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.
Open adoption has slowly become more common since research in the 1970s suggested that open adoption was better for children. In 1975 the tide began to change, and by the early 1990s open adoptions were offered by a majority of American adoption agencies. Especially rapid progress was seen in the late 1980s and early 1990s - between 1987 and 1989 a study found only a third of agencies offered fully open adoption as an option; by 1993 76 percent of the surveyed agencies offered fully open adoptions. As of 2013, roughly half of US states consider them legally binding, however contact in open adoption is not always maintained.
Closed adoptions are rare in the United States, but remain common in international adoptions and were the norm in adoptions in the past, when families usually used an agency to adopt a newborn. The prospective adoptive family would put their name on a list, and wait for the social worker to make a match. The adoptive parents didn't know where the child came from, or who his or her birthparents were. The child might not have even known that he or she came into the family through adoption.
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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.
The empty mailbox is just one example of the challenges that families in open adoptions may face. In recent years, we have embraced the concept of open adoption with gusto — yet the journey, for some, has proved to be unexpectedly bumpy. Lack of support, a sudden change in the life of either the adoptive or biological family, logistical pressures — all can complicate matters. Add to that the emotionally charged issues at stake-parenthood, power, identity — and open adoption can make for some combustible family dynamics.
Closed adoption may be beneficial in allowing a child to live a life without fear that he or she will be found by anyone who has caused harm in the past. Especially in cases where a child has been placed with a family through the foster care system, it may be necessary and provide the benefit of safety and security for the child. If the child was placed because of abuse, a closed adoption would allow for the adoptive family to feel safe and for their child to not worry about his or her well-being.
Adoptive parents may be less likely to consider the possibility that they are doing something wrong, and blame the child's heredity. The parents may even unfavorably compare their adopted child with a near-perfect, genetically-related "fantasy" child. This enables them to blame ordinary problems which all parents face on their child's supposedly "defective" genes. Thus, while non-adoptive parents are focused on nurture, some adoptive parents are solely focused on nature (i.e. heredity) instead. This results in what could have been an easily resolved problem, going unresolved in families with adopted children, possibly accompanied by child abuse.
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.
Closed adoption has been increasingly criticized in recent years as being unfair to both the adoptee and his or her birth parents. Some people believe that making the identities of a child's parents quite literally a state secret is a gross violation of human rights. On the other hand, the birth mother may have desired the secrecy because of the circumstances of the child's conception.
Increasingly common nowadays is the "open" adoption process, in which the adoptive parents actually meet and usually stay in touch with the birthparents. Each adoption is a unique experience and the degree to which there is openness and interaction between adoptive parents and birth parents varies. It depends on how comfortable all of the parties are with the process and circumstances. However, most adoption agencies now encourage some degree of openness.
Most open adoptions lie somewhere in the middle, according to Grotevant and McRoy, exchanging letters, pictures, and phone calls, and having face-to-face meetings once or twice a year. Whatever their situation, many families report that relatives and friends condemn openness, and voice fears that the arrangement will make the birth parent want the child back.
Many birth mothers do more than just meet the adoptive parents once before the birth. If they live close enough to each other it is not uncommon for the birth mother to invite the adoptive mother (or adoptive father too if the birth mother wishes) to come to her doctor appointments. This may allow all parties to the adoption a chance to bond. Adoptive parents may be present for the delivery if that is the birth mother's wish.
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.
Females have statistically been somewhat more likely than males to search for their birth parents, and are far more likely to search for their adopted children. Very often, the reason the infant was put up for adoption in the first place was the birth father's unwillingness to marry or otherwise care for the child. Nevertheless, many birth fathers in this situation have agreed to meet with their grown children decades later.
If adoptive parents have chosen closed adoption as a preference, they may feel closed adoption allows them to parent without interference or worry that an open adoption would confuse their child. If birth parents have chosen to keep the adoption closed, the benefits will also be tied to the reasons for this choice. The placement may be due to wanting the child out of a bad situation, and the closed adoption allows for security. If the child is a product of sexual assault, closed adoption may benefit the privacy and emotions of both the birth parent and child. A birth parent may also choose to keep an adoption closed because an open adoption would be too difficult emotionally. A closed adoption may be viewed, in this case, as an opportunity to try to move on.
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.
Closed adoption, not to be confused with sealed records, is an adoption in which the adoptive family and the birthmother never meet and know nothing or very little about one another. With the advent of open adoption, closed adoptions have become the exception in domestic adoption rather than the rule. The term closed adoption is most often used in relation to post-adoption contact, whereas the term sealed records is related to the access of legal documentation surrounding the birth and placement of the adopted child once the adoption is final. It is entirely possible to have a closed adoption and unsealed records or an open adoption with sealed records. The two practices are not mutually exclusive.
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.
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.