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.
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.
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.
A closed adoption is the type where there is totally no contact between the birth parents and the adoptive parents as well as the child. There is also no classifying information shared between families about each other, thereby effectively cutting possible contact between the two. Before the child joins the family, the adoptive parents are provided with non-identifying data about the child and his or her birth family. Once the adoption is concluded, all records are sealed. These sealed records may or may not become accessible to the adopted child once he or she turns 18, but this is dependent on the signed paperwork and local law.
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.
When a child is adopted through a closed adoption, the records of that adoption are sealed by a judge to make the transaction private. Biological parents will sometimes do this if they do not want to be contacted by their biological child, or if the parties involved agree that it is best if certain information be anonymous. But sometimes a child may grow up and want to contact his biological parents, or she may need to know her parents in the event of a hereditary illness or risk that requires knowledge of family medical history.
Prior to the 1980s, it was common practice to keep adoptions closed. Oftentimes, women facing unexpected pregnancies would temporarily move to another location, have their babies, and return home. The doctor or a child-placing agency would then find an adoptive family, unbeknownst to the birth mother. Clearly, this led to various complications in each of their lives, especially for the adopted child.
Even if you are not sure whether an open adoption is right for you, most birth and adoptive parents find that speaking and meeting with one another before making a commitment, helps them to decide whether to move forward with an adoption plan. Meeting in person allows the birth and adoptive parents to get to know one another and often provides the birth parent(s) with the confidence of knowing that they have selected the best family for their child. Many birth parents who have ongoing contact with the adoptive family find that receiving information about the child, and knowing that the child is thriving, helps to ease their feelings of loss. Children who are in direct communication with their birth family may come to understand that their birth parent didn’t abandon them but made the decision to place them for adoption out of love for them. Many adopted children also benefit from having a direct connection with another person with whom they have a shared biology. The benefit for adopted persons to obtain updated medical information from genetically related family members is also undeniable. While some adoptive parents fear that an open adoption will confuse their child, ongoing research has not born out that concern.
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.
Another way older children can be placed for adoption is where the birth parents' rights were terminated by a court due to improper parenting or abuse. Although the child may still foster idealized feelings for that failing parent it is not uncommon in these adoptions for there to be no contact between the child and adoptive parent, and the birth parent.
In virtually all cases, the decision is up to the adoptive parents regarding how to inform the child that he or she has been adopted, and at what age to do so, if at all. Although a non-profit adoption agency (if one is used) might mail newsletters and solicit funds from the parents, traditionally, it has been extremely rare for them to communicate directly with the child (usually, adoption agencies do not contain the word "adoption" in their name).
Occasionally birth parents experiencing shame or sadness just have to retreat for a while. In rare cases, when safety is an issue, adoptive families may have to cut off contact. A child whose biological parent disappears experiences a double whammy. He wonders why he was placed to begin with, then feels rejected again because a birth mother no longer visits.
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Once the adoption has been approved, the agency transfers the infant from foster care (if used) to the adoptive parents. After the infant has spent a few weeks or months with the adoptive parents, a local judge formally and legally approves the adoption. The natural mother has until the final court hearing. The infant is then issued a second, amended certificate, sometimes stated to be a birth certificate, that states the adopting parents are the child's parents. This becomes the adopted person's permanent, legal "birth" certificate. In the post WWII era, laws were enacted which prevented both the adopted person and adoptive family from accessing the original, and the information given to them can be quite limited (though this has varied somewhat over the years, and from one agency to another). Originally, the sealed record laws were meant to keep information private from everyone except the 'parties to the action' (adoptee, adoptive parent, birthparent and agency). Over time, the laws were reinterpreted or rewritten to seal the information even from the involved parties.
“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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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.
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.