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"Open adoption" has been a buzzword in adoption circles for years, but what could it mean for your family in practice?

"Open adoption" has been a buzz word for years, but what does it really mean, and what should you know if you are considering adopting a child? 

What Is An Open Adoption?

The process that is now referred to as a "closed adoption" used to be standard fair across the western world. In a closed adoption, when the adopted child joins their new family, there is no further contact between the adoptive family and the birth family. The child is not presented with identifying information about their birth parents and extended birth family, and the birth family is no longer able to be part of the child's life in any way, at least until they reach the age of majority and either or both parties may go looking for each other. Should the child have been adopted as an infant, they might not even know they are adopted unless their birth parents provide this information to them. 

Open adoption is different. Rather than cutting the ties between child and birth family completely, there's something more. The details, however, differ from family to family.

To one family, open adoption may mean that the birth mother receives a photograph and short update on her child once a year. To another, it might mean that the child's birth family plays an active role in their life, attending birthday parties and coming over for Christmas, perhaps even socializing on a regular basis. Open adoption has as many faces as there are families committed to this model. Geography, personal philosophy, mutual agreement, the feelings the two families develop for each other, and availability can all play a part in deciding just how much a child's birth family gets involved in their life. The goal, generally, is to reach a situation that benefits all members of the "adoption triad": the child, the child's birth mother (and sometimes extended family), and the adoptive parents.

Advantages Of An Open Adoption

The advantages of open adoption to adoptees and birth parents appear to be immediately obvious. The adoptee, rather than being plagued by such questions as "what do my birth parents look like?", "what kind of people are they?", and "why was I adopted?", is able to receive first-hand information that enables them to form a clearer sense of identity. The birth parent, rather than forever wondering how their child is doing, what they look like, and what kind of talents they have, is able to remain, to some extent, part of their child's life. They may even choose which family adopts their child themselves. In some cases, it is this continued tie that makes a birth parent comfortable with placing their child for adoption. 

Adoptive parents are in a slightly trickier position — some wondering if the birth family's presence in their child's life interferes with the child's sense of belonging to their adoptive family, some worried that contact with the birth family could disrupt the stability they want to offer their child, and some concerned that they'll never fully be able to be the child's parents if the child's birth parents are also in their lives. Building a relationship of trust with the child's birth family takes time. The benefits, however, are also clear. Not only do adoptive parents have easier access to medical records and other crucial information, they are able to offer their child the gift of answering otherwise unanswerable questions. 

Is Open Adoption Right For You?

Open Adoption: Disadvantages

There are also those who disagree that open adoption benefits all parties in all cases. According to Patrick F. Fagan, an adoption therapist, open adoption may lead the child to be confused about their role in their adoptive family, something that could disrupt bonding between adoptive parents and children. 

Should the birth parent be unable to consistently maintain contact, or face difficult life issues such as addiction, an open adoption could also expose the child to pain they would otherwise have been spared. In addition, some adoptive parents find open adoption highly emotionally challenging.

How Views On Discussing Adoption With Children Have Changed

The University of Oregon reports that "adoption professionals maintained a firm consensus that children placed in infancy should be told of their adopted status early in life" in the twentieth century, mainly due to the risk that adoptees would find out they were adopted from other relatives or neighbors before their parents told them. Adoptive parents themselves frequently held different views, and it's not in the least uncommon to hear stories of adoptees who found out during puberty, while enlisting, or even when they were about to get married.

In recent decades, an abundance of children's literature about adoption has appeared, often with a focus on the idea that birth parents did the best they could — engaging in a selfless act by giving their children a better life with an adoptive family — and emphasizing the idea that the adoptive parents specifically chose their child. 

Today, adoptive parents are often encouraged to be open about the child's birth family, something an open adoption certainly facilitates. Rather than relying on stories, the child gets to see for themselves. 

 

What Is Right For Your Family?

The goal of open adoption is to find a situation that is satisfactory to all members of the adoption triad. The best open adoptions are based on mutual trust, openness, and understanding, and a common agreement on the level of contact that works for your family facilitates this. This is something you will want to discuss with your counselor as well as among yourselves. 

All relationships that involve humans are tricky, and subject to change as the people themselves change. Rather than expecting a fairy tale, it is important to keep in mind that you can and probably will face challenges.

As adoptive parents and birth parents unite around mutual love for their child, get to know each other, and agree on what level of contact is in the best interest of the child, open adoption is a road that can turn out to be very satisfactory. 

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