Open vs Closed Adoption: What is Best?
Becky Davis, CSS Post-Adoption Specialist
Forty years ago, most adoptions were confidential and often kept secret. Adoptive parents never knew the identities of their child’s birth parents, and had to rely solely on what scant information was given to them by their adoption agency or attorney. Similarly, birth parents never knew anything about their child’s adoptive parents, they had no say in the family that was chosen, and never again saw the baby that they loved enough to let go. And of course, adopted children grew up with many questions that adoptive parents could not answer, and closed-records laws that prevented them from ever finding answers to those questions even as adults.
Decades later, research now has shown that those adoption practices that kept adoptions so closed and confidential created problems for everyone involved. Perhaps the most tragic part of this is the problems it created for the adoptee, the person that was supposedly benefitting the most from the adoption. Many adopted children grew up with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety that came from feelings of loss, abandonment, and shame surrounding their adoption.
Beginning in the early 1990’s, Children’s Service Society began an experiment with a new practice becoming more popular among adoption professionals across the US: something scary and exciting called open adoption. CSS was the first agency in Utah to implement this type of adoption, and we began to see that it offered everyone involved an unexpected peace of mind. It did not take long before open adoption became more and more the norm with all adoptions.
Despite this, many people still believe that open adoption can be harmful and confusing to adopted children, and can make it harder for birth parents to “get over” the loss of their child. We see both expectant parents and prospective adoptive parents come to us feeling like they could not participate in an open adoption, and wonder why we encourage it as often as we can.
Considering the Needs of the Child
Children’s Service Society believes that first and foremost, adoption should be about the needs of the child. Birth parents and adoptive parents must certainly consider their needs and wishes in the process, but in the end all decisions should be centered around what is in the best interest of the child.
Adoption experts now understand that openness in adoption is what is best for adopted children. But we also now know that communication within an open adoption has many advantages for birth parents and adoptive parents, too.
What is Open Adoption?
Before we share all the various benefits, it’s important to understand: What is open adoption?
The Child Welfare Information Gateway describes open adoption this way:
Open adoption is a form of adoption that allows birth parents to know and have contact with the adoptive parents and the adopted child. Adoption agencies or professionals you talk with may describe open adoptions differently. But in open adoptions, usually:
- Birth parents or other birth family members have some level of contact with the adoptive parents and the adopted child in some way depending on what feels comfortable for everyone
- Expectant parents may take part in selecting the adoptive parents who will raise their children.
- Adopted children know they have been adopted and may have relationships with one or more members of their birth families.
- Communication between birth mothers (and sometimes birth fathers, grandparents, or other relatives) and adoptive parents may take place through letters, phone calls, e-mails, or visits.
- Families communicate in ways that feel comfortable to them. Some send pictures and brief notes. Others celebrate holidays together. The type of contact and how often it happens will depend on the needs and choices of everyone involved, and may change over time.
It important to clarify that open adoption does not mean adoptive parents share parenting responsibilities with birth parents. Like all forms of adoption, the adoptive parents will have the permanent legal rights and responsibilities for parenting and raising the child. Open adoption simply allows for relationships and communication between birth and adoptive families, and the child.
Different Levels of Openness
Contact in an open adoption can mean different things to different families as contact can range from letters or emails, to texts, phone calls or regular visits. It is up to the adults to create a plan that fits everyone’s needs and expectations. In making these decisions, it is helful to know the two basic levels of openness: fully open and semi-open.
- In a fully open adoption, the birth parents (and possibly other members of the birth family) may have direct contact with the adoptive parents and the child. Both birth parents and adoptive parents have identifying information about each another. This type of adoption makes it possible for everyone to develop relationships with one another. But as with any relationship, the needs and wishes of the people involved may change over time.
- In a semi-open adoption (sometimes called a mediated adoption), an agency caseworker or lawyer will pass along letters, photos, or other information between birth parents and the adoptive family. This type of adoption allows for birth parents and adoptive parents to communicate and exchange information, while still maintaining their privacy. Contact information like last names or addresses are not shared. Some semi-open adoptions may also involve meetings between the birth and adoptive families, but contact information and possibly names are kept private.
The feelings about openness may change over time for birth parents, the adopted children, or the adoptive parents, and the amount of contact can change as a result. We frequently see adoptions start out as semi-open, but move to fully open as the families grow more comfortable with each other.
In a confidential or closed adoption, no contact takes place between the birth family and the adoptive family. No information will be given out that identifies the adoptive parents or the birth parents to each other. However, non-identifying information, such as background and medical information about the birth family, will be shared with the adoptive family.
Today, closed adoptions are all but extinct. It is estimated that only 5% of modern adoptions are closed. That means that 95 percent of today’s adoptions involve some level of openness, whether they are mediated, fully open or somewhere in between.
There may be times when a fully open adoption might not in the best interest of a child due to safety issues. This could especially be the case in foster care adoptions, where the child has experienced abuse from the birth family. Even in these cases, however, some form of contact with biological family is recommended if it is possible. This contact provides children with ongoing knowledge of their origins, family history and important information that will help them as they are growing up and forming their identity. (Here is an excellent article from The Imprint about openness in adoptions of kids from foster care.)
