By Laura Teeter
Published in Resolve for the journey and beyond, Winter 2010 issue
Open adoption brings up many feelings within all members of the adoption community. It can elicit fear and uncertainty as well as comfort and hope. Many adoptive families are concerned that open adoption can lead into a situation that feels like co-parenting. To address this, adoption professionals (social workers, attorneys, adoption agencies) work to support adoptive parents as the parents of the child, and the birth parents as important people in the child’s life. No two open adoptions are alike, and adoptive families can work together with their adoption professionals and birth family to come up with an agreement that works for everyone.
From the early 1900s through the 1970s, adoption professionals focused primarily on hiding adoption from children and the public under the assumption it was what was best for everyone involved. It was assumed that with this secrecy, birth parents could more easily move on with their lives, and adoptive parents could raise their child with a very concrete sense of family and belonging. Over time, it was realized this did not help birth parents forget or remove the children’s curiosity about their personal histories.
There are many reasons open adoption has become more prevalent. Birth parents often wonder about their child’s well-being, physically and emotionally. In addition, open adoption can help them process their grief and find comfort knowing that they can still be a part of their child’s life in some way. Many adoptive families also have lingering curiosities about who their child’s birth parents are or medical questions that were originally unanswered during the adoption process. Open relationships can help adoptive families possibly know more about their birth family and can in turn help calm their fears about birth parents wanting to reclaim their child. In previously closed adoptions, it became more apparent how damaging secrecy could be for children. Longitudinal research shows that it is beneficial to children to have open relationships with their birth family. Open relationships can help children deal with their feelings of abandonment; as well as dispel any fantasies they may have about their birth family. Additionally, it can reduce an adoptive child’s guilt or concerns about loyalty in the mutual relationship their birth and adoptive families share.
Open adoption comes in many varieties. The types of communication can include letters with pictures, phone calls, emails and/or in person meetings (either before placement or after). In some cases, this may mean using an agency or an attorney to facilitate communication. Oftentimes only first names are shared and the parties mutually agreed to the type and frequency of contact. In other cases open adoption can mean fully disclosing identifying information and contacting each other directly at any time. Anyone can participate in an open adoption as long as both parties are in agreement. Visits and meetings may take place at a neutral location such as the placement agency office, a park, restaurant, or, if it is mutually agreeable, in one another’s homes.
Families have often described meeting their child’s birth parents as a nerve-wracking experience, much like a first date. Typically everyone feels nervous and excited at first; but anxious feelings usually dissipate after the first few minutes. If an adoptive family is meeting a birth parent prior to placement, it can be easy to promise specific types of contact that may be difficult to manage with a newborn. It is always better to start off with minimal agreements and become comfortable with that arrangement over time. The agreement can always expand in the future. A qualified adoption professional can ensure that boundaries are clearly identified and communicated to all members in the relationship.
Open relationships, just like all relationships, can experience highs and lows. Adoptive families may find it hard to hear about a birth parent’s grief, or witness the birth parents living unstable lives. If contact is sporadic over the years, adoptive families may need to help their child deal with disappointment. Birth parents also take the risk of adoptive families not honoring their agreements. When conflicts occur, the parties are required to seek assistance from their agency and possibly mediation services. During these times, adoption professionals can provide assistance in coming to a resolution and bring in mediation services when necessary.
Adoption social workers are trained to help birth parents or adoptive families manage any difficult situations that families may experience. Education for both parties about open adoption is a key component. It is equally important that everyone have clear expectations in the beginning about how their relationship might look over the next 18+ years. Often agencies will have the birth parents as well as adoptive parents sign a contract detailing specific types and timing of contact. This contract is often made in good faith, but in some jurisdictions can be legally binding.
Overall, open adoption can be a wonderful experience for everyone involved in the relationship. An adoption agency will partner with birth and adoptive families throughout the life of the adoption to maintain a healthy relationship between all parties.
LAURA TEETER is a Licensed Certified Social Worker who works for Adoptions Together, a licensed adoption agency in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301.439.2900.