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At present, most adoption agencies let the birth mother decide on most of the terms of the adoption, including how much interaction she wants to maintain with the child and adoptive parents. The agency then looks for the suitable adoptive family that will adhere to the birth mother’s wishes. Even so, there are still some birth parents who prefer closed adoptions and deny contact or exchange of identifying information.
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.
Historically, the four primary reasons for married couples to obtain a child via closed adoption have been (in no particular order) infertility, asexuality, having concern for a child's welfare (i.e. would not likely be adopted by others), and to ensure the sex of the child (a family with five girls and no boys, for example). In 1917, Minnesota was the first U.S. state to pass an adoption confidentiality and sealed records law. Within the next few decades, most United States states and Canadian provinces had a similar law. Usually, the reason for sealing records and carrying out closed adoptions is said to be to "protect" the adoptee and adoptive parents from disruption by the natural parents and in turn, to allow natural parents to make a new life.
Although pre-birth openness is becoming routine in newborn adoptions there are more variations in the years following the birth, after the adoption has been completed. Some birth mothers want to get to know the adoptive parents before the birth, but then wish to go "their own way" in life thereafter. Getting to know the adoptive family gives her confidence in the placement and the knowledge she can feel secure in the child's future with the parents (or single parent) she selected. The birth mother may feel that future contact with the adoptive parents, or the child, would be emotionally difficult for her.
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.
Closed adoption (also called "confidential" adoption and sometimes "secret" adoption) is a process by which an infant is adopted by another family, and the record of the biological parent(s) is kept sealed. Often, the biological father is not recorded—even on the original birth certificate. An adoption of an older child who already knows his or her biological parent(s) cannot be made closed or secret. This used to be the most traditional and popular type of adoption, peaking in the decades of the post-World War II Baby Scoop Era. It still exists today, but it exists alongside the practice of open adoption. The sealed records effectively prevent the adoptee and the biological parents from finding, or even knowing anything about each other (especially in the days before the Internet). The International Association of Adopted People does not support any form of closed adoption because it believes that closed adoption is detrimental to the psychological wellbeing of the adopted child. However, the emergence of non-profit organizations and private companies to assist individuals with their sealed records has been effective in helping people who want to connect with biological relatives to do so.
The placement of older children can take two widely divergent paths. Generally speaking when a child has bonded to a birth parent then a need for an adoptive placement arises, it is usually critical for that child's emotional welfare to maintain ties with the birth parent. Sometimes a parent raised a child, but a problem has arisen, and parenting is no longer possible, and there are no family members able to take over the parenting role, so adoption is the best option.
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.
Open adoption is a form of adoption in which the biological and adoptive families have access to varying degrees of each other's personal information and have an option of contact. While open adoption is a relatively new phenomenon in the west, it has been a traditional practice in many Asian societies, especially in South Asia, for many centuries. In Hindu society, for example, it is relatively common for a childless couple to adopt the second or later son of the husband's brother when the childless couple has limited hope of producing their own child.