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What Does Open Adoption and Closed Adoption Really Mean?

Let’s jump right in today by talking about two types of adoption that many people are familiar with and some people are concerned about: open adoption and closed adoption.

When my husband and I began to talk about adopting a child, this was one of our first concerns: what if the birth mother wanted to stay in her child’s life? In other words, what if she wanted an open adoption? This thought scared us at first, primarily because we didn’t really know what open adoption meant.

At our adoption coaching company, GIFT Family Services, we actually find these terms misleading. Closed adoption doesn’t exist: spoken or not spoken, you receive another family along with your child, that child’s first or birth family. Your child has another family somewhere out there in the world. You will know this and your child will know this. That family will not be forgotten. A better term for what people call "closed adoption" is "no access adoption." In that case, the child does not have access or an ongoing relationship with their first family. Sometimes the child has very little knowledge of their first family. This often happens in international adoptions. In the United States, the decision on the amount of access that a child can have to his or her first family is a decision made by the first mother, not the social workers or prospective adoptive parents. In the case of adopting a child from foster care, this decision of access often is made by the social workers using a standard based on what is deemed in the best interest of the child.

You, as a prospective adoptive parent, can have something in your mind about what type of relationship you want with the first family and what you can handle. If you say I want a closed adoption, know that it is going to narrow the possibilities because adoption has become much more child centric over the years because we have learned that a child having contact with their first family is healthier than no contact.

So what does the continuum of access look like? Low access can range from no contact, to an agreement to send letters to an agreement to meet regularly, from phone calls to joint holidays or family events. There can be discussion with the expectant or first mother and/or father about this, but the first mother is the one who determines this.

One of my colleagues remembers this discussion with her child’s first mother, who was expecting at the time. They sat together with the social worker and they decided that letters and pictures would be good. They left it open for change in future depending on the needs of the child. Fast forward to 12 years later. My colleague’s family spent a holiday with her child’s first mother and family. This included sleeping overnight at the first mother’s house, cooking together, talking, laughing, crying. The time together was healing and good for everyone, but especially my colleague’s child who got to spend quality time – some of it alone doing an ordinary activity – shopping – with their first mother. Over the years, after the holiday stays, the contact has waxed and waned which is normal for any relationship, but especially normal for first families and children who were adopted.

It can be scary to think about the continuum of access. What if the first mother changes her mind or contests the adoption? What if my child will love their first family more and want to be with them? What if they won’t accept us as their parents? What if the first parents will try to parent our children, give us advice, or criticize our parenting?

It is good to remember that as an adoptive parent, you have the full legal rights and responsibilities for this child. You will be raising them, changing their diapers, providing comfort after a fall off the bicycle, reading them stories at night, and the list can go on and on. They will experience you and see you as their parent. In almost every case with adoption, the presence of the birth family only enhances your child’s life and helps them draw closer to you because you have welcomed and embraced a large part of them – their first family.

As we come to a close, how has this discussion provided more clarity for you – or maybe more questions – on the decision to adopt?

Between now and your next lesson – do a little journaling. What are you comfortable with? What fears still may exist after learning about the possibilities of access? What benefits do you see for you and especially your child when there is greater access? Journaling will help you shift through your own emotions. If you have a partner or spouse, have them do the same thing.

Next lesson, we will explore the different types of adoption: from domestic infant adoption to international adoption and everything in between, you will be well informed to make the decision that is right for you.