Open Adoption

Lisa was 15 and pregnant. She had thought about abortion, but it was too late in her pregnancy. She had thought about raising her baby, but her mother and father had already told her they would not support her and her child. Without their help, she knew she could not raise the baby, especially if she planned to complete high school and go on to college to study music.

Adoption seemed to be the most logical and available option. But Lisa was scared. She could not bear the thought of turning her baby over to someone she did not know, of never seeing her child again. She knew she would be haunted by the memories she would never have a chance to share—her child's first birthday party, the first day of kindergarten, grade school graduation. She was anxious, too, about the psychological effects on her son or her daughter. Would he, as he grew into adulthood, yearn to see a face that looked like his? Would she wonder why her mother placed her for adoption?

Lisa spent many restless nights wrestling with the decision she must make. "In my heart, I know that adoption is the best thing for me and my baby," Lisa told her counselor at school, "but I'm not comfortable with just handing her to somebody and trying to forget she ever existed."

Like Lisa, most people see adoption as closing a door to which there is no key. And until the early 1970's, that was an accurate perception. Adoption was cloaked in secrecy. Adoptions were arranged by an agency or other intermediaries, such as doctors or lawyers, who chose the adoptive parents. A birthmother had no control over who would adopt her child. Sometimes she saw her child once or twice after delivery, sometimes not at all. She was rarely given the opportunity to hold her baby because it was believed that she would then find it too difficult to place him for adoption. Adoptive parents were assured that the final adoption records would be sealed by the courts and that they need not fear future intrusion from the birthmother.

Today that scenario can be dramatically different. There is a new openness in adoption that is seen by a growing number of child welfare and mental health experts as a long- awaited solution to problems created by the traditional secrecy.

Through open adoption, birthmothers like Lisa are able to play a role in what happens to the children they place for adoption.

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What is Open Adoption?

Open adoption means that birthparents and adoptive parents have some knowledge about one another. The birthparents know something about the adoptive parents and may even help choose them. Adoptive parents and their children know medical and genetic information about the birth family and other information that might help in dealing with the emotional issues that often accompany adoption.

There is no universally accepted definition of open adoption. While informal open adoptions have occurred for centuries, whereby grandparents, aunts and uncles, or godparents raised children not born to them but whose parents were known to them, the concept of formal open adoption is quite new—less than 20 years old. Open adoption can take many forms. In some cases, a birthmother may leaf through a book containing photographs and descriptions of prospective adopters and choose a couple or person she feels would give her baby a good home. She may never meet the adopters, and this may be her only contact with them. At the other extreme, a birthmother may meet the adoptive parents, visit their home, and have ongoing contact throughout the child's life.

Formal open adoption is a controversial idea. It raises questions to which there are not yet clear answers. Will a child raised with knowledge of two sets of parents grow up confused? Will adoptive parents feel threatened by the intrusion of the birthparents? Will the child/parent relationship be able to develop in a healthy and normal way? Will the birthmother want to reclaim her child? Will she make unwelcome visits and phone calls? When the child is older, will he choose his birthmother over his adoptive parents? Can open adoption really be successful?

Those experienced in working with open adoption say that problems are likely to occur when the birthparents and adoptive parents have an ambiguous agreement as to how open the adoption will be, or if they have a clear agreement, and then one party oversteps the bounds. The degree of openness usually depends on the comfort level of both the birthparents and adoptive parents. Some adoptive parents have no problem with a birthparent who coparents. Others desire much more limited contact.

Adoption social workers also disagree about the degree of openness that is desirable in adoption. Some agencies encourage the birthmother to play a prominent role in the child's life. Others limit the amount of personal information (i.e., telephone numbers and addresses) exchanged between the prospective adoptive parents and the birthmother. There are also agencies that allow the birthmother and the adoptive parents to decide how much and what kind of future contact they will have with each other.

In Lisa's case, she was comfortable with being able to help select her child's parents from a book that included their photographs and descriptions and to meet them once. But she did not feel it was appropriate for her to participate in raising her child.

"Being able to know a little bit about who would adopt my baby made my decision a lot easier—not that adoption can ever be easy," says Lisa. "It took away a lot of the `unknowns,' things like, What do they look like? What will my child know about me? Where is she living? But most of all, Will they love my baby more than anything else? Meeting Joan and Bill made me more comfortable with my decision to place my baby for adoption."

