History of Openness in Adoption
Adoption in the United States has changed extensively over the last several decades and continues to be ever changing. For many years secrecy was so paramount that birth and adoptive families knew virtually nothing about one another. Today, the new reality is that the vast majority of adoptions, particularly infant adoptions, are open on some level, and adoptive and birth families have some degree of ongoing contact or relationship.
Secrecy was not originally part of the legal adoption statutes in effect across the United States between 1851 and 1929. In fact, most states did not begin sealing original birth certificates until the 1930’s, and even then, these were initially only closed to the public, not the affected parties. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that the practice of sealing original birth certificates to everyone became common. (Deborah H. Siegel, 2012)
From the 1950’s – 1970’s, the child welfare system was rarely involved in adoptions as children in the foster care system were not considered adoptable. Agencies did not pursue adoption if birth parents did not agree to that, and courts were reluctant to terminate parental rights. Long term foster care was the norm.
A “closed” adoption system, where records were sealed and little was known about any of the parties involved, was perceived to offer many benefits. Closed records were thought to prevent potential kidnappings because birth relatives could not locate a child they had placed for adoption. The closed system was also thought to:
- protect everyone’s privacy
- protect birth parents from blackmail
- protect the adoptee from learning about possibly disturbing acts about their birth such as rape or incest
- enhance the adoptee’s feelings of permanency
- increase family stability
- increase adoption rather than abortion
- decrease child abuse or neglect
In the 1970’s, birth parents began to voice their concerns over the “secrecy” that was perceived to protect them, their child and their child’s adoptive parents. Adoptive parents saw their adopted child’s confusion, pain and frustration when they could not answer even basic questions about a child’s birth relatives and family history. A growing number of adopted parents wanted to contact their child’s birth relatives to gain a better understanding of where their child came from, who their birth parents were and to thank them for giving them an opportunity to be a parent to their child.
The increased clamor for open records and an adoptee’s right to information is now joined by a call for increased openness at the beginning of a placement, to allow birthparents ongoing access to their child throughout the child’s life ( Berry, 1993). Today, most of the adoptions finalized in the United States are of older children, many of whom are minority children and who do not share the same race, ethnicity or nationality of their adoptive parents. The demographics of adoptive parents has also drastically changed. They are often fertile, single, older, gay, lesbian, of color and have a wide variety of educational backgrounds and range of incomes.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s the stigma and secrecy model of adoption gradually decreased as professionals recognized that secrecy negatively impacted all members of the adoption triad. At the same time requests from birthparents, particularly birthmothers, to gain information about a child they relinquished for adoption increased. Adoption professionals were also receiving more requests from adoptees to search for birth relatives so they could learn medical information or locate relatives for a possible reunion. Agencies began to facilitate sending letters and pictures and arranging for actual contact or sharing of identifying information.
Even though openness is fast becoming the norm in adoptions in the United States, the notion of open adoption is still unfamiliar to much of the American population, and that may be largely a result of the historical, secretive time of adoptions.
Confidential adoptions or closed adoptions, are those where no identifying information is shared and no contact permitted between the parties. This type of adoption is at one end of the continuum. In the middle are mediated adoptions where only non-identifying information is shared, and letters or pictures may be exchanged through an agency. At the other end of the continuum are fully disclosed adoptions or open adoptions with direct communication, participation of the child and full exchange of identifying information (Deborah H. Siegel, 2012). Most adoptions are said to shift over time and since the frequency and type of contact may also change, the level of openness in any adoption can be difficult to categorize. Each open adoption case is going to be unique and probably ever changing.
Some professionals believe that early openness will prevent psychological maladjustment. They believe that when children have answers to the questions as those questions arise, they will have a higher well-being rating than an adoptee who does not have those “biological reference points” to compare their own physical development and maturation with that of their birth parents (Berry, 2012).
Today, many children who enter the foster care system and are moving toward permanency have some information if not actual memories of their birth family members. Especially for children who are older, positive outcomes may result when some level of contact is maintained with their birth family. Early openness is now much more typical in the pre-placement phase of older youth. Foster parents often support and sometimes facilitate visits or contacts with the child and their birth parents in hopes of achieving permanency through reunification. During that time, information is shared and a relationship develops. These adoptions are often open to some level because of that developed relationship.
The greatest benefit of open adoption is to the adoptee. A 1973 study on 70 adult adoptees who were searching for their birth parents found a high use of mental health services, particularly in adolescence, for emotional disturbances and identity problems (Berry, 2012). In open adoptions, adoptees have ongoing access to information that can answer their questions with accurate information. In the past many adoptive parents couldn’t answer basic questions about who their child resembled, how their child was similar or different from their birth family or why their birth parents couldn’t raise them. Answers to these basic questions are critical to an adoptee forming a strong, healthy identity. The adoptee is better able to work through their grief and loss issues and feelings of rejection and abandonment when they know about the circumstances of their adoption.
Some concerns about open adoption remain. Open adoption may increase adoptive parents’ insecurity and uncertainty about adoption and their ability to bond and parent their adopted child. Another identified risk is when a child is involuntarily relinquished by birth parents who expect continued contact. Some professionals believe continued contact may prolong a birth parent’s grief and loss and prevent closure. Also, open adoption may carry the additional burden of the birth parent’s dependency on the adoptive parents as many of them are young and may look to the adoptive parents as surrogate parents, placing additional strain on the adoptive family (Berry, 2012).
The biggest risk voiced by professionals about open adoption is that continued contact could interfere with bonding between the adoptee and the adoptive parents, which would then affect the child’s development and adjustment. Instead of assisting in forming stronger, healthier identities, they believe it may increase the adoptee’s confusion and cause additional harm to the child.
Openness in adoption supports, recognizes and acknowledges the adopted child’s dual connection to at least two families. Children, especially older youth are often reluctant to sever ties with their birth family. Openness helps minimize a child’s loss of relationships and supports positive connections with birth parents and other relatives who may not be able to be a permanent resource for the child.