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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).
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.
Thankfully, as adoptive families, birth mothers, adopted children and child-placing agencies continued to see the negatives of closed adoption and the positives of open adoption, adoption as a whole began to evolve, and for the better. Today, most adoption agencies allow the birth mother to make most of the decision in the adoption, including how much contact she wants with the adoptive family and the child. It is then the adoption agency’s job to find the appropriate adoptive family for each adoption situation.
Open adoptions have helped birth parents heal post-placement by removing any lingering fears they might have about their child’s happiness after the adoption. Through open adoptions, birth and adoptive families remain connected and a valued part of each other’s lives. Many birth and adoptive parents even come to think of each other sort of like extended family!
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Closed adoption may be beneficial in allowing a child to live a life without fear that he or she will be found by anyone who has caused harm in the past. Especially in cases where a child has been placed with a family through the foster care system, it may be necessary and provide the benefit of safety and security for the child. If the child was placed because of abuse, a closed adoption would allow for the adoptive family to feel safe and for their child to not worry about his or her well-being.
Many open adoption relationships have a warmth that comes from having shared a common struggle – allowing yourself to be vulnerable to another human being, responding to that person’s vulnerability, and being committed to a common goal that centers around the best interest of the child. Like all relationships, open adoption will inevitably have peaks and valleys; yet, as people overcome each hurdle, there are opportunities to learn what to expect from each other and ultimately gain confidence in a collective ability to make the relationships work. When it is safe to create meaningful connections for a child, openness in any adoption — however limited — can be a great gift.
Occasionally birth parents experiencing shame or sadness just have to retreat for a while. In rare cases, when safety is an issue, adoptive families may have to cut off contact. A child whose biological parent disappears experiences a double whammy. He wonders why he was placed to begin with, then feels rejected again because a birth mother no longer visits.
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.
Many states, though, still keep this information sealed even after the adoptee and the birth parents agree to know and contact each other. A second court order would be required to have this information unsealed permanently. This is well beyond the scope of the initial search, and what is covered by the payment to the intermediary. Should an adoptee subsequently lose his or her unamended birth certificate, a court order may be required to obtain another one (even if a photocopy is submitted).
Closed adoption is experienced differently in every case. Communication is the most vital factor in the adoption process. As communication about wishes, desires, and expectations increases, the more comfortable everyone involved will be in the adoption process. In a closed adoption, this communication normally occurs through an adoption agency or adoption attorney.
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.
Oftentimes the birth and adoptive parents will sign a Post-Adoption Contract (sometimes called an Open Adoption Agreement), putting in writing any promises regarding contact after the adoption is finalized. Even in those states which do not expressly have laws in this area, these agreements can usually be prepared if the parties desire to formalize the agreement. In an increasing number of US states, courts will find these agreements legally enforceable, as long as they serve the best interests of the child. It is not unusual for these agreements to be more like "handshake" agreements, although they offer less protection to a birth parent if the adoptive parent's promises were not honored.
For both birth parents and adoptive parents, the open adoption process can remove the mystery from the adoption process, and can permit a greater degree of control in the decision-making process. The open adoption process also allows adoptive parents to better answer their children's questions about who their birthparents were, and