Occasionally birth parents experiencing shame or sadness just have to retreat for a while. In rare cases, when safety is an issue, adoptive families may have to cut off contact. A child whose biological parent disappears experiences a double whammy. He wonders why he was placed to begin with, then feels rejected again because a birth mother no longer visits.
To be sure, open adoption gets rave reviews from the many social workers and families who champion it. Since the mid-1970s, open adoptions have been widely accepted as more compassionate and enlightened than the secretive adoptions of a previous generation. Indeed, the confidentiality that once defined adoption is no longer the norm. While international adoptions remain mostly closed, as do many public agency adoptions, domestic adoptions increasingly involve contact between adoptive parents and birth parents.
Adoption has changed a great deal over time. Today, birth mothers and birth fathers often choose to be actively involved in all facets of the process of adoption planning. Many times they opt to choose their child’s adoptive parents, and they are requesting consistent communication and interaction with the children they place for adoption throughout the life cycle of the adoption. Does this benefit the children?
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).
While open adoption is becoming more common as we learn about healthier adoption practices and the importance of open adoption for adoptees, many recognize that open adoption is not always possible. This may be because of security issues or simply at the request of the birth parents. It may be too risky or harmful to the child to allow for any openness in adoption. There may also be situations where an open adoption is simply not possible for the time being or cases where adoptive parents would prefer a closed adoption for varying reasons. The benefits of such a decision will likely depend on the reasons for it.
“Although I’m very open, [his birth mother] drops into and out of our lives as she needs to,” Miller said. After one long absence, when her son was nine years old, she paid for his birth mother to fly from Colorado to California and stay with them for ten days. Miller doesn’t give up, she said, “because I think we need to honor the pieces that we didn’t provide in the makeup of the child.”
Open adoption, sometimes called fully disclosed adoption, refers to a continuum of options that enables the birth parents and adoptive parents to have information about and communication with one another before placement, after placement, or both. Open adoption may include the exchange of communication between birth and adoptive parents that includes letters, emails, telephone calls, text messages and/or face-to-face visits. Regardless of the level of openness in adoption, open adoption is based on relationships — and, like all relationships, the people involved grow, change, and evolve over time.
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.
“The challenge we have is getting the media and people outside our immediate family to understand that open adoption is the best choice we’ve ever made,” said Jill Dillon, a resident of southern Oregon, whose daughter, Carly, is eight years old. “We feel that it’s a healthy, safe way for our child to grow up, knowing her birth family and her ‘real’ family, as we think of ourselves.”
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Secondly, not having any contact with the birth mother actually can raise the uncertainty level in the adoptive family. For example, families who get to know the birth parents, even on a limited basis, will know why they chose adoption, what’s going on in their lives, and why they chose them to raise her child. Families without this contact may have these questions in their minds that they can never fully answer.
Usually, semi-open refers to an adoption in which the adopters and birthparents meet once or twice and on a first-name-only basis. In addition, they may agree to exchange pictures and letters on an annual or fairly infrequent basis through the adoption arranger. (If your adoption arranger advocates a semi-open adoption, be sure to ask for an exact definition of her terms.)
Females have statistically been somewhat more likely than males to search for their birth parents, and are far more likely to search for their adopted children. Very often, the reason the infant was put up for adoption in the first place was the birth father's unwillingness to marry or otherwise care for the child. Nevertheless, many birth fathers in this situation have agreed to meet with their grown children decades later.
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The nature of adoption has changed greatly over the years, and open adoptions are one of the many ways that birth parents can take charge of their adoption plans. Instead of having to wonder whether or not they chose the right family or how their child is doing, they will always know. In an open adoption, birth parents have the opportunity to get to know the family they have chosen for their child, which puts many people at ease and makes the difficult decision of adoption much easier.
For those who do not want a completely open adoption, there is the option of semi-open adoption. Semi-open adoption is a great option to create an adoption relationship that meets the needs of a particular situation. Every adoption relationship is different, and semi-open adoptions can take many forms; a typical semi-open adoption involves communication without exchanging identifying information, along with sending pictures and letters on occasion.
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).
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Grotevant, however, sounded a note of caution to those who portray it as a panacea. The children of open adoption do not have higher self-esteem than those in closed adoptions, he observed. For children in each group, self-esteem is about the same, his research found. He stressed that more research is needed to assess the impact of open adoption on adolescents. (The research he did with McRoy studies children up to age 12.)
We have learned valuable lessons regarding the resilience of children, and they continue to astound and inspire us. We have also been humbled by many birth parents who have been able to successfully resolve the grief of lost opportunities to parent their children through sheer grace that is involved in their healing relationships with their children and their adoptive family members through the years.
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.
Like other, more open adoptions, what a semi-open adoption looks like will vary based on the preferences of the birth parents involved. As prospective adoptive parents, you should prepare to be flexible on communication in a semi-open adoption, as birth parents’ comfort levels (and communication preferences) may change over time as you build a relationship with them.