Benefits of Open Adoption
For the Child:
Open adoption can provide adopted children with a sense of connection and completeness. Openness may answer many of the questions that adopted children in closed adoptions often struggle to answer, such as: Who am I? What are my birth parents like? Why was I placed for adoption? Research shows that adolescents who have ongoing contact with their birth parents are more satisfied with their adoptions than those without contact. Openness allows them to better understand the reasons for their adoption, and promotes more positive feelings toward their birth mother.
Other possible benefits of open adoption for a child include:
- Links to their birth mother, and possibly birth father, brothers, and sisters—doing away with the need to search for them later in life.
- Removal of the feelings of secrecy and shame that can come up at different points in their life.
- Increased self-worth, and a sense of identity and security that comes from firsthand answers to identity questions.
- A sense of belonging, which may lessen their feelings of abandonment.
- Connection to their cultural and ethnic background and ancestry.
- Better access to important medical information, such as genetic diseases or medical conditions that exist in the birth families.
- A sense of knowing that they look like someone else or has characteristics that come from a blood connection
- An understanding that they are loved by their birth family
For Birth Parents:
Birth parents choose adoption for a variety of reasons, but ultimately it is a loving parenting decision that shows they care for their child. It is never an easy decision, and comes with other equally hard choices to be made such as choosing a family, and whether to have contact with the adoptive family before and/or after the adoption. Open adoption is a decision made with love and in the best interest of the child, but also has many benefits for the birth parents. These benefits may include:
- Allows birth parents some control over decisions about placing their child for adoption, such as meeting adoptive families before the adoption, and choosing an adoptive family that aligns with their values.
- Comfort and reassurance in knowing their child is growing up safe, healthy, and loved.
- Support in dealing with their feelings of grief and loss that can come up after placement.
- Personal relationships with the adoptive parents and the child.
- Birth mothers who have ongoing contact with their children report greater peace of mind and less grief, worry and regret than those who do not have contact.
- An opportunity to personally answer their birth child’s questions about his or her adoption.
- Birth grandparents and other members of the birth families also can benefit from communication with the adopted child and/or the adoptive family.
Some birthparents report that it can be hard at first to see their child with their adoptive families. That is definitely a normal reaction. Yet over time, birthparents tell us how happy they are that they chose to have a relationship with the adoptive family. With an open adoption they can see for themselves how their decision has allowed the child to grow up and thrive in the family setting that they chose for them. You can read about one birthmother’s feelings about her open adoption experience here.
For Adoptive Parents:
Adoptive parents may be frightened at first by the idea of an open adoption, but often come to realize, once they are comfortable in their new parental roles, that they also benefit from this relationship. Openness in adoption reduces adoptive parents’ fear, and increases their empathy toward birth parents. Some of the other benefits for them are:
- Access to one or more birth family members who can answer background and other questions that the adoptive parent cannot.
- Ongoing access to birthparents’ medical histories.
- Warm relationships between birth and adoptive families that can create uplifting and valuable lifelong connections for the adopted child and lessen the sense of loss he or she may feel.
- Delight in being “chosen” as adoptive parents, and more confidence in parenting that comes from being personally entrusted to raise the child.
- Less fear of birth parents reclaiming their child because they know the birth parents and their wishes.
- Knowledge that birthparents chose adoption freely and willingly
Open adoption connects families who would likely not have interacted before and allows them the opportunity to foster healthy, positive relationships with each other. It also leads to benefits in their relationships with their adopted children.
The More Communication, the Better
We see the greatest benefit of open adoption as the opportunity to communicate and build healthy, positive relationships. Adoption experts agree that open adoption is beneficial to all three parties of the adoption triad. Though the child’s best interest is our biggest concern, part of what is in the child’s best interest is the strength of the relationship between their birth and adoptive parents. When the relationship between a child’s birth and adoptive parents is healthy and strong, the child’s relationships with both will be stronger in the future, and they will have a much a stronger support system. All this will ultimately help the child to be happier, more confident, and more successful in the future.
Children’s Service Society’s Approach to Open Adoption
All prospective adoptive parents waiting with Children’s Service Society have received education about the importance of connection with birth family for their child, and how to navigate and maintain an open adoption. Expectant parents are similarly counseled on how their continued involvement in their child’s life can be vital for their child’s positive mental health and development. Through the adoption process, our adoption counselors help the birth and the adoptive families we work with to come up with a plan that benefits everyone. Because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to openness in adoption each plan is unique, whether it is a closed, semi-open, or fully open adoption. We do our best to help build adoptive and birth family relationships based on trust and mutual respect, and on the best interest of the child.
- Ge, Xiaojia, et al. “Bridging the Divide: Openness in Adoption and Postadoption Psychosocial Adjustment among Birth and Adoptive Parents.” Journal of Family Psychology : JFP : Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2638763/.
- “Ongoing Contact With Birth Families in Adoption.” Ongoing Contact With Birth Families in Adoption – Child Welfare Information Gateway, www.childwelfare.gov/topics/adoption/adoptive/before-adoption/openness/.
- “Open Adoption: Could Open Adoption Be the Best Choice for You and Your Baby?” Open Adoption, Child Welfare Information Gateway, www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/openadoption.pdf.
- “Rudd Adoption Research Program.” UMass Amherst, www.umass.edu/ruddchair/research/mtarp.