Open adoption is not just for newborns. Families who adopt older children are provided with information about the birth family that they might not receive in a traditional, confidential adoption. If there was abuse or neglect in a child's background, the adoptive parents need to know the specifics about the situation so that they can deal with any behavioral or emotional problems that might arise because of that abuse or neglect.

Because an older child lived with his birth family members for a time, he has memories of them. Those memories are a part of him, and the adoptive family has to understand this. "You inadvertently become participants," says Christine Jacobs, exchange supervisor at the National Adoption Center in Philadelphia and an adoptive mother of two sons, one of whom joined her family at age 5. "The history is there. The child's life did not start when he moved in with you, and he can't be expected to forget everything that happened to him earlier in his life."

Because of this, some families who adopt older children decide that it is in the best interests of the child to maintain contact with those individuals who are significant in his life, such as birthparents, siblings, grandparents, or foster parents. "You become almost distant relatives," says Jacobs. "Even if you don't keep in touch regularly, you are still a part of each other's lives."

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The Origins of Open Adoption

The concept of openness grew out of discontent by all parties involved in adoption—the birthparents, the adoptive parents, and the adoptee—who protested against traditional adoption's neglect of the importance of the genetic family.

The Birthparents

Traditional adoption gave birthparents no input into the future of their children. They were encouraged to trust the agency's judgment, accept the agency's rules, agree to sealed records that would preclude any further contact with the child, and "get on with their lives." Like Lisa, many birthmothers had parted with their children reluctantly, often without the benefit of counseling that would have helped them make a thoughtful decision. Years later—sometimes after they had married and raised other children—they would frequently yearn for information about the child they had placed.

Birthmothers began to reach out to one another as a way of working through their grief surrounding the adoption, eventually forming the support group Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) in 1973. In addition to providing emotional support, CUB began working to change the adoption process so that the pain many birthmothers had experienced would not be repeated in the next generation.

Lee Campbell, the founder of CUB, remembers, "My social worker told me, `Lee, walk out this door and forget this happened!' The trouble was, I was never able to do that."

"What angers birthmothers everywhere," says JoAnne Swanson in her book The Adoption Machine, "is that their `guarantee of confidentiality' was always forced on them, never offered as an option."

Studies of birthmothers echoed what they had been telling agencies. They often saw their adoption decision as having had a serious negative impact on their lives. They continued to suffer feelings of loss years after they relinquished their children. These feelings frequently affected all aspects of their lives. Many suffered from poor self-esteem, troubled marriages, and over protectiveness toward their subsequent children. If they had it to do over again, many said they would not choose adoption.

CUB's fight to open the adoption process started to gain credibility with adoption agencies as the number of healthy white infants available for adoption began to diminish. With the development of birth control pills, legalized abortion, and societal changes that removed the stigma attached to being unmarried and pregnant, birthmothers had the leverage to demand more input into their children's futures. "Agencies began to realize that they couldn't just forget about the birthmother after the adoption," says Maxine Chalker, director of The Adoption Agency, an adoption agency specializing in open adoption in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

Agencies acknowledged that they needed to provide the birthmother with services, like preadoption and postadoption counseling. Today, most agencies offer group and individual counseling to birthmothers to help them plan for their children's futures and to support them once they have decided to pursue adoption. At Chalker's agency, women are in the same support group prior to and after the birth. After the adoption, nothing is mandatory, but counselors are available if they are needed. "When women do call, the counseling is very informal," comments Chalker. "Maybe we'll meet them for lunch, or just for a cup of coffee somewhere. They just need to talk to someone every once in a while—someone to tell them that their feelings are perfectly normal."

The Adoptee

Many adoptees have felt the "disquieting loneliness" that Roots author Haley described. Not knowing their heritage or why they were placed for adoption left many with devastating feelings of rejection. They wondered why they had been placed for adoption, who their birthparents were, and if they had siblings. They were often troubled about how little they knew about their genetic past. They were concerned that there might be some unknown in their birth family's medical history that would surface later in life. The need for such knowledge frequently nudged adoptees into a consuming and never ending search for the truth, sometimes impairing their ability to lead productive lives.

"Adoptees can feel frustrated at their inability to connect with their roots," says Marshall Schecter, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "Some have trouble forming an identity when they reach adolescence. Others may develop fantasies—both positive and negative—about their birth family. Some adoptees spend a lifetime never finding answers to their questions. For others, this black hole which exists where their past should be becomes too much of an emotional burden for them to bear, leaving deep psychological scars."

