What is “open” adoption, and is it ever a good idea?


Sometimes, when two people find themselves having a baby, they also discover they aren’t quite ready to be parents. Giving up the child for adoption can be a great decision for everybody, and allow the birth parents to still be in their son’s, or daughter’s, life. It also means the child may end up, essentially, with two sets of parents. And that creates possible complications which don’t always end well.

“I’ve seen open adoptions work out well, or they work out pretty well for a while. Then the birth mother wants to give parenting advice and the adoptive family wants to remove her from the situation. It gets very complicated,” says Jeffrey A. Kasky, Florida attorney and co-author of The ABA Consumer Guide to Adopting a Child: Everything You Need to Know for a Successful Adoption. “There is no cookie-cutter adoption and not everyone’s needs are going to be exactly the same.”

Everyone involved may find themselves in court if they are unable to abide by the open adoption agreement, and major changes in a pre-established agreement would have to show good cause. But how far are some people willing to bend in an open adoption in order to get the child they want?

Defining open adoption

Nicole Witt, executive director of The Adoption Consultancy, explains open adoption as the sharing of identifying information (last names, address, phone number, etc.) and/or ongoing contact directly between the adoptive parents and the birth parents without having to go through the adoption agency. “Obviously, there is a whole spectrum of openness that fits that definition, from a yearly phone call to sharing holidays together,” says Witt.

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What some birth parents have trouble coping with when it comes to open adoption, however, is their inability to have a say in their biological child’s life. The adoptive parents get to decide what’s best, in all matters. So while open adoption may act as a salve to parents who are struggling over the decision to give up their child, ultimately it could prevent a painful wound from ever fully healing.

The good and bad of open adoption

“In the average adoption, the parties are all going to be better off with a closed adoption,” says Kasky. “It removes a layer of complication. It allows the birth mother to go on with her life and improve her situation. A closed adoption allows the adoptive parents to go on and be a family and not have an extra person to whom they are responsible or beholden in some way.”

Witt characterizes the open adoption situation as similar to any extended family relationship. “There will be good times and bad; easy times and hard; love, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings. But, once you’re a family, you’re family. And if everyone views what they’re doing through the lens of how it benefits the child, then there is a common goal. Just as in any other relationship, the best tip for making it work is open communication.”

The question is, just how much communication are you willing to have? And what if one set of parents changes their minds somewhere along the way?

Setting open adoption boundaries

“Neither side should feel like they ‘owe’ the other side anything – that can lead to poor decisions made out of bad judgment,” says Witt. “A good way to look at difficult decisions is by trying to take the lens of adoption away. Think about the situation as if the other party was a cousin or other extended family member and decide how you would handle it. Then do the same thing.” Even if that means postponing a visit until the other party is in a healthy place, or sucking it up and overcoming a long drive to stick to your commitment.

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From a legal standpoint, it’s necessary to understand from the beginning of an open adoption exactly what you’re getting into, whether you’re the birth parents or the adoptive parents. “When a birth mother calls and says, ‘I want an open adoption,’” says Kasky, “I say, ‘Tell me what that means to you.’ Nine times out of 10, all they want is some pictures and updates.” And this is something that Kasky, possibly along with a good adoption lawyer, is willing to facilitate.

“I’ve seen situations where the family says, ‘We want a perfect 100 percent closed adoption. We’ll meet the birth mother once, but that’s it,’” says Kasky. “Families have passed on perfect situations because they didn’t want post-birth non-face-to-face contact. I get it when they don’t want face-to-face contact, but just take a couple of pictures, email them to me, and I’ll take care of the rest. A birth mother has at least a moral right to get pictures of the child, just so she can know everything is OK.”

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