Sunday, August 7, 2011

Is Open Adoption a False Promise?

I follow a lot of adoption-related blogs and online groups -- some of which are very critical of adoption as an institution and some of which are very supportive of it. One of the concerns voiced by those who are less enamored of adoption (usually because of their own negative experience with it as an adoptee or birth parent) is that many birth parents today are being persuaded to sign away parental rights with promises of contact that never materialize. It’s a serious concern, and a complicated matter. Open adoption only works if the adoption really is open -- in practice, not just on paper -- and that takes commitment from both parties.

Why do adoptive parents enter into open adoption agreements? Some do so because of a firm belief that openness is best for all involved, but others may do so merely as a matter of expediency. Potential adoptive parents interested in domestic infant adoption may recognize that a willingness to engage in open adoption will make them more attractive matches for birth parents. If open adoption increases the likelihood of become parents, or has the potential to decrease the waiting time, it’s not surprising that prospective parents would be willing to consider it. But is openness truly what they want? Possibly not. Maybe they would prefer to have a biological child of their own or to adopt a child through a closed adoption; for such parents, openness is a compromise. I’m engaging in a lot of speculation here, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that all open adopters fall into this category -- but it seems very likely that some do.

A similar ambivalence can arise in foster-adopt situations. After a foster child’s goal has changed from reunification to adoption, many birth parents are persuaded to voluntarily relinquish parental rights in exchange for visitation rights. For the biological parent, it is usually a choice to gamble on the side of something rather than nothing -- they are afraid of losing all rights, so they voluntarily give up the bulk of them in exchange for the guarantee (or so they think) of some of them. The adopting parents may not be thrilled about the situation either -- they might prefer that the biological parent retain no rights at all -- but they agree because it paves the way for the adoption to move forward.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that my husband and I have such a contract with Erica, my daughter’s birth mother. Our agreement gives her the right to one supervised visit a year and stipulates that we must maintain a post office box where she can send gifts and letters. What makes our situation somewhat unusual is that we have decided to have visits on a significantly more frequent basis than our contract stipulates. Our frequent visitation schedule wouldn’t be right for all families but is right for ours.

Our open adoption works in large part because I want it to. As an adoptee myself, I probably have a stronger awareness than many adoptive parents of the importance of maintaining a relationship with the biological family whenever possible; the endurance of the biological connection is not just something I’ve read about -- I know it by experience. I feel incredibly lucky to have been paired with Erica for this journey of open adoption because I genuinely like her and admire her for the work she has done in recent years to turn her life around. Her stability is one important factor in our success, but so is my openness. Because to be honest, if I didn’t want this adoption to be an open one, I probably could find a way out of the agreement. Our contract, a fairly standard one for our area, includes lots of potential “outs” for the adoptive parents.

The enforceability of post-adoption agreements between adoptive and biological families varies from state to state, but there are certainly plenty of anecdotal stories out there on the Web about open adoption agreements that have fallen apart. As someone who self-identifies as an “open-adoption advocate,” I feel compelled to qualify that it is not the signing of agreements that I advocate but the creation of actual functioning relationships between adoptive and biological families. In fact, my message to potential adoptive parents might even be don’t sign it if you aren’t prepared to live it -- fully and joyfully.

But the other part of my message would be “be open to the possibility that openness may turn out to be a blessing.” You may discover, as I have, that openness contributes not only to your child’s well-being but to yours as well. You may find that your bond with your adopted child is actually strengthened by increased contact with the biological family. There are plenty of great stories out there about open adoptions that do work, and a positive, open, nonjudgmental attitude on the part of the adoptive parent or parents is typically an important factor in these successes. Yes, there are situations in which open adoption is not a possibility or not in the best interest of the child, but don’t be too eager to assume that your situation is one of them.

“Is it ethical to use promises of ongoing future contact with their children as an incentive for birth parents to relinquish parental rights?” ( I’ve been mulling this question over quite a bit lately; it’s an important and complex issue. It would certainly seem very unethical for an adoptive parent or an adoption agency to promise contact with no intention of following through, but I suspect that is rarely, if ever, the case. More likely, people begin with good intentions, combined in some cases with a bit of ambivalence, and later things break down. Let’s face it, relationships are tricky, and open adoptions are just that: relationships.

What are the factors that contribute to success in open adoption and what can be done to ensure that more adoptions remain truly open while serving the needs of all involved, especially the child? These are questions that interest me. What is your take on the situation? Do you have a story of an open adoption that succeeded or failed or maybe ended up somewhere in the middle? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment or email me at


  1. While I agree with your take on this subject, one element is missing from your post. I, the adoptive parent entered into an open agreement with our birth mom, who failed to hold up her end of the deal. No contact. Zero. This has been hard on my family. Our intent was to stay in touch. It has been challenging to parent my kids in the manner that I intended, when a part of it is MISSING. I WOULD LOVE FOR IT TO BE DIFFERENT.

  2. Thanks, Amy! You are right of course that it's not always the adoptive parent who doesn't follow through. In this entry I was focused more on the promise made to birth parents, rather than the other direction, but I'm sure it's heart-breaking either way. Sorry to hear about your situation!

  3. Nicely written! I am the adoptive mom in our open adoption, and it breaks my heart when I hear about open adoptions go awry due to one party or the other. I suppose it' like that in any familial relationship, but it's particularly touchy in adoption. I've always looked at it as I'm the curator of my children's relationships with their birth families until they are old enough to do it on their own. It's not really about me, although of course I am emotionally invested. One thing I don't think prospective adoptive parents anticipate is the complete awe they will be in of their children, and in turn, want to have some kind of connection with their birth families.

