Many adopting parents in non-private adoptions would apply to a local, state licensed adoption agency. The agency may be a member of the national Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). The CWLA and many adoption agencies are still in operation today, but with an expanded and somewhat different agenda compared to past decades, as the government has largely taken over some of their previous responsibilities.
“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.”
For children in open adoptions, the toughest challenge may come when a birth parent who’s been visiting or calling suddenly vanishes or drifts away. The trigger can be a move to a new job, a marriage, or a personal problem, such as drugs or alcohol. In some cases, a birth mother may not feel worthy of contact, or she may get the message from the adoptive parents that she’s not welcome.
Open adoption is a form of adoption in which the biological and adoptive families have access to varying degrees of each other's personal information and have an option of contact. While open adoption is a relatively new phenomenon in the west, it has been a traditional practice in many Asian societies, especially in South Asia, for many centuries. In Hindu society, for example, it is relatively common for a childless couple to adopt the second or later son of the husband's brother when the childless couple has limited hope of producing their own child.
Many in the adoption community first learned of search and support resources through newspaper articles, the Dear Abby column and various TV shows and movies. Starting in the mid-1980s, many adoptees and their parents first learned about the possibility of reunion on the NBC (later CBS) television program Unsolved Mysteries hosted by Robert Stack. This was under their "Lost Loves" category, the vast majority of which involved closed adoption. More than 100 reunions have occurred as a result of the program, many of those being the adoption-related cases. Reruns of the program (with a few new segments and updates) were also aired on the Lifetime Television cable network until mid-2006, and very briefly on Spike TV in late 2008. In September 2010, the program returned to Lifetime from 4 to 7 pm ET/PT.
Open adoption has slowly become more common since research in the 1970s suggested that open adoption was better for children. In 1975 the tide began to change, and by the early 1990s open adoptions were offered by a majority of American adoption agencies. Especially rapid progress was seen in the late 1980s and early 1990s - between 1987 and 1989 a study found only a third of agencies offered fully open adoption as an option; by 1993 76 percent of the surveyed agencies offered fully open adoptions. As of 2013, roughly half of US states consider them legally binding, however contact in open adoption is not always maintained.
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.
The social stigma of unmarried mothers, particularly during the Baby Scoop Era (1945-1975) rendered them social outcasts. By the 1980s the situation improved greatly and the vast majority of unwed mothers kept their babies. In a mother driven society after WWII infertile couples were also seen as deviant due to their inability to bear children. The social experiment of taking the children from "unmarried mothers" and "giving them" to adoptive parents became the norm during the BSE. These adoptions were predominantly closed. The records were sealed, biological mothers were told to keep their child a secret, and adoptive parents told to treat the child "as if born to".
The short answer is, yes. It was once believed that openness in adoption would undermine adoptive parents’ ability to feel entitled to parent their children, that children would be confused about the roles and rights of their adoptive parents in light of contact with their birth parents, that adoptive parents would lose all sense of control or that birth parents would not be able to successfully resolve their grief and loss in reference to their decision to place their child for adoption. What thirty-plus years of open adoption has taught us is that children are not confused about the roles of the people in their lives who love them. Adoption specialists now believe that openness can be a great gift — not just for the children — but for all who are involved in the story of adoption.
Adoptive parents may be less likely to consider the possibility that they are doing something wrong, and blame the child's heredity. The parents may even unfavorably compare their adopted child with a near-perfect, genetically-related "fantasy" child. This enables them to blame ordinary problems which all parents face on their child's supposedly "defective" genes. Thus, while non-adoptive parents are focused on nurture, some adoptive parents are solely focused on nature (i.e. heredity) instead. This results in what could have been an easily resolved problem, going unresolved in families with adopted children, possibly accompanied by child abuse.
Sue Heinzman’s enthusiasm for openness was echoed by virtually every family interviewed for this story. Even Kim Felder, whose empty mailbox made her son so sad, would not have it any other way. Robbie is one of four children adopted by the Felders since 1987, all of them involved some form of openness. And Kim knows the pain of closed adoption firsthand: she placed her son, Jim, for adoption 24 years ago, reuniting with him when he was 18.
Even if you are not sure whether an open adoption is right for you, most birth and adoptive parents find that speaking and meeting with one another before making a commitment, helps them to decide whether to move forward with an adoption plan. Meeting in person allows the birth and adoptive parents to get to know one another and often provides the birth parent(s) with the confidence of knowing that they have selected the best family for their child. Many birth parents who have ongoing contact with the adoptive family find that receiving information about the child, and knowing that the child is thriving, helps to ease their feelings of loss. Children who are in direct communication with their birth family may come to understand that their birth parent didn’t abandon them but made the decision to place them for adoption out of love for them. Many adopted children also benefit from having a direct connection with another person with whom they have a shared biology. The benefit for adopted persons to obtain updated medical information from genetically related family members is also undeniable. While some adoptive parents fear that an open adoption will confuse their child, ongoing research has not born out that concern.
To be sure, open adoption gets rave reviews from the many social workers and families who champion it. Since the mid-1970s, open adoptions have been widely accepted as more compassionate and enlightened than the secretive adoptions of a previous generation. Indeed, the confidentiality that once defined adoption is no longer the norm. While international adoptions remain mostly closed, as do many public agency adoptions, domestic adoptions increasingly involve contact between adoptive parents and birth parents.