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.
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.
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.
Likely the most common arrangement in open adoptions is for the adoptive parents to commit to sending the birth mother photos of the child (and themselves as a family) each year, and short written updates, until the child reaches the age of 18. Often these photos and updates will be sent more than just once a year, such as the child's birthday or other significant events. Sometimes an intermediary is selected to receive and forward the updates, and sometimes it is done directly. This can be through mail or email. Some adoptions are more open than just sending photos and updates and include face-to-face contact. The amount of contact can vary greatly from just once in the first year, to multiple times annually throughout the child's life. Some of the adoptees raised in open adoption are now in adulthood and are writing about the experience of growing up in an open adoption.
“It removes the mystery, but it doesn’t remove the grief,” said Claude Riedel, a psychologist and family therapist who co-directs the Adoptive Family Counseling Center in Minnesota. “The reality is that, at certain stages, it’s normal to have questions: why did you choose not to parent me, not to keep me? And there may be complexities: have you kept your other children, but not me?”
From the early 1950s when Jean Paton began Orphan Voyage, and into the 1970s with the creation of ALMA, International Soundex Reunion Registry, Yesterday's Children, Concerned United Birthparents, Triadoption Library, and dozens of other local search and reunion organizations, there has been a grass roots support system in place for those seeking information and reunion with family.
Semi-open adoption doesn't usually involve any post-placement, face-to-face visitation. The children involved don't normally have any direct communication with their birthparents. Like closed adoption, once a child reaches the age of majority in his or her state, they have the option of searching for or being searched for by their biological family. Unlike a closed adoption, those involved in a semi-open adoption usually have access to some basic information that can assist in the search process.
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In 2013, the film Philomena based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, opened in cinemas worldwide. It tells the true story of Philomena's 50-year-long search for her forcefully adopted Irish infant son, who was sent to the United States. She is eventually assisted by BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, which takes up the majority of the film. Starring Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as Sixsmith, it was nominated for four American and four British Academy Awards.
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.
For many years in New York State, adoptees had to obtain the permission of their adoptive parents (unless deceased) to be included in a state-sponsored reunion registry regardless of the age of the adoptee. In some cases, older adults or even senior citizens felt like they were being treated like children, and required to obtain their parents' signature on the form. In a broader sense, they felt it could be inferred that adopted children are always children, and thus second-class citizens subject to discrimination. The law has since been changed.
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