Although pre-birth openness is becoming routine in newborn adoptions there are more variations in the years following the birth, after the adoption has been completed. Some birth mothers want to get to know the adoptive parents before the birth, but then wish to go "their own way" in life thereafter. Getting to know the adoptive family gives her confidence in the placement and the knowledge she can feel secure in the child's future with the parents (or single parent) she selected. The birth mother may feel that future contact with the adoptive parents, or the child, would be emotionally difficult for her.
Open adoption has slowly become more common since research in the 1970s suggested that open adoption was better for children. In 1975 the tide began to change, and by the early 1990s open adoptions were offered by a majority of American adoption agencies. Especially rapid progress was seen in the late 1980s and early 1990s - between 1987 and 1989 a study found only a third of agencies offered fully open adoption as an option; by 1993 76 percent of the surveyed agencies offered fully open adoptions. As of 2013, roughly half of US states consider them legally binding, however contact in open adoption is not always maintained.
In virtually all cases, the decision is up to the adoptive parents regarding how to inform the child that he or she has been adopted, and at what age to do so, if at all. Although a non-profit adoption agency (if one is used) might mail newsletters and solicit funds from the parents, traditionally, it has been extremely rare for them to communicate directly with the child (usually, adoption agencies do not contain the word "adoption" in their name).
Like any relationship, open adoption relationships evolve over time. Post-adoption contact may increase or decrease, or the nature of the contact may change along with people’s changing lives. However, even in the most open adoption relationship, the birth parent is not a co-parent but rather another very important person in the child’s life. The child’s adoptive parent(s) are his or her legal parent(s) and they have all rights and responsibility for the child. Most importantly, when birth parents and adoptive parents set out to forge their relationship, the child’s needs must always be paramount.
When a child is adopted through a closed adoption, the records of that adoption are sealed by a judge to make the transaction private. Biological parents will sometimes do this if they do not want to be contacted by their biological child, or if the parties involved agree that it is best if certain information be anonymous. But sometimes a child may grow up and want to contact his biological parents, or she may need to know her parents in the event of a hereditary illness or risk that requires knowledge of family medical history.
Closed adoption was once the most common type of adoption, but now after decades of research, nearly all adoption professionals agree that closed adoption is the least beneficial of all the types of adoption relationships. Only in necessary situations will a closed adoption be recommended for a birth mother, and adoptive families should always be open to at least a semi-open adoption.
Unfortunately, there are situations where an open adoption is either not an option or is not the best choice for the child. Some birth parents do not want an open adoption because they are afraid that the ongoing contact will be a constant reminder of the painful decision they made at a difficult time in their life. They may believe that a closed adoption will better allow them to emotionally heal. Other birth parents have not shared the fact of their pregnancy with their family or community and they may fear that an open adoption will undermine their desire for confidentiality. Finally, there are times when open adoption is not in the child’s best interest due to the birth parents’ circumstances.
Adoptive parents should remember that an open adoption is not just a relationship, but a promise that families make to birth parents. Parents should always do their best to honor their contact agreement as time passes. For many, this is not an issue; in fact, may adoptive families develop strong relationships with the birth parents of their children and even come to view them as extended family members.
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Another way older children can be placed for adoption is where the birth parents' rights were terminated by a court due to improper parenting or abuse. Although the child may still foster idealized feelings for that failing parent it is not uncommon in these adoptions for there to be no contact between the child and adoptive parent, and the birth parent.
Closed adoption has been increasingly criticized in recent years as being unfair to both the adoptee and his or her birth parents. Some people believe that making the identities of a child's parents quite literally a state secret is a gross violation of human rights. On the other hand, the birth mother may have desired the secrecy because of the circumstances of the child's conception.
Oftentimes the birth and adoptive parents will sign a Post-Adoption Contract (sometimes called an Open Adoption Agreement), putting in writing any promises regarding contact after the adoption is finalized. Even in those states which do not expressly have laws in this area, these agreements can usually be prepared if the parties desire to formalize the agreement. In an increasing number of US states, courts will find these agreements legally enforceable, as long as they serve the best interests of the child. It is not unusual for these agreements to be more like "handshake" agreements, although they offer less protection to a birth parent if the adoptive parent's promises were not honored.