Growing in popularity throughout Canada and the U.S., research on open adoptions began in the 1980’s with the groundbreaking work of Kathleen Silber and Patricia Martinez Dorner. As adoption professionals further understand the dynamic, open adoptions are becoming the norm in the private process and many adoption agencies expect some level of openness.
Definition of Open Adoption
Openness in adoption is often viewed on a spectrum with closed adoptions at one end, open adoptions at the other, and semi-open adoptions along the middle of the spectrum. In his book The Spirit of Open Adoption [CWLA Press, 1997], James Gritter states there are four factors that need to be present for a true open adoption.
The birthfamily selects the adoptive family
The families meet each other face to face
They exchange full identifying information
They establish a significant ongoing relationship
The work of Silber and Dorner goes even further to suggest that an adoption is open when the birthfamily is also treated as part of the extended family.
Pros of Keeping Contact with the Child’s Birthfamily
Many adoptive parents are initially apprehensive about having an open adoption, but eventually see the benefits for their child. The main benefits are:
Adoptees have access to health information about birthmom, birthdad, siblings and birth grandparents.
Adopted kids generally have fewer adoption related issues as there is no “fantasy” family.
There is less desire to search for birthfamily as an adult as early contact often answers most questions.
It is possible to connect to the child’s heritage by sharing cultural activities, recipes, language and traditions.
There is the possibility of connecting with birth siblings.
It is easier to find out information about the child’s birth and relinquishment by asking the birthmother questions directly.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of having an open adoption is that it allows adoptees to experience their family of origin first-hand and by doing so, normalizes their adoption experience.
Challenges of Staying Connected to Birth Relatives
Open adoptions do not work for every adoption situation and the nature of the relationship between families may change over time. Here are some of the challenges of this unique family dynamic.
It is important to clarify roles, titles and traditions, including gift giving, early in the open adoption relationship to minimize misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
If promises are made to stay in touch, there is an expectation to stay connected or there will be disappointment by all parties. The relationship will likely change over time and it will be necessary to communicate openly when changes occur.
Extended family and friends sometimes do not understand what open adoption is or how it works.
Adoptive parents may need to work through issues such as fear of intrusion by birthparents and concerns over birthmother grief before feeling ready for an open adoption.
For situations where it is not possible to stay in touch with the birthparents, adoptive families may be able to connect with extended family or foster parents. These relationships will also need to be clearly defined and communication will be important in making these connections.
The pros and cons of an open adoption relationship will also depend on individual adoption situations. The main factor to remember in this adoption dynamic is that open adoptions are for the benefit of the children at the centre of the relationship.
Myths About Adopted Children in Open Adoptions
Open adoption is a child-centred approach to ensuring that adopted kids have safe and loving homes, while also having a connection to their birthfamily. In order to see the positive benefits of having an open adoption, prospective parents as well as their support system need to debunk the myths about this unique relationship.
Issues for the Adopted Child
The child will be confused about who the real parents are.
Children who join their families before the age of six do not really understand their biological connection to birthmom or birthdad, even if they have an open adoption. However, as their awareness of their adoption evolves, their feelings toward the adoptive parents remain unchanged. Kids know that their adoptive parents are “real” parents despite having contact with their birthparents.
The child will want to move in with her birthfamily when she gets older.
By having an open adoption, children see the lifestyle of their birthparents first hand. In many cases, this eliminates the birthparent fantasies that had prevalence in confidential adoptions. Adopted kids may always be curious about the life of their birthmother or birthfather, but in all likelihood, do not wish to live with them.
The Nature of the Adoption Relationship
Openness means that the birth and adoptive families have to share full identifying information with each other.
According to James L. Gritter, a true open adoption means that birth and adoptive families share full identifying information and meet in person. However, due to circumstances and level of comfort, contact between both families can be maintained in different ways.
letters sent via the adoption agency or lawyer
visits in central locations
Many open adoption relationships start very guarded with minimal information shared and then evolve to periodic visits in each other’s homes. In other cases, there may be frequent visits at first, but as time goes on, there is less contact overall.
Having an open adoption means the birthparents share in the parenting of the adopted child.
Open adoption is not custody sharing over a child. Adoption is legally binding and transfers all parental rights to the adoptive parents while at the same time terminating those of the birthparents. Clear communication of boundaries and expectations will help define the role the birthfamily will play in the child’s life.
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