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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.
The short answer is, yes. It was once believed that openness in adoption would undermine adoptive parents’ ability to feel entitled to parent their children, that children would be confused about the roles and rights of their adoptive parents in light of contact with their birth parents, that adoptive parents would lose all sense of control or that birth parents would not be able to successfully resolve their grief and loss in reference to their decision to place their child for adoption. What thirty-plus years of open adoption has taught us is that children are not confused about the roles of the people in their lives who love them. Adoption specialists now believe that openness can be a great gift — not just for the children — but for all who are involved in the story of adoption.
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Semi-open adoption is the practice in which information, generally non-identifying, is shared between adoptive families and birthmothers. Usually semi-open adoption consists of the exchange of letters, photos, and emails, either directly or through a third party. It is not unheard of to have some pre-birth, face-to-face meetings or for the birthparents and adoptive parents to spend time together at the hospital during and after the birth.
For children in open adoptions, the toughest challenge may come when a birth parent who’s been visiting or calling suddenly vanishes or drifts away. The trigger can be a move to a new job, a marriage, or a personal problem, such as drugs or alcohol. In some cases, a birth mother may not feel worthy of contact, or she may get the message from the adoptive parents that she’s not welcome.
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.
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.
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.
There are also private search companies and investigators who charge fees to do a search for or assist adoptees and birth mothers and fathers locate each other, as well as to help other types of people searching. These services typically cost much more, but like search organizations and search angels, have far greater flexibility in regards to releasing information, and typically provide their own intermediary services. However, they may not circumvent the law regarding the confidentiality process.
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.