“The challenge we have is getting the media and people outside our immediate family to understand that open adoption is the best choice we’ve ever made,” said Jill Dillon, a resident of southern Oregon, whose daughter, Carly, is eight years old. “We feel that it’s a healthy, safe way for our child to grow up, knowing her birth family and her ‘real’ family, as we think of ourselves.”
Prior to the 1980s, it was common practice to keep adoptions closed. Oftentimes, women facing unexpected pregnancies would temporarily move to another location, have their babies, and return home. The doctor or a child-placing agency would then find an adoptive family, unbeknownst to the birth mother. Clearly, this led to various complications in each of their lives, especially for the adopted child.
Unfortunately, there are situations where an open adoption is either not an option or is not the best choice for the child. Some birth parents do not want an open adoption because they are afraid that the ongoing contact will be a constant reminder of the painful decision they made at a difficult time in their life. They may believe that a closed adoption will better allow them to emotionally heal. Other birth parents have not shared the fact of their pregnancy with their family or community and they may fear that an open adoption will undermine their desire for confidentiality. Finally, there are times when open adoption is not in the child’s best interest due to the birth parents’ circumstances.
Another Adoption.com Staff Storyteller, Melissa Giarrosso, recently published an article titled Our Adoptions are Not Made-For-TV Movies. Her article, if you haven’t read it already (you should), brings to light the very real, but totally sensationalized, stereotypical view of open adoption based on media stories and drama producing movies. The fears of open adoption are not from real life experience, but crazy over-the-top stories that make the news or are portrayed to make for interesting TV. Just like you don’t hear about the millions of dogs that don’t attack, the one that does makes the news. That doesn’t make all dogs bad.
If anything, openness appears to help kids understand adoption; relieve the fears of adoptive parents; and help birth mothers resolve their grief, according to researchers Harold D. Grotevant and Ruth G. McRoy. “Many of the fears about open adoption do not seem to be a problem,” said Grotevant, a professor at the University of Minnesota and co-author with McRoy of Openness in Adoption: Exploring Family Connections.
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Only a court order allows closed adoption records to be unsealed, which was quite uncommon prior to the early 1990s. A few cases have surfaced in which records were thought to have been sealed but were not—either by mishandling or misunderstanding. Although rare, a small number of people have been prosecuted over the years for violating the confidentially of sealed adoption records. In 1998, Oregon voters passed Measure 58 which allowed adoptees to unseal their birth records without any court order. Some other states which used to keep closed adoption records sealed permanently by default have since changed to allowing release once the adoptee turns 18. However, these laws were not made retroactive; only future adoptions subsequent to the laws' passage apply.
In 2013, the film Philomena based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, opened in cinemas worldwide. It tells the true story of Philomena's 50-year-long search for her forcefully adopted Irish infant son, who was sent to the United States. She is eventually assisted by BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, which takes up the majority of the film. Starring Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as Sixsmith, it was nominated for four American and four British Academy Awards.
It's equally important adopters understand that in a closed adoption little to no information will be exchanged with the birth parents, including their choice to arrange an adoption with the couple. This can feel like a distant business deal for some adoptive couples who want to know the nuances and personality of the mother of the child they're being placed with. Other adoptive parents may feel the separation of adoptive and birth parent eliminates possible instability an openly known birth mother's lifestyle may bring into a family dynamic. Also, in an open adoption, if communication is lost between the birth mother and adoptee, the child may become confused and hurt.
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Over the past few decades, we’ve found that the majority of prospective birth mothers are looking for an adoptive family they can have a personal relationship with before, during and after the adoption process is complete. Therefore, we require our prospective adoptive families to be open to the kind of communication most of these birth mothers are looking for, including:
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American Adoptions accepts a limited number of families into our gender-specific program. Please contact us at 1-800-ADOPTION to learn whether we are currently accepting families into this program. With this option, families pay an additional Gender-Specific Fee to help our agency locate and work with birth mothers meeting this additional criterion. This fee is in addition to other program fees and covers additional advertising. The fee is not considered part of your adoption budget. Please note that gender specificity will likely increase your wait time significantly.
Some (not many) agencies encourage a complete disclosure of identities between birthparents and adopting parents, as well as an ongoing close relationship. Agencies that support fully open disclosures believe that an open adoption is a better way for both adoptive parents and birthparents—as well as the children. Agencies that don't support open adoption feel just as strongly that continued contact is not a good idea for any of the parties.
While a closed adoption does eliminate any risk of a rocky relationship, it also eliminates the possibility of a fulfilling, positive relationship. Moreover, birth mothers cannot reclaim their children under any circumstance, and adopted children are often less confused about their adoption when they know their birth mothers, who can answer their questions.
Birth and adoptive families are counseled about the importance of honoring one’s word in open adoption agreements through American Adoptions. If, for some reason, contact is lost and one party is unable to reach the other, we’ll hold any correspondence intended for them for up to 18 years in case they notify us and request to receive that communication and want to get back in touch.
On June 1, 2009, Ontario, Canada, opened its sealed records to adoptees and their birth parents, with a minimum age of 18 for the adoptee, or one additional year if the birth parents initiate the request. Both parties can protect their privacy by giving notice of how to be either contacted or not, and if the latter, with identifying information being released or not. All adoptions subsequent to September 1, 2008, will be "open adoptions"
Most US states and Canadian provinces have independent non-profit organizations that help adoptees and their birth parents initiate a search, and offers other adoption-related support. There are also independent and state funded reunion registries that facilitate reuniting family members. The International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR) is the oldest and largest. The Salvation Army also provides information in helping those who were born or gave birth in its maternity hospitals or homes (see the external links below). This is a change from previous decades, when nothing was ever released without a rarely given or sought court order.