Parents may also wonder how to react when kids start voicing their preferences regarding birth parent contact. Letting a young child call the shots in an open adoption is probably a bad idea. (After all, small children don’t get to decide when to visit grandparents or other relatives.) But a child of 12 may be ready to make some decisions about whether or when to meet with birth parents. “The older a child gets, the larger the role they should have,” Grotevant advised.
When a child is adopted through a closed adoption, the records of that adoption are sealed by a judge to make the transaction private. Biological parents will sometimes do this if they do not want to be contacted by their biological child, or if the parties involved agree that it is best if certain information be anonymous. But sometimes a child may grow up and want to contact his biological parents, or she may need to know her parents in the event of a hereditary illness or risk that requires knowledge of family medical history.
When adoptions are closed, the files are usually physically sealed. Nevertheless, most states have created procedures through which family members seeking to "open" a closed adoption may be able to access information about the other parties. However, the process and degree of access to information varies widely from state to state, with some states requiring a court order to reveal information that can be used to identify a party to an adoption.
Closed adoption refers to an adoption process where there is no interaction of any kind between birth mothers and prospective adoptive families. This means that there is no identifying information provided either to the birth families or adoptive families. However, non-identifying information such as physical characteristics and medical history may be made available to those involved.
Decades ago, virtually all adoptions were closed. A closed adoption means that there is no contact whatsoever between the birthparents and the adoptive parents and child after the adoption takes place. In fact, there may also be no contact before the adoption. Nowadays, however, the trend in the United States is toward open adoptions, in which all the parties to an adoption meet and often remain in each other's lives.
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:
A closed adoption is the type where there is totally no contact between the birth parents and the adoptive parents as well as the child. There is also no classifying information shared between families about each other, thereby effectively cutting possible contact between the two. Before the child joins the family, the adoptive parents are provided with non-identifying data about the child and his or her birth family. Once the adoption is concluded, all records are sealed. These sealed records may or may not become accessible to the adopted child once he or she turns 18, but this is dependent on the signed paperwork and local law.
“A lot of birth parents went into it thinking it was a privilege to them,” said Brenda Romanchik, executive director of Insight: Open Adoption Resources and Support, an adoption education and support organization in Royal Oak, Michigan. “So when things got tough, they thought, this isn’t working for me, so I’m going to leave. They didn’t take the child into account.”
For those who do not want a completely open adoption, there is the option of semi-open adoption. Semi-open adoption is a great option to create an adoption relationship that meets the needs of a particular situation. Every adoption relationship is different, and semi-open adoptions can take many forms; a typical semi-open adoption involves communication without exchanging identifying information, along with sending pictures and letters on occasion.
Likely the most common arrangement in open adoptions is for the adoptive parents to commit to sending the birth mother photos of the child (and themselves as a family) each year, and short written updates, until the child reaches the age of 18. Often these photos and updates will be sent more than just once a year, such as the child's birthday or other significant events. Sometimes an intermediary is selected to receive and forward the updates, and sometimes it is done directly. This can be through mail or email. Some adoptions are more open than just sending photos and updates and include face-to-face contact. The amount of contact can vary greatly from just once in the first year, to multiple times annually throughout the child's life. Some of the adoptees raised in open adoption are now in adulthood and are writing about the experience of growing up in an open adoption.
It’s important to keep in mind that, while adoption relationships can change, it is more complicated to increase contact than to decrease it. If a birth mother starts with an open relationship and then decides later that she needs distance, she can do this at any time. However, if an adoption is closed and a birth mother wants more contact, then she has to come to an agreement with the adoptive family. Therefore, it is especially important that a birth mother choosing closed adoption is sure that it is what she wants.
Grotevant, however, sounded a note of caution to those who portray it as a panacea. The children of open adoption do not have higher self-esteem than those in closed adoptions, he observed. For children in each group, self-esteem is about the same, his research found. He stressed that more research is needed to assess the impact of open adoption on adolescents. (The research he did with McRoy studies children up to age 12.)
Once the adoption has been approved, the agency transfers the infant from foster care (if used) to the adoptive parents. After the infant has spent a few weeks or months with the adoptive parents, a local judge formally and legally approves the adoption. The natural mother has until the final court hearing. The infant is then issued a second, amended certificate, sometimes stated to be a birth certificate, that states the adopting parents are the child's parents. This becomes the adopted person's permanent, legal "birth" certificate. In the post WWII era, laws were enacted which prevented both the adopted person and adoptive family from accessing the original, and the information given to them can be quite limited (though this has varied somewhat over the years, and from one agency to another). Originally, the sealed record laws were meant to keep information private from everyone except the 'parties to the action' (adoptee, adoptive parent, birthparent and agency). Over time, the laws were reinterpreted or rewritten to seal the information even from the involved parties.
Most open adoptions lie somewhere in the middle, according to Grotevant and McRoy, exchanging letters, pictures, and phone calls, and having face-to-face meetings once or twice a year. Whatever their situation, many families report that relatives and friends condemn openness, and voice fears that the arrangement will make the birth parent want the child back.