Study: The Birth Parent Perspective

A study from the National Institutes of Health looks at open adoption, from the point of view of both the adoptive and birth parents.

In this study, most birth parents enjoyed their open adoptions

Tom and Judy, who hope to adopt a newborn domestically, are putting together an album to be shown to prospective birth mothers.

“Don’t use that picture,” Judy says, taking a snapshot out of Tom’s hands.

“Why not?” Tom asks. “It really shows off our house.”

“Don’t you think it looks…I don’t know, kind of braggy?” Judy asks. “We don’t want birth moms to think we’re all about money and possessions. How about this one, instead?”

Tom picks it up and rolls his eyes. “You’re just trying to get the St. Francis statue in. What if the birth parents aren’t Catholic?”

“It shows the McGregors’ swing set, too, so they’ll know there are kids in our neighborhood.” Judy leans back against the couch and sighs. “Who knows what will make someone choose us, anyway?”

Meanwhile, Daniel and Cindy have been parents for two years. They’re struggling to stick with the idealistic open adoption plan they had set up after their daughter, Bailey, was born.

Since Bailey’s birth mother moved away, it’s been much harder to get together. Though they had wanted monthly contact, including visits, with her, they’re down to a phone call every few months. They wonder, is it just us, or do all adoption triads find openness this hard to maintain?

The adoption process is no longer veiled in secrecy, but many families still have questions for which there are no solid answers.

But there is good news: Initial data from the Early Growth and Development Study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, highlighted open adoption attitudes and outcomes, including the too-little-studied perspective of the birth family. Researchers Leslie Leve, Ph.D., and Jenae Neiderhiser, Ph.D., are among the principal investigators in this ongoing domestic adoption study.

The study recruited 360 sets of linked birth parents, adoptive parents, and adopted children, rather than putting out a call for volunteers, and this means greater accuracy in results. (Volunteer studies tend to skew positive.) While the study recruited families only through adoption agencies, rather than through private attorneys or kinship placements, the initial results provide useful insights into commonly asked questions about the adoption process.

Birth Families Demystified

The stereotypical birth mother — that young, single, minority girl who has nowhere else to turn — isn’t common these days. Yes, slightly more than one-third of birth parents studied are 21 or younger, and a quarter of them have not completed high school. But the majority of birth parents are between the ages of 22 and 30, and one of five is older than 30. Seventy-two percent of birth mothers and 74 percent of birth fathers in the study are white.

“I was surprised by the number of birth parents who were married, or were living with one another at the time of placement (about 27 percent), and also about the wide age range,” says Neiderhiser.

The biggest unifying factor is low income. Eighty-nine percent of birth mothers and 65 percent of birth fathers have annual gross personal incomes of less than $20,000. Economic disadvantage is the leading reason, worldwide, that children are available for adoption.

Agency Interactions

Most birth families choose their agencies carefully — and are happy with the services their agencies offer.

Birth families select their agency based on its philosophy of adoption, including its philosophy of openness. Sixty-four percent of birth mothers and 60 percent of birth fathers identified an agency based on information from a packet, its website, a meeting, or a phone call to the agency. “My doctor gave me some pamphlets, and the pamphlet of the agency that I chose was the only one that talked about open adoption,” commented one birth mother. Others chose their agency based on personal recommendations, or by its reputation.

Services the agencies offered — counseling, meeting other birth parents, or a support group — were also important factors.

Although some birth parents wanted more post-adoption support, such as more contact with the social worker, most were satisfied with the agency they chose. “They were nice to me during a time when I had no one,” said one birth parent. Another expressed appreciation for “their understanding, willingness to help, and support when I became very emotional.”

“Many birth parents rely on their adoption agency for a host of services,” says Leve. “Agencies and social workers are an important source of support and guidance during this life transition.” But there is no typical scenario for how much support a birth family receives; this varies by agency and by the birth parents’ wishes.

Choosing an Adoptive Family

Selecting a family to raise your child is one of the biggest decisions of a lifetime. The reasoning that leads to a birth parent’s decision often seems mysterious, especially to prospective parents who are anxious to present themselves in the best light. Should they emphasize their advanced degrees? Their extended family? Their friendly neighborhood? Should they downplay the fact that Prospective Dad rarely goes to church, or that Prospective Mom will be working rather than staying home?

It turns out, there is no big mystery about what birth parents want. Three factors ranked as most important, by far, to most of the birth families. “Birth parents want for their children what they believe they could not provide themselves,” says Neiderhiser.

Most important to both birth mothers and birth fathers are educational opportunities for the child. Equally important for birth mothers, and only slightly less important for birth fathers, is an adoptive couple with a close marital relationship. Coming in third, but ranked “very important” by three-quarters of birth mothers and birth fathers, is that the adoptive family be financially secure.

“Birth parents truly want their child to have a happy, successful, and stress-free life,” says Leve. “Educational opportunities, warm parental relations, and financial security are qualities that any parent would want for their child. Birth parents are no different.”