Statistics support claims that knowledge about our genetic past—our roots—plays a vital role in who we are, and that the lack of such information can be detrimental to the adopted child. Although adopted children comprise less than 2 percent of the population, they make up about 5 percent of the outpatients and up to 15 percent of the inpatients at psychiatric institutions. And according to adoption scholar David Brodzinsky of Rutgers University, the cause for many is the adoption experience. "For adoptees, part of them is hurt at having once been relinquished," says Brodzinsky. "That part remains vulnerable for the rest of their lives as they grieve at various predictable points for the unknown parents who gave them away."

In studies of adopted children, Arthur Sorosky, a psychiatrist, and David Kirschner, a clinical psychologist, have found that adoptees tend to be more aggressive, suffer from low self-esteem, and are at greater risk for learning disabilities than nonadopted children. Although some of these problems can be traced back to a teenaged birthmother with poor prenatal care, or exposure to drugs or alcohol in utero, many mental health experts believe it is the result of the adoption experience itself. Sorosky and Kirschner coined the term "adopted-child syndrome" to define the most extreme exhibition of personality traits found in adopted children. These behaviors include rebellion, truancy, sexual promiscuity, and often trouble with the law.

Open adoption supporters believe many adoptees encounter these problems because they lack a heritage—what one psychiatrist referred to as "genealogical bewilderment." Open adoption eliminates the need for adopted children to fantasize about who their birthparents are, why they have red hair, where they got their artistic talent, and most importantly, why they were placed for adoption.

The Adoptive Parents

As adoptive parents started hearing more about this new openness in adoption, some felt troubled by rules that seemed to be changing in midstream. The adoption they had thought was confidential— inviolate—was being threatened, making them feel hurt and vulnerable. They experienced a rash of emotions—fear, anger, sadness, and confusion. Some parents worried about what their children would find if they located their birthmothers. Would their fantasies be better than the reality? Would their child feel rejected yet again? Would they lose their child to the birth family?

Some parents tried to talk their children out of searching and made it clear that they would offer no support. Others believed it was in the best interest of their child's mental and emotional well-being to help them gain access to the information they needed to lay the mystery of their ancestry to rest.

One adoptive mother was so concerned over her 5-year-old daughter's obsession with her birthmother that she decided to convert her closed adoption into an open one. "My daughter would go up to total strangers at shopping malls or in parks and ask, `Are you my mother?' " she remembers. "Finally, I contacted the agency to see if we could get more information about our daughter's birthmother. They contacted the birthmother, and she was just as eager to receive information about the baby she placed for adoption. She sent a picture and letter which we shared with our daughter. We haven't met in person, yet. I don't know how I would handle that."

Supporters of open adoption see it as a way for adoptive parents to have answers to questions that will most surely be asked by their children. They point to studies that indicate that open adoption actually improves the relationship between the adoptive parents and the child. "They have finally been given permission to be the parents, and they actually bond quicker with the baby, having met the birthmother," says Kathleen Silber, co-author of the book Dear Birthmother: Thank You for Our Baby.

Another study also found that open adoption strengthens the relationship between the child and the adoptive parents, because the child knows that his adoptive parents not only accept him, but that which belongs to him.

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Experiences with Open Adoption

Pamela and Mark are the adoptive parents of Joshua, age 5. They met his birthmother, a 20-year-old college student, who had selected them from a picture album at their adoption agency in a Philadelphia suburb. Pamela felt strongly that the birthmother should have a place in her child's life—that he should consider her to be a "relative," but that she should not interfere with the way he was being raised. They decided together that the birthmother would visit the child, at her home or theirs, twice a year. For the first 3 years, this arrangement worked well. Then the birthmother moved to Arizona, and the visits became more difficult to orchestrate. However, Josh and the birthmother speak on the telephone several times a year, and he regards her as a member of his extended family. "I feel the arrangement is a healthy one," says Pamela. "I think it will eliminate a lot of the anxiety that adopted children often feel about their origin. My husband and I are considering another adoption and we would want to do it the same way."

On the other hand, open adoption has many critics. One of the strongest opponents of the practice is the Washington, DC-based National Council for Adoption (formerly the National Committee for Adoption). In its Adoption Factbook, it states that it has "long championed the importance of confidentiality in adoption."

"We have many concerns with it," says William Pierce, president of the National Council for Adoption. "We think that down the line, it will prove harmful to all those involved in the adoption circle."

Many fear that open adoption will result in coparenting, which often brings unexpected difficulties. That was the case for Kathleen and John Hickman, who once supported open adoption but later regretted their decision, saying they were not prepared for the birth family's continual involvement in their lives.

The Hickmans first looked into open adoption after years of seeing infertility specialists, followed by years of waiting with a State adoption agency, only to have a possible placement fall through because of bureaucratic bumbling. "My husband and I decided that open adoption seemed to be the way to go after that. Now we would have control and would not be in the dark as to what was going on," says Hickman.

The Hickmans registered with an agency in California that practices open adoption. They were told that the amount of contact between themselves and the birth family would rest solely with the parties involved—the birth family and the prospective adoptive family. After filling in the registration form and completing a short video biography of themselves, they waited to be selected by a birthmother. When the call did come, Mrs. Hickman was surprised to learn the meeting would not be with the birthmother, but rather with the birthmother's family. She was informed that the birthmother was in a psychiatric hospital, so her parents would be the ones making the decision.

"At first, we were somewhat relieved," says Mrs. Hickman. "The grandparents were closer to our age. We had, I thought, a lot more in common with them than we had with their teenage daughter." But after a few meetings with the family, Hickman began to have concerns about their desire for future contact. "The baby was biracial," says Hickman. "This was the reason they gave for not wanting to adopt the baby themselves. They were ashamed! They didn't want anyone to know that their grandchild was biracial—as if, somehow, this made the baby inferior."

Still, the grandparents wanted future contact. At first they agreed to letters and photos for the first year only. As time went on, however, they began to demand visitation rights. Eventually, the baby's birth family began stopping by the Hickman's home unannounced and uninvited. "It always had to be our house—remember, they didn't want their neighbors to know," recalls Hickman. The constant interference from the birth family became too much of an emotional strain for the Hickmans and the adoption disrupted. The grandparents later decided to adopt the baby.

"I still worry that the grandparents' attitude about their biracial granddaughter will affect her as she grows up," says Hickman, "but things just couldn't go on the way they were. The tension around our home began to take its toll on our marriage."

Kathleen and John Hickman decided not to give up and pursued open adoption again. This time they were going to stand firm in the amount of contact they wanted. Unfortunately they had another unhappy experience. This time it was not the birthmother who set the terms of future contact—it was the social worker. "She told us that the adoption had to be completely open, with the birthmother having continual contact with us, or she wouldn't let it go through," says Hickman. "None of us could believe it. I thought `open adoption' meant that it was our decision."

Hickman has found she is not alone among people who have tried open adoption and failed. She has met many other couples in similar situations. They thought they could handle something they were not comfortable with because they had no other options.


It is clear that the secrecy that has been the hallmark of adoption throughout its history is giving way to a new openness. Research that will track the effects of such adoptions is underway, and some has been completed already.

One recent study of birthmothers and adoptive parents who participated in open adoption found that open adoption is often substantially beneficial for the birthmothers. They feel more comfortable having input into their children's futures.

Adoptive parents, too, are coming to believe that open adoption is a "more humane way of dealing with the birthmother," according to a survey of parents who have participated in open adoption. When adoptive parents were asked about how they personally felt about open adoption, most were positive in their reaction. Some had completely open adoptions in which the birthmother actively participated in the child's life. Others remained in contact with the birthmother through letters and photos. A few of the respondents were uncomfortable with even a yearly letter. For the most part, the adoptive parents were happy with their decision, but acknowledged that they had no other options if they wanted to adopt a healthy baby.

Most experts believe that before becoming involved in an open adoption, prospective adoptive parents should make clear how much contact they wish to have with the birthmother. All parties involved should draft a contract stating the terms of future contact. Recent court decisions have ruled that contracts of this sort are legally binding documents, so the terms need to be clearly thought out.

The jury is still out on the effect of open adoption on adopted children. Today, the first children to experience it are entering adolescence. As they move into adulthood, researchers studying them will learn more about how this new kind of adoption has impacted their lives and influenced their family relationships.

In the meantime, the definition of open adoption continues to evolve as those who participate in it fine-tune the concept to meet their changing needs. It remains a controversial issue that promises to keep challenging traditional thinking about the ideal way to adopt a child.

Written by Gloria Hochman and Anna Huston of the National Adoption Center, for the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, 1993. Revised, September 1994.


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This material has been provided by the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse.