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Open Adoption

What is open adoption?

Today, a significant majority of domestic infant adoptions are “open adoptions” in that birth parents and adoptive parents have agreed to engage in some level of communication and the exchange of information with one another, including the possibility of identifying information and an agreement for ongoing contact going forward.

Open adoption is not shared parenting. Parental rights of the birth family are terminated, and the adoptive parents are the legal parents and the ones responsible for the care of the child who has been adopted.

Open adoption was not always so commonplace, however. For much of the 20th century, most private, unrelated adoptive placements were strictly confidential, or “closed”. Contact between the birth parent(s) and the adoptive family was not considered best practice and rarely occurred in non-relative adoptions. So why the change?

Why have an open adoption?

The change in practice from closed adoption to greater openness is a result of many factors, but, in part, the change was driven by adoption professionals’ recognition that children who were adopted want to know more about their biological families,[1] along with a growing body of evidence that open adoption practices can be of great benefit to the birth family, the child, and the adoptive parents, including one longitudinal study[2] that found individuals across the adoption triad were more satisfied with the adoption than those who had no contact. Other findings from this study show better adjustment, empathy, and positive relationships in open placements than those in confidential adoptions.

Other long-term benefits of open adoption may include:

  • The exchange of more detailed health and background information across time
  • Stronger sense of cohesive identity for the adoptee
  • Ongoing validation to the birth mother that adoption was the best decision for her and, most importantly, her child

Is every open adoption the same? What are the legal requirements?

Open adoption arrangements are unique to each placement and should be viewed on a continuum, with some adoptions having limits to the amount of information and contact shared, while others may have significant future engagement.  Agreements should be tailored to the individual needs of the birth and adoptive families, with the child’s best interest as the primary consideration with each decision. It’s very important that prospective adoptive parents and birth parents fully understand and agree to the terms of the open adoption agreement, and do all within their power to live up to their .

At the same time, peoples’ needs and circumstances change. It has been our experience that when contact changes, it is usually toward a willingness for greater contact, not less – particularly on the part of the adoptive parents[3]. We recommend clear and specific adoption agreements that remain flexible to accommodate changing needs.[4]  It is also important to note that some states have court-enforceable adoption agreements,[5] another reason for birth and adoptive parents to be mindful of what they agree to do.

What do parents need to keep in mind about open adoption?

Those in open adoption arrangements are most satisfied when their expectations for openness are met.  Conflicts between birth families and adoptive parents can occur when promises are not kept or when levels of contact were not fully understood. If your family is uncertain about how open adoption works or if you are experiencing struggles with your open adoption, be sure to seek out the help of an adoption-competent professional. As long as birth families and adoptive families work together in the child’s best interests, then open adoption offers tangible, real life benefits to birth parents, the maturing child, and to the families created through adoption.

[1] Adoption Advocate No. 133, Weber State University Center for Community Learning