  4. Thanks, Michelle. Love your comment about awe. So true!

  5. We hope to have an open adoption with our daughters first mom - which is odd as we're adopting from Taiwan!

    Its certainly our hope, but we know that a lot of the first moms in the past have not followed through. I think you are so right in stating that the intentions is typically good - it's just the follow through that is sometimes lacking.

    I know I have so much to learn about becoming an adoptive mama - so i appreciate your blog so much.


  6. Thanks, Brooke! Best of luck with your adoption journey!

  7. RATS!! I had this great big long comment for you with a request for some insight.... and the power went out and I lost everything. I have a migraine to boot, so the short version is....we have an adoption agreement that includes a once a year visit. The first visit went way better than I ever anticipated it would. Much prayer went into that visit!!! But first mother, even though she has lost 5 children has taken this as an opportunity to better herself. SO all is good. She's not a healthy person for the kids to have a continue relationship with, unfortunately, but I did give her a generic email address so she can contact me outside of the 3 times a year the DHS allowed her, and more quickly than going through their specialized mailing system.

    Now she emails me once a week. Which is okay. I don't always answer because it would become overwhelming. She asks for all the details of the kiddos lives.... and she asks for photos every week. I give her a few, but now I have found out she is posting them to facebook.... which, isn't just the twins, but me and my husband and our bio children as well. Is that a big deal? I mean, I blog. I post our pictures online. I'm an open book about our journey as a family. (I have NOT shared with her the blog, and she is probably not savvy enough to find it.) Can you see any danger in this?

    I was surprised that the other families that adopted the twin's siblings did not feel the agreement for the once a year visit was binding since she moved a few hours drive away. I promised. I took the kids. It worked out.

  8. AwJ, Thanks for your comments! I'm going to write a longer reply to this one later today. Just a quick note now to let you know I read this and am thinking about a reply. :-)

  9. Hi again. I agree that there doesn't seem to be much danger in her posting the pictures, especially since they aren't linked to identifying information, but you really have to go with what fits with your own comfort level. If you'd prefer that she not post the photos, I don't think there's anything wrong with telling her that you don't mind sharing them with her but that you would prefer that she keep them private. Clear communication is key. I love that you have opened up the lines of communication by email, and you seem to be striking a good balance in terms of responding only as much as works for you. Do you think it would be helpful to put that out there directly, saying something along the lines of how you appreciate her contact but you are only able to respond periodically for the sake of balance in your life? (Maybe you have already done this.) Mostly it seems important to me that you don't allow yourself to say yes to requests when your real internal answer is no. That's the kind of thing that leads to a breakdown of the relationship in the long term.
    I feel so blessed to have been paired with Erica for this journey because she has worked so hard to turn her life around and is now able to be a positive influence in Ashley's life. (Though I'm aware that my perception is influenced by my own starting point; the adoptive parents of Ashley's sister aren't able to view Erica as a positive influence in spite of the changes she's made.)
    But anyway, what I'm trying to say is that Erica has done a lot of things right and her contributions have made our relationship easy. I'm sure it must be much more challenging when the birth mother is not as together as she is.
    Erica and I are planning to eventually put together a pamphlet or e-book for, and one of the things I want to include in it is a section written by her with advice for first parents on what they can do to make open adoptions more successful. She was asked that question in our recent radio interview (see "ON THE RADIO" on my blog sidebar) and she had some great answers. I'd love for her to expand on that.
    I'm kind of rambling on now. I don't know if this is helpful at all or not. If you'd like to chat more you can email me at ashleysmoms(at)gmail(dot)com.

  10. neversaidgoodbyeJune 1, 2012 at 10:32 AM

    Rebecca- It would be interesting to me to hear about the birthmoms who do not continue the relationship. I suspect they do not realize the pain that is involved in relinquishing their child and how hard it will be to see them. I am of course not saying this for every birthmother that does not live up to their end of the bargain... but I do fear that it is a symptom of out of sight out of mind... it s just to painful.

    I know when I have lost important people in my life it is hard to see them going on in their life- and being happy- even tho I am happy for them and that is what I would want for them intellectually... but in my heart it just hurts so bad that they went on without me...
    I am divorced and I am the leaving spouse in my marriage. When My ex husband remarried and while I was happy for him- I surely did not want to look at the wedding pictures... I can only imagine what it would be like to lose and child and then have to look at pictures through your grief?

    I wonder if this is something Erica could comment on?
    I read one birthmother blog where the birthmother is scared to ask to see the child... she sticks to the agreement as to not upset the adoptive parents...and lose all contact- she is worried if she asks for too much she will lose it all.

    I think that when the people in the relationships come from such different backgrounds there is a lot of room for a break down in communication due to different styles of communicating such as in open adoption.

    These are just my thoughts on this matter. I hate to see open adoptions close and wish that the agencies would better educate all involved in what it takes. I also fear that the adoptive parents do not like to see the similarities with their child to these " unsafe " people and is causes them discomfort. I know in my adoptive family any characteristic they did not perceive that I got from them was to be gotten rid of and taken care of.

    It would be very interesting to hear from the birth mothers in these open adoption cases.. and see what their experience is. Across the spectrum.

    I know for me... it was very challenging at first for me to see my kids being loving to another mother- their step mom. It was very very hard for me for them to celebrate her on mothers day and talk about her- I am okay with it now but it took time... and effort on my part.

    There is a lot of room for error here and hurt feelings. There needs to be much teaching and help in these areas when we are trying to form relationships across the class line.


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