Decades ago, virtually all adoptions were closed. A closed adoption means that there is no contact whatsoever between the birthparents and the adoptive parents and child after the adoption takes place. In fact, there may also be no contact before the adoption. Nowadays, however, the trend in the United States is toward open adoptions, in which all the parties to an adoption meet and often remain in each other's lives.
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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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Many adopting parents in non-private adoptions would apply to a local, state licensed adoption agency. The agency may be a member of the national Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). The CWLA and many adoption agencies are still in operation today, but with an expanded and somewhat different agenda compared to past decades, as the government has largely taken over some of their previous responsibilities.
Only a court order allows closed adoption records to be unsealed, which was quite uncommon prior to the early 1990s. A few cases have surfaced in which records were thought to have been sealed but were not—either by mishandling or misunderstanding. Although rare, a small number of people have been prosecuted over the years for violating the confidentially of sealed adoption records. In 1998, Oregon voters passed Measure 58 which allowed adoptees to unseal their birth records without any court order. Some other states which used to keep closed adoption records sealed permanently by default have since changed to allowing release once the adoptee turns 18. However, these laws were not made retroactive; only future adoptions subsequent to the laws' passage apply.
Thankfully, as adoptive families, birth mothers, adopted children and child-placing agencies continued to see the negatives of closed adoption and the positives of open adoption, adoption as a whole began to evolve, and for the better. Today, most adoption agencies allow the birth mother to make most of the decision in the adoption, including how much contact she wants with the adoptive family and the child. It is then the adoption agency’s job to find the appropriate adoptive family for each adoption situation.
In an open adoption, as I define it, the adopters and the birthparents both know each other's full names, both first and last names. (It is not open if only one side has identifying information about the other.) They may agree to exchange photos and letters directly, without using the agency or attorney as a middleman. Sometimes a semi-open adoption later becomes an open adoption, if both parties decide that they want it that way.
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.
In all adoption searches, it is uncommon to find both the birth mother and father at the same time. A separate search, if desired, can be done afterwards for the father. Since males seldom change their surnames, and the mother might have additional information, it is usually easier than the initial search for the birth mother. In many cases, adoptees are able to do this second search for their birth father by themselves (or they try before paying for assistance).