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Lesson 4 of 7

Openness and Adoption

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A Few Definitions

The subject of “openness” in adoption can be easily misunderstood because the word can mean so many things. For example, it can refer to the extent to which parents talk with their adopted children about adoption issues and their own stories (or even that they’re adopted); this is called “communicative openness.” And it can pertain to the type and depth of the relationship among the impacted parties, especially the adoptive and birth families – sometimes including siblings, grandparents and other relatives, in addition to parents – and the adopted people themselves, as children and as they grow older. Before addressing key issues in openness, it’s helpful to settle on some definitions.

In a closed adoption, there is no contact between the adults or children involved. Names, addresses, and other identifying information are not disclosed. (It’s important to point out that in the age of powerful internet search engines, expansive social media, and amazingly accurate genetic testing, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep at least some such information from being learned over time if any of the affected parties want to find it.)

In an open or “fully disclosed” adoption, all parties receive identifying information about each other, meet one another, and often maintain ongoing contact at varying levels. You'll see in the data that this type of arrangement is generally correlated with positive outcomes for everyone.

Mediated adoptions fall between the two, with a third part (such as an agency) managing contact between the parties. As in open adoptions, the level of such communications varies enormously from case to case and can/does change over time.

Open vs Closed Adoptions: Impact on Adoptees

Historically, when formal infant adoptions were overwhelmingly of children born to white unwed mothers, nearly all were “closed,” and adoptive parents went to great lengths to hide evidence of the adoption from others; that included their children, who often weren’t told they were adopted. Researchers and adoption professionals have long since come to the conclusion that this approach correlates with negative outcomes, most notably worse mental health issues for adopted children (including into adulthood).

Below, you’ll see data from one study of 253 adoptees plotting their quality-of-life scores against the ages at which they learned they were adopted. While it’s hard to prove causation, numerous studies reflect a meaningful correlation.

As a result, the vast preponderance of adoptions today are not “closed”, but are either mediated or more fully open.

Openness on a Continuum

Participants in an “open” adoption don’t necessarily see each other often or even engage in ongoing and vibrant communication. Indeed, there are varying degrees of contact that often evolve in one direction or the other over time, and often shift back and forth between more or less openness – as do many relationships in life. The bottom line is that experts tend to think of “openness” as existing on a continuum.

Continuum of Openness In Adoption

Openness and Satisfaction

In a 2008 study of 170 adoptive families, researchers found a clear correlation between the level of contact between adoptive and birth families and each adoptive family member’s level of satisfaction with the arrangement.

Typically, adoptees value having information about their family of origin, and this provides a greater sense of self and identity. Studies show adoptees who are satisfied with their level of contact with their birth family are far less likely to exhibit “externalizing behavior.”

Studies have also shown that while most adoptive parents are initially hesitant to commit to greater degrees of openness, over time they’re the ones most eager to expand the relationship.

Finally, birth parents tend to be happier with greater levels of contact. Researchers from Columbia University, for instance, saw a clear correlation four years after adoption between more communication and lower levels of worry.

Fluctuations in Openness

As you can see in the data below, levels of openness and contact can dramatically fluctuate over the course of a relationship. In this study, birth mothers were surveyed about the level of engagement they had with adoptive families. They filed their responses twice (in “Wave 1” and “Wave 2”), with an average of eight years between each report.

As you can see, there is a fair amount of change between the bars below. In Wave 2, birth mothers reported greater instances of “no contact” but also more instances of “contact with meetings.” As in all relationships, things can change.

We think about open adoption as comparable to a relationship you may have with your in-laws or extended family. For some people, these relationships mean frequent contact, in-person visits, and spending holidays together. Others interact less frequently. And from year to year, you may see each other more or less depending upon how the relationship has evolved, what people need in their lives, as well as other factors like personal schedules or geographic distance.

Potential Challenges of Openness

While the data suggest greater levels of openness correlate with higher levels of satisfaction, it’s hard to prove openness causes those higher levels. What’s more, there can be perfectly good reasons why less interaction may sometimes feel more appropriate. Below are a few examples.

Birth Parent’s Situation May Have Changed

The first/birth parents may have started a new family, and their time or desire to engage as much may fluctuate as a result. At other times, birth parents (like many other people) may encounter financial or personal problems, so it becomes harder to stay in touch or keep to a schedule.

As we’ll address in future lessons, adoptive parents sometimes help birth parents financially. As in any relationship, when money becomes part of the connective tissue, communication and feelings can be strained or skewed, with each party feeling awkward or vulnerable or worse.

Adoptive Parent’s Situation May Have Changed

Adoptive parents may experience a major life changing event (e.g., a long distance move) that can make it harder to remain as engaged as they want to be. In the case of a separation or divorce, adoptive parents may be nervous or sheepish about their relationship to their child’s family of origin because their own circumstances seem to have destabilized.

It’s also important to acknowledge that some adoptive parents curtail their relationship with the birth family because they simply don’t like how things are playing out. In some (hopefully few) cases, adoptive parents only agree to an open arrangement because they believe it’s the most-expedient way to ensure that they can adopt the child and don’t really intend to follow through on openness after finalization.

Issues of Safety

If the birth parents are in an unstable environment or are experiencing issues that would make contact challenging or unsafe, an active relationship may not be appropriate at that time – or the ways in which the various parties communicate may need to be adjusted. Letting a child know about such potentially sensitive and tough information can be especially complicated.

Ongoing Financial Relationships

Expectant parents are most often in a difficult financial situation at the time they are considering adoption, and that sometimes extends beyond the birth of their child. When there’s a major economic disparity between the parties to an open adoption in an ongoing relationship, adoptive parents often want to help financially.

Whereas there are clear rules around compensation before an adoption, adoptive parents have much more flexibility in providing financial help to birth parents after the relinquishment. One result is that some adoptive parents report questions and discomfort around this issue.

As with any relationship that involves money, it’s important to set boundaries for the adults and to be careful about what children hear and know about the situation.

Tips for Success in an Open Adoption

Like any relationship in life, the connection you have with your child’s birth parents is unique to you and will require time and emotional investment to be successful. Here are a few things to keep in mind while navigating this relationship.

Make a Plan Ahead of Time

Make a plan with the birth parent(s) about frequency and type of communications/contact you all expect to have during the first one to three years of the child’s life. From that starting point, re-evaluate what’s working and what may need to change.

Stay Child-Focused

The best interests of your child should always be paramount. Generally speaking, greater openness correlates with better outcomes for children, but that’s not true in all circumstances.

Maintain Healthy Boundaries

Openness in a relationship is not the same as co-parenting. Think more along the lines of having an extended family member in the child’s life. This person will love and support the kid, but only the parent can make parenting decisions.

Utilize Post-Adoption Support Services

This is a complex relationship probably unlike any you’ve been in before, so getting supportive services for yourself and/or your child – including therapy – can be a positive parenting decision.