The Basics of Open Adoption

Before starting the adoption process, many prospective parents worry about birth family contact. Read up on the basics of open adoption to ease your fears.

A blended family understanding the basics of open adoption

What is “open” adoption?

In an open adoption, birth parents and adoptive parents know each other’s identities. Once a novelty, openness is now routine in U.S. private adoptions, and is even spreading to foster-care and some international adoption. Our families say that openness — even without ongoing contact — helps children understand adoption, relieves the fears of adoptive parents, and helps birth mothers resolve their grief.

How much contact is there in an open adoption?

At one extreme are families who know each other’s names but don’t meet or communicate. At the other are the adoptive and birth families who socialize once a month or more. Most open adoptions lie somewhere in the middle, with families exchanging letters, pictures, and phone calls and meeting once or twice a year, often tailing off as the children — and the birth families — grow older.

Families (both birth and adoptive) who want access to information while preserving their privacy can opt for “semi-open” adoption, where the two families have some contact (letters through an intermediary, or even meetings in a neutral area) but don’t know each other’s names or addresses.

Doesn’t open adoption confuse a child?

Our families say their children in open adoptions are not confused about who their parents are. In playgroups, at school, and on television, they see blended families and other nontraditional structures. Children incorporate birth-family members into their extended families quite easily.

Can open adoptions be legally enforced? 

Some U.S. states allow adoptive parents and their child’s biological families to make enforceable, written agreements about how much ongoing contact the two families will have. Each state has its own requirements; you should work with an attorney to make sure your agreement conforms to your state’s laws. If, over time, either birth family or adoptive family wants to enforce or change the agreement, they can seek mediation or bring an action in family court. The court will decide what is in the best interests of the child (in practice, they almost always abide by the wishes of the adoptive parents). Breach of a contact agreement does not affect the legality of the adoption or the adoptive parents’ rights.

In states where statutes don’t address post-adoption contact agreements, adoptive and birth families can make an informal agreement, based upon the good will and trust between the parties.

Lois Melina, an adoptive parent who has been writing and lecturing about adoption for 30 years, says: “Instead of thinking of your open adoption as a new, untested kind of adoption, think of it as just another family dynamic. I suggest that families use their relations with in-laws as a model. While some people have close, warm relationships with their in-laws, for many others, in-laws are the people we have to get along with because we are connected through the one person we all love. Likewise, in an open adoption, an adoptive and a birth family form a relationship because they all love the same child.”

Do birth fathers stay involved with their children?

Of the 25 percent of birth fathers who take an active role in their child’s placement, only about 20 percent continue contact with the adoptive family. Many of our families have open adoptions with their child’s birth mother, but have what are, in effect, closed adoptions with the birth father.

Should we keep the birth grandparents involved?

It’s not unusual for biological grandparents to be interested in maintaining contact after the adoption of their grandchild. In a case of an older child who had an established relationship with birth grandparents before the adoption, it is often in the child’s best interest to maintain that relationship. Some of our adoptive families, believing that children cannot have too many people who love them, incorporate biological grandparents and other relatives into their child’s life. The degree of contact may vary, from occasional letters to frequent meetings.

However, biological grandparents do not have any enforceable rights to visitation with their grandchild after the adoption is finalized, unless there is a written contract between the adoptive parents and the child’s biological relatives guaranteeing visitation, and you live in a state that allows such contracts.

Will the birth family always be part of our lives?

Often, the birth parents move on with their lives after the child’s first year or two. They resume the roles they had before the birth or take on new ones. This is particularly true for young birth parents, who still have much growth and development to accomplish. As they become involved with school, peers, careers, and new relationships, their focus is on themselves and not on the child. This is as it should be. One of the reasons they placed the child for adoption was that they needed to concentrate on themselves before taking on responsibility for another person.

Birth parents may want less contact with the adoptive family after they have other children, because they have less time for other relationships, and because it can be hard to see all the children together and wonder what it would have been like to raise them together.

If birth parents pull back from the open adoption relationship to move on with their lives, the adoptive family may still have regular, ongoing contact with other members of the birth family.

In our experience, adoptive families enter into open adoptions worrying that the birth parents will want too much contact. After the first few months, our families find they have less contact with the birth family than they would like.

How do I deal with a birth parent whose child was taken away?

If you have adopted a child who was removed from the birth family because of abuse or neglect, your instinct may be to protect your child by cutting off contact. Psychologists who deal with abused children recommend that you maintain some kind of relationship. If you reject the birth parents, you are rejecting a part of the child. Social workers can provide a safe and neutral place for supervised meetings; if this isn’t possible, try to exchange letters and photographs. Our families say the relationship is like that of divorced parents: You may not like each other much, but you all want the best for your child.

Sarah Gerstenzang, associate director of The Collaboration to AdoptUSKids, a federally-funded initiative to promote and facilitate the adoption of children in foster care (and herself an adoptive parent), says: “If you have a relationship with the birth parent, you may have a better relationship with the child, who will feel fully accepted by you.”

Should I maintain contact with the foster parents?

Social workers used to advise cutting off all contact with previous placements when children were finally adopted. Now, ongoing contact is encouraged, especially for older children who formed bonds with their foster families. In some cases, the foster family is the only link between the child and the birth family — the first foster family may have met the birth family during the termination process.

Are there open international adoptions?

Until recently, openness in international adoption was very rare. (Some adoptive parents chose inter-country adoption to avoid encounters with their child’s birth parents.) Today, however parents are meeting their children’s birth families across international boundaries. Few countries establish open adoptions from the start, but many provide enough identifying information so parents can attempt contact with birth-family members later.

Open international adoptions are different from open domestic adoptions in one critical way: If foreign birth parents express any desire for ongoing contact, the child may not qualify for an orphan visa and will not be able to enter the U.S. There is nothing to stop the adoptive family from making voluntary contact with the birth family—but it can’t be, in any way, a condition of the adoption.

If we have a closed adoption, or if the birth parents disappear, can we find them later?

Our families say that, parents should resist the temptation to search on their child’s behalf. On the other hand, if it’s your child who wants to search, you should enlist professional support from a therapist who has experience with adoption-related issues. Adoptees should be prepared for all of the possible search outcomes, including rejection by a birth parent, learning that a parent has died, realizing that there’s a disparity between fantasy and reality, or — in the best-case scenario — building a relationship with and integrating the birth parent into their lives. Families will also need help in setting appropriate boundaries with a birth family, as well as in guiding their child through the search-and-reunion process.

Many adult adoptees feel that initiating contact with birth parents should be the child’s prerogative, not their parents’ decision. They note that the decision to search, and the searching itself, can be important to a child’s quest for identity.

Copyright © 1999-2021 Adoptive Families Magazine®. All rights reserved. For personal use only. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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