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.
From the early 1950s when Jean Paton began Orphan Voyage, and into the 1970s with the creation of ALMA, International Soundex Reunion Registry, Yesterday's Children, Concerned United Birthparents, Triadoption Library, and dozens of other local search and reunion organizations, there has been a grass roots support system in place for those seeking information and reunion with family.
The empty mailbox is just one example of the challenges that families in open adoptions may face. In recent years, we have embraced the concept of open adoption with gusto — yet the journey, for some, has proved to be unexpectedly bumpy. Lack of support, a sudden change in the life of either the adoptive or biological family, logistical pressures — all can complicate matters. Add to that the emotionally charged issues at stake-parenthood, power, identity — and open adoption can make for some combustible family dynamics.
When the birth mother has narrowed down her prospective adoptive parents to one or a few families, normally they arrange to meet in person. Good adoption agencies and attorneys do this in a pressure-free setting where no one is encouraged to make an immediate decision. If they are geographically distant from each other (as some adoptions are interstate, with the birth mother living in a different state from the adoptive parents), the first meeting will normally be by phone, then advance to a face-to-face meeting if the meeting by phone went as well as hoped.
The probate laws of most states in the U.S. prohibit an adoptee from automatically inheriting from his or her birth parents. This applies regardless of whether or not the birth father participated in or agreed to the adoption. Had the adoption not have taken place, any son or daughter would be an heir upon his or her father's death—regardless of who his childhood caretakers were. There can be additional complications if the birth father has subsequently moved to another state. Should a birth parent include an "unknown" adoptee in his or her will, the probate court has no obligation to fulfill this type of request, while "known" adoptees may have the same status as non-family members. However, there is some variation in probate laws from one state to another.
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.
All states allow an adoptive parents access to non-identifying information of an adoptee who is still a minor. Nearly all states allow the adoptee, upon reaching adulthood, access to non-identifying information about their relatives. Approximately 27 states allow biological parents access to non-identifying information. In addition many states give such access to adult siblings. Identifying information is any data that may lead to the positive identification of an adoptee, biological parents, or other relatives. Nearly all states permit the release of identifying information when the person whose information is sought has consented to the release. Many states ask biological parents to specify at the time of consent or surrender whether they are willing to have their identity disclosed to the adoptee when he or she is age 18 or 21.5. If consent is not on file, the information may not be released without a court order documenting good cause to release the information. A person seeking a court order must be able to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that there is a compelling reason for disclosure that outweighs maintaining the confidentiality of a party to an adoption. In Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Kansas, New Hampshire, and Oregon, there is no requirement to document good cause in order to access their birth certificates. Some groups, such as Bastard Nation, One Voice, and Origins USA, campaign for adoptees' automatic access to birth certificates in other US states.
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.
In virtually all cases, the decision is up to the adoptive parents regarding how to inform the child that he or she has been adopted, and at what age to do so, if at all. Although a non-profit adoption agency (if one is used) might mail newsletters and solicit funds from the parents, traditionally, it has been extremely rare for them to communicate directly with the child (usually, adoption agencies do not contain the word "adoption" in their name).
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.
The Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys (AAAA) is a credentialed organization dedicated to the competent and ethical practice of adoption and assisted reproduction law. It advocates for laws and policies to protect the best interests of children, the legal status of families formed through adoption and assisted reproduction, and the rights of all interested parties.
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.