Qualities historically emphasized by adoption agencies — a physical resemblance to the birth family, a stay-at-home mother, and similar religious background — are less important to today’s birth parents.

How Open?

Most literature on adoption says that open adoption works well for everyone involved, but there are various degrees of openness, and different families have different attitudes about it. The study considers degrees of openness and satisfaction of both birth and adoptive families.

“Openness” can encompass what the study calls “semi-open,” meaning that all communication between birth and adoptive parents comes through the agency, through “very open,” meaning that birth parents visit the adoptive family at least once a month and communicate several times per month by phone, letter, or e-mail.

At three to six months post-placement, about one-third of the adoptions were described by birth mothers as “open” — meaning one to three visits per year, with semi-regular, direct communication by phone, letter, or e-mail. Another third had more frequent visits and communication, and slightly fewer than one-third had no face-to-face contact with the adoptive families. Almost all of the adoptions included some communication between the families, whether directly or through an agency.

Are the involved parties satisfied with their level of openness? Initially, most are. Seventy-three percent of birth mothers report being very satisfied with the openness of their adoptions at three to six months after placement, and 67 percent of adoptive mothers are very satisfied at nine months after placement.

As time goes on, many participants in the adoption process want more openness. Thirty-three percent of birth mothers would like more openness at three to six months postpartum, and that figure increases to 38 percent by 18 months postpartum. Fewer adoptive mothers start out wanting more openness — only 17 percent at nine months after placement — but by 27 months post-placement, that percentage has grown to 33 percent.

Adoptive fathers seem to want the least openness, but they, too, report an increased desire for openness with the passage of time — from 19 percent at nine months postpartum to 27 percent at 27 months postpartum.

Leve theorizes that both birth and adoptive parents become more comfortable about the adoption as time passes, and with greater comfort comes a desire for more contact.

But Leve also ties this desire to larger, more universal trends in our society. “Individuals who have participated in adoption plans are likely no different from those who haven’t, in terms of wanting more contact and a better relationship with extended family members, biological or not,” she says. “The dispersed nature of our society prevents many of us from having as much contact with extended family as we want.”

Neiderhiser concurs. “Schedules are complicated, people move, and, although there may be a desire to continue to have contact, it may be harder to bring about,” she says.

Birth Fathers: Wanting More

An especially interesting aspect of the study is that it takes account of birth fathers, a rarely studied group. Throughout the process, birth fathers seem to want more openness than they have. While only 33 percent of birth mothers want more openness at three to six months postpartum, 43 percent of birth fathers want more during that same period.

As time passes, the birth fathers’ dissatisfaction with the level of openness grows. Immediately after the adoption, only 10 percent of them expressed any dissatisfaction. By 18 months postpartum, however, that figure was 19 percent.

“Birth fathers do seem to desire more openness than birth mothers do, but that is partly because they have a less open relationship with the adoptive family to begin with,” says Leve. About 13 percent of birth fathers in the study were completely uninvolved in the matching or pre-adoption process, and Leve believes the percentage would be higher among birth fathers in general (since uninvolved birth fathers would be less likely to join a research study).

In agencies and social workers’ interactions with birth parents, birth fathers get less attention. “Probably the most surprising thing we learned is how often birth fathers are considered to not be part of the process,” says Neiderhiser, “even when they are playing a fairly active role.”

For instance, Neiderhiser and her associates asked one agency to provide a birth father’s name and contact information, and were told that the agency didn’t know who he was or how to reach him. When they asked the birth mother for the same information, she said that the birth father lived with her and would be happy to speak with the researchers.

Upon interviewing this birth father, the researchers learned that he had accompanied the birth mother on all of her agency visits — yet the agency didn’t know who he was. “I expect this is an unusual situation,” says Neiderhiser, “but it concerned me, and made me wonder how birth father involvement is, or isn’t, facilitated.”

Takeaway Lessons

What can we infer from this study? What are its important lessons?

While some participants in the adoption process wish for more openness in their adoptions, almost no one wants less. “The good news is that almost everyone — birth parents and adoptive parents alike — reports being satisfied with openness during the first and second year of the child’s life,” says Leve. (So far, the study hasn’t examined adjustment after the first two years.)

In fact, the researchers found that openness significantly correlates with satisfaction and post-adoption adjustment among birth and adoptive families alike.

“You can add openness to the list of things you don’t have to worry about,” says Leve. “It almost always works out.”

She explains that birth parents and adoptive parents select the amount of openness that fits their comfort levels. “A birth mother who wishes to remain anonymous and have no contact with the adoptive family is not going to seek services through an agency that advertises itself as promoting openness.”

Neiderhiser, herself an adoptee, endorses an attitude of openness to all adoptive parents. “The more you talk with your children in an open, positive way about the fact that they were adopted, the less of a problem it will be for them.”

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