The pros and cons of open adoption have been endlessly debated by social workers and attorneys. It appears that those who support open adoptions are completely committed to them; those who believe in confidential adoptions seem equally convinced that open adoptions are catastrophic. Adopters need to deal with an adoption arranger that they feel comfortable with. The following table presents some classic differences between the two styles of adoption.
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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.
Closed adoption is experienced differently in every case. Communication is the most vital factor in the adoption process. As communication about wishes, desires, and expectations increases, the more comfortable everyone involved will be in the adoption process. In a closed adoption, this communication normally occurs through an adoption agency or adoption attorney.
Sue Heinzman’s enthusiasm for openness was echoed by virtually every family interviewed for this story. Even Kim Felder, whose empty mailbox made her son so sad, would not have it any other way. Robbie is one of four children adopted by the Felders since 1987, all of them involved some form of openness. And Kim knows the pain of closed adoption firsthand: she placed her son, Jim, for adoption 24 years ago, reuniting with him when he was 18.
Closed adoption (also called "confidential" adoption and sometimes "secret" adoption) is a process by which an infant is adopted by another family, and the record of the biological parent(s) is kept sealed. Often, the biological father is not recorded—even on the original birth certificate. An adoption of an older child who already knows his or her biological parent(s) cannot be made closed or secret. This used to be the most traditional and popular type of adoption, peaking in the decades of the post-World War II Baby Scoop Era. It still exists today, but it exists alongside the practice of open adoption. The sealed records effectively prevent the adoptee and the biological parents from finding, or even knowing anything about each other (especially in the days before the Internet). The International Association of Adopted People does not support any form of closed adoption because it believes that closed adoption is detrimental to the psychological wellbeing of the adopted child. However, the emergence of non-profit organizations and private companies to assist individuals with their sealed records has been effective in helping people who want to connect with biological relatives to do so.
“A lot of birth parents went into it thinking it was a privilege to them,” said Brenda Romanchik, executive director of Insight: Open Adoption Resources and Support, an adoption education and support organization in Royal Oak, Michigan. “So when things got tough, they thought, this isn’t working for me, so I’m going to leave. They didn’t take the child into account.”
Now that the first open-adoption generation is under way, social workers are becoming more aware of the role of siblings in these arrangements. An adoptive child’s relationships with biological siblings need to be taken into account. And two children adopted into the same family may have different degrees of openness with their birth mothers. Openness may also affect decisions about family size.
In some states, (North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia) the city and county of the adoptee’s birth is changed on the amended birth certificate, to where the adoptive parents were living at the time the adoption was finalized. Often, the states will not give the adoptee the correct location of their birth. Some adoptees have been denied passports for having incomplete birth certificates. The hospital may also be omitted on the amended birth certificate, especially if it primarily serves unwed mothers. In the United States, many such hospitals were run by the Salvation Army, and named after its founder, William Booth. By the mid-1970s, all of these hospitals had closed due to high costs and the reduced need for secrecy, as the social stigma of having a child out of wedlock in America had decreased. More and more mothers were raising their child as a single parent (often with the help of the newly created institution of government welfare).
A 1996 study reported in Child Development found that all the children studied “reported positive levels of self-esteem, curiosity about their birthparents, and satisfaction with the openness situation” regardless of whether their adoptions were closed, semi-open, or open. What this seems to mean is that the child's sense of security in his adoptive family is more important than contact with the birth family.