Because there are many benefits of having openness in adoption, we must continue to educate others about the gifts often involved in open adoption. Open adoption helps minimize the child’s loss of relationships. Openness helps a child celebrate his connections with all the important people in his life who love him. We also believe that when children are able to resolve their losses with truth rather than fantasy, they grow to be more authentically who they are and who they were always meant to be. Even when that truth is painful or difficult, children have taught us that they would rather live with the truth than with the mysterious unknown — for what children imagine is so often worse than even the darkest of truths.
Some states have confidential intermediary systems. This often requires a person to petition the court to view the sealed adoption records, then the intermediary conducts a search similar to that of a private investigator. This can be either a search for the birth mother at the request of the adoptee, or vice versa. Quite often, in the many years which have passed since the adoptee was born, a birth mother or female adoptee has both moved to another address, and married or remarried resulting in a change of her surname. While this can make the search difficult and time consuming, a marriage certificate may provide the needed clue as to the person's whereabouts. If and when the intermediary is able to contact the birth mother (or adoptee), she is informed that her adopted child (or birth mother) is inquiring about her. In the few states that have open adoption records, should this party indicate that he or she does not want to be contacted, by law, the information would not be given out. Upon completion of the search in which the birth mother agrees to be contacted, the intermediary usually sends the adoptee the official unamended birth certificate obtained from the court. The adoptive parents' application to an adoption agency remains confidential, however.
In a confidential adoption, neither the adopter nor the birthparents know each other, nor do they ever meet. Instead, all the arrangements and paperwork occur through a middleman, usually an adoption agency or an attorney. Some people call this a closed adoption, although I prefer the terms confidential and traditional because they sound nonjudgmental. A confidential adoption doesn't mean that the adopters and birthparents know nothing about each other. What it means is they have no identifying information about each other.
Many open adoption relationships have a warmth that comes from having shared a common struggle – allowing yourself to be vulnerable to another human being, responding to that person’s vulnerability, and being committed to a common goal that centers around the best interest of the child. Like all relationships, open adoption will inevitably have peaks and valleys; yet, as people overcome each hurdle, there are opportunities to learn what to expect from each other and ultimately gain confidence in a collective ability to make the relationships work. When it is safe to create meaningful connections for a child, openness in any adoption — however limited — can be a great gift.
The cost for a confidential intermediary and related court fees can be around $500, but varies by state and agency. For persons who cannot afford the fees, there is usually assistance available from the tax-payer supported state department or the non-profit agency, and anyone can request from them how-to request this help. Most agencies charge a fixed fee which includes everything, and only in the most extreme and unusual circumstances ask for additional funds. If the adoptee is unable to locate (or would prefer to use a third person) to find his or her birth father, often the same confidential intermediary can be used for an additional fee.
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.
Meet with the judge at your scheduled date and explain your reason for wanting the adoption records unsealed. Generally, you will have a better chance if your reasoning isn't based solely on personal desire or interest. Medical issues are the most common reason sealed adoption records are unsealed. However, you can consult an adoption lawyer to build the best argument no matter what your reasoning. The judge will either grant your petition and unseal the records or deny your petition. If this happens, you can request a confidential intermediary.
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.
When adoptions are closed, the files are usually physically sealed. Nevertheless, most states have created procedures through which family members seeking to "open" a closed adoption may be able to access information about the other parties. However, the process and degree of access to information varies widely from state to state, with some states requiring a court order to reveal information that can be used to identify a party to an adoption.
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.
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“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.”
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Some (not many) agencies encourage a complete disclosure of identities between birthparents and adopting parents, as well as an ongoing close relationship. Agencies that support fully open disclosures believe that an open adoption is a better way for both adoptive parents and birthparents—as well as the children. Agencies that don't support open adoption feel just as strongly that continued contact is not a good idea for any of the parties.
Many in the adoption community first learned of search and support resources through newspaper articles, the Dear Abby column and various TV shows and movies. Starting in the mid-1980s, many adoptees and their parents first learned about the possibility of reunion on the NBC (later CBS) television program Unsolved Mysteries hosted by Robert Stack. This was under their "Lost Loves" category, the vast majority of which involved closed adoption. More than 100 reunions have occurred as a result of the program, many of those being the adoption-related cases. Reruns of the program (with a few new segments and updates) were also aired on the Lifetime Television cable network until mid-2006, and very briefly on Spike TV in late 2008. In September 2010, the program returned to Lifetime from 4 to 7 pm ET/PT.
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.
It’s important to keep in mind that, while adoption relationships can change, it is more complicated to increase contact than to decrease it. If a birth mother starts with an open relationship and then decides later that she needs distance, she can do this at any time. However, if an adoption is closed and a birth mother wants more contact, then she has to come to an agreement with the adoptive family. Therefore, it is especially important that a birth mother choosing closed adoption is sure that it is what she wants.