive parents often understand that this is healthiest for the child, though there are unfortunately cases where adoptive parents agree to open adoption as a compromise to ensure placement. This compromise is one of the largest ethical issues with open adoption agreements not truly being legally enforceable, and typically comes from a place of truth, but lacks motivation as time passes and children grow.
It is vital that we talk about reality and its place at the forefront of the discussion surrounding open adoption agreements. While adoption agencies and attorneys need to develop more formal and informed processes for drafting open adoption agreements, the responsibility for realistic expectations and promises will first fall with the adoptive parents. When my husband and I adopted our daughter, we agreed to an open adoption but really never flushed out how that would appear. Our child’s birth mother also did not know what to expect, but certainly had her own set of expectations. It was not until almost a year after the adoption had been finalized that we made it a point to talk about what open adoption meant to both parties. A lot of confusion and disappointment could have been spared had we been guided through the open adoption agreement process or, at the very least, made each of our expectations clear and realistic from the beginning.
Adoptive and birth parents need to keep at the forefront of their minds that regardless of life’s circumstances or their expectations, the relationship between birth parents, adoptive parents, and their child is lifelong. A peaceful, loving, and respectful relationship should be the goal for all parties for the sake of the child. To achieve this, the first step will be to set up realistic guidelines for your open adoption agreement. Adoptive parents, do not ever agree to a visitation schedule or contact promises that you are not willing to uphold because you are fearful a birth parent will not choose you otherwise. This is not only unfair, but it is entirely unethical. On this same token, birth parents should never feel pressured into agreeing to an open adoption plan if they do not feel comfortable. This will only lead to heartache for all involved, but mostly for the child.
Neither side should agree to any terms that they do not feel are realistic. It is probably not wise to agree to visits every month if you live more than a state away. It is simply not realistic in most cases. My children and I live two states away from their birth mother, and we have agreed to visit every 6 months, barring any extenuating circumstances. “Barring extenuating circumstances” is key in this agreement. While this excuse should not be abused, there are simply times where life simply happens on both sides. There have been times—on both accounts—where we have had to move these visits past the 6-month point with the understanding that it will be rescheduled for the next available opportunity. This isn’t to appease us, but it is to make sure that we keep the promises we made not only to each other, but to our child.
Life happens. People change. Parents get divorced. Some may move away. Job opportunities may arise. The tendency for life to throw us curve balls is why it is so important to keep not only realistic expectations part of your open agreement, but also continual communication and willingness to change as life does. Talk about these possibilities from the first discussions before you even have placement of your child. While no one likes to think life may change, it does more often than not. What would your visitation and contact look like if you have to move five states away instead of one? How would you honor your visitation promises? Could you? When you are able to communicate openly and honestly with one another, these situations become less stressful because you have built your relationship on honest compromise and mutual trust.
A large reason open adoption agreements are largely not legally enforceable is for the simple fact that no one knows what the future holds. Ultimately, adoptive parents have the power in these situations to make decisions based on their child’s best interest. Often, it is the unintended abuse of that power in the form of unrealistic promises that can make or break a trusting relationship between adoptive and birth parents. Adoptive or birth parent, make your expectations clear. Be flexible, but not at the expense of being uncomfortable. If you know you are agreeing to something that would be unrealistic or is not what you want, speak up immediately.
Regardless of the legality of an agreement, get your expectations in writing with your agency or attorney. If open adoption agreements are legally enforceable in your state, make it a priority, as an adoptive or birth parent, to make sure the agreement is filed correctly. Ultimately, open adoption agreements are for the benefit of your child and each party should remember that they are honest and active participants in upholding the agreement for the child. This motivation is the key to keeping healthy relationships and continuing to make your open adoption agreement successful.