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 completely 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?” (http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/f_openadoptbulletin.cfm). 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 ashleysmoms@gmail.com.

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