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Open adoption has become the norm in most states in the adoption of newborns. But “open” can mean different things to different people. Let’s explore the many variations of what an “open adoption” can be.
The days are long past when a birth mother would go to an adoption agency to give up her child, then have that agency take full responsibility in selecting the adoptive family, with the birth mother playing no role. While it is true that decades ago, often only independent adoptions (usually adoptions initiated by an attorney) involved openness, now most adoption agencies have some, or complete, openness as well. (Please read our articles Independent Adoption - An Overview, and Agency Adoption - An Overview, regarding the differences between them. They can both be excellent avenues for adoption.)
Although practices vary state by state, most adoptions start with the birth mother reviewing dozens of photo-resume letters of prospective adoptive parents. Usually, these are adoptive families who have retained that agency or attorney to assist them in the adoption process. Most states permit full openness not just regarding identities, but also personal information about each other. Just as the adoptive parents want to learn about the birth mother’s life and health history, so does the birth mother want the same information about the people she is considering as the parents for her child.
When the birth mother has narrowed down her prospective adoptive parents to one, or a few, families, normally they arrange to meet in person. Good adoption agencies and attorneys do this in a pressure-free setting where no one is encouraged to make an immediate decision.) If they are geographically distant from each other (as some adoptions are interstate, with the birth mother living in a different state from the adoptive parents), the first meeting will normally be by phone, then advance to a face-to-face meeting if the meeting by phone went as well as hoped. The goal for both birth and adoptive parents at this stage is to make sure they are looking at the adoption in the same way. Adoption is a lifetime commitment, and just like marriage, both the birth and adoptive parents want to make sure the other is someone they can count on, both short and long term.
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 lets the adoptive parent vicariously live through the birth mother regarding the pregnancy, and lets the birth mother see the adoptive parent's joy and anticipation of soon becoming a parent. The same is true at the hospital, where it is not unusual for the adoptive mother (and the adoptive father, if that is the birth mother’s wish) to be a labor coach, and be present for the delivery. Many birth mothers ask the hospital staff to hand the baby to the adoptive parents first, so they can be the first people to hold their child, before she has even done so.
Although pre-birth openness is getting to be routine in newborn adoptions, there are more variations in the years following the birth, after the adoption has been completed.
No contact. 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 mom and dad (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.
Sending of pictures and letters. 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 via mail, or more common recently, via email.
A few states permit the birth and adoptive parents to sign a contract of sorts, putting in writing any promises regarding contact after the adoption is finalized. Even in those states which do not expressly have laws in this area, these "open adoption agreements" agreements can usually be prepared if the parties desire to formalize the agreement. Normally, courts will find these agreements enforceable, as long as they serve the best interests of the child. It is not unusualy for these agreements to be more like "handshake" agreements, although they offer less protection to a birth parent if the adoptive parent's promises were not honored.
Face to face contact. Some adoptions are more open than just sending photos and updates. Some birth and adoptive parents agree they’d like to stay in face to face contact. The amount of contact can vary greatly. It could be just a time or two in the first year. It could be once or multiple times annually throughout the child’s life.
Which type of open adoption is best?
Adoption is like marriage. There are countless ways that a marriage can work. What is right for one couple will not work for another. Adoptions are the same. What is important is that the birth mother and adoptive parents are honest with each other regarding the type of adoption each truly hopes for, and one person does not just say what they think the other wants to hear, then face a conflict later.
Our article, Talking to Your Child About Adoption, talks in detail about the fact that adoptive parents will obviously want to talk about adoption to their child from a very early age. (Even if the adoptive parents were so inclined, hiding adoption is really not possible, as everyone the adoptive parents know - neighbors, friends, relatives - all know the child joined their family via adoption, so to hide it from the child is nonsensical, hiding something the child should see as prideful and joyful.) Every adoptive parent wants their child to be proud of their adoption heritage and confident in themselves and their place in a family. With this thought in mind, more and more adoptive parents are opening their minds to a more open adoption than they might initially imagined if desired by the birth mother, thinking that the birth mother’s role is somewhat like that of a distant relative. In other words, the birth mother has no legal right to make parenting decisions, nor should she want to, but she still has love to offer. The saying "It takes a village to raise a child" comes to mind. And adoptive parents should remember, if their child ever has a medical emergency requiring a birth parent’s aid (bone marrow, kidney tissue, et cetera, which often only a direct blood relative can provide), that birth parent will be the first person they search for.
A good analysis for adoptive parents to emply in determining what is the right degree of openness is to put themselves in the place of a birth mother and ask, "If I were pregnant, and giving up my child, what would make me feel confident, and feel good about the placement?" Most birth mothers are loving, caring young women, wanting the best for their baby, but which they can't provide. Many adoptive parents view her as someone they'd enjoy staying a part of their lives, not to mention she was the person who created their family for them. Likewise, birth mothers should be sensitive to the feelings of the adoptive parents, and put themselves in the role of an adoptive parent, asking themselves how they would feel regarding a particular planned role in the new family.
As a practical matter, some states seem to have more open adoptions than others. The more progressive states may have a rough percentage accordingly:
- Pre-birth contact, but no post-birth contact: 10%
- Pre-birth contact, and photos and updates only thereafter: 65%
- Pre-birth contact, photos and updates, and one or two annual face-to-face get-togethers: 25%
In more conservative states, the percentages may look more like this:
- Pre-birth contact, but no post-birth contact: 30%
- Pre-birth contact, and photos and updates only thereafter: 65%
- Pre-birth contact, photos and updates, and one or two annual face-to-face get-togethers: 5%
It is not unheard of for birth mothers to request an open adoption, then disappear from the child and adoptive family's life.
Open adoption and birth fathers.
No disrespect is intended toward birth fathers in only discussing openness with birth mothers above. The reality, however, is that few birth fathers elect to take a role in adoption, given the fact the pregnancies were usually unplanned, and often there was no long-term relationship with the birth mother. For those few birth fathers who volunteer to take a helpful and active role in creating the adoption situation for the adopting parents, the potential benefits to a continuing relationship with the birth father can be just as viable as with a birth mother.
Open adoption and older children.
We have discussed the adoption of newborns. What about the placement of older children? These can take two widely divergent paths. Generally speaking, when a child has bonded to a birth parent (perhaps being raised by her or him for an extended time) 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. It's like uprooting a tree. If it is not transplanted in special manner, serious consequences can follow. 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.
Another way older children can be placed for adoption is where the birth parents' rights were terminated by a court due to improper parenting: abuse, et cetera. 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 parents, and the birth parent.
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