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Journal Issue: Adoption Volume 3 Number 1 Spring 1993

Perspectives on Open Adoption
Annette Baran Reuben Pannor

The Movement TowardOpen Adoption

Having observed and documented these psychological and emotional effects during the 1970s, we became convinced that secrecy and anonymity were undesirable within the adoption system and recommended reform through opening of sealed records for adult adoptees.3,8 We also sought ways of possibly preventing some of the psychological problems we had observed. This led us, in 1975, to advocate open adoption placement of infants and children,9 an idea regarded by many as new and radical. In fact, open adoption had existed throughout history. Closed adoption was begun in this country, in this century, and soon became the standard of adoption practice. While originally we recommended open adoption only as an option to be carefully chosen in special cases, in 1984 we recommended that open adoption become standard practice.10

In the discussion that follows, we present our definition of open adoption, address some of the major objections to it, indicate the potential benefits of open adoptive placements, and finally propose what we consider to be appropriate long-term responsibilities of birthparents, adoptive parents, and adoptees.

Definition of Open Adoption

An open adoption is one in which the birthparent(s) at least meet the adoptive parents and may even participate in selecting them. In contrast to closed adoption, open adoption includes the exchange of identifying information and the making of agreements regarding future contact and communication. The frequency and extent of this contact and communication will vary and may need to be renegotiated at different times in the lives of the individuals involved, depending upon their needs and desires and the quality of the relationship that evolves. At present, after the adoption is finalized, the adoptive family is recognized as having the final authority to determine the nature and extent of ongoing contact.

Misconceptions About Open Adoption

As open adoption became more common in the 1970s and 1980s, several popular misconceptions were challenged. They deserve further scrutiny.

 

  • Couples will not adopt children unless they can be guaranteed anonymity and secrecy. Such guarantees, we now know, were never ironclad. The adoptees' reform movement spawned a nationwide network of search groups that often successfully located birthparents and nullified guarantees of secrecy and anonymity given by adoption agencies to these parents. Furthermore, experience in adoption during the past decade, when fewer newborns were available, has clearly demonstrated that couples, eager to parent children, are willing to adopt under a variety of circumstances. Although once only healthy babies were considered adoptable, now children with disabilities, from mixed racial backgrounds, and in sibling groups are being welcomed by families. (See the article by Rosenthal in this journal issue.) It was our belief that couples would accept open placement if adoption agencies made it standard practice. At present open adoption is accepted by many adoptive parents, and this practice appears to be increasing, particularly in independent adoptions.
  • Birthmothers want and need anonymity to move forward in their lives and put the experience of pregnancy and relinquishment behind them. This misconception was fostered by maternity homes and adoption agencies. It was sustained, in part, because some adoption social workers found it difficult to deal with the continuing pathos and misery of the birthmothers in the post-relinquishment period. Our studies of birthmothers in the 1970s indicated that, when they contacted agencies regarding their relinquished children, they often were made to feel emotionally unstable and at fault for carrying this experience with them. Apparently few caseworkers took the time or made an effort to question birthmothers about their inner feelings although many birthmothers were eager to be interviewed and to have their feelings heard.6 These observations were contrary to the belief that birthmothers had emotionally resolved giving up a child, recovered from the trauma, and wished to remain hidden. These birthmothers had not been advised or counseled about the possibility that they might have lifelong anxiety and distress. Even those birthmothers who had not revealed their past to husband and children indicated that, if it were possible to protect themselves, they would want to know and meet their offspring. Not to know whether their children were alive or dead was a continuing source of sadness for some.
  • Adoptees will be confused by contact with their birthparents and may become emotionally disturbed as a result of being aware of and dealing with two mothers during their developmental years. Our experience has led us to conclude that closed adoptions did not protect adoptees from emotional disturbances. On the contrary, it is our belief, based on years of work with adoptees of all ages, that some of them are particularly vulnerable because of feelings of loss and abandonment, exacerbated by the secrecy and anonymity of closed adoptions.5 However, because open adoption placement is still comparatively new, we cannot state conclusively what effects it has on adoptees. Long-term studies on the adjustment of adoptees to open adoption are few in number and vary in quality. (See the article by Berry in this journal issue.) At present it must be stated that the results are inconclusive, and it is evident that much additional research on this important aspect of open adoption remains to be done. Berry states, however, that "professionals generally agree that the child is least confused about loyalties to either parent when the open relationship between the adoptive and biological parents is clear and positive."
Benefits of Open Adoptive Placements

There are several important benefits to open adoptive placements. First, the birthparents assume more responsibility for the decision to relinquish, and as full participants in the placement and entrusting of the child to a known family, they are better able to cope with feelings of loss, mourning, and grief. If contact with their birthchild is permitted, they are able to further ameliorate these feelings.

Next, adoptees' feelings of rejection by the birthparents also can be greatly diminished. A realistic understanding of the problems that led to adoptive placement permits acceptance of the situation. The continuing link with the birthparent dispels the notion that the children were abandoned and forgotten. In open adoption the need for search and reunion is eliminated. Important background information—including genetic and medical histories—is readily available.

Finally, for adoptive parents, knowing the birthparents of their children can prevent the fears and fantasies that might otherwise have a negative effect on their relationships with their adopted children. Knowing the birthparents will enable adoptive parents to provide their children with background information based on first-hand knowledge and direct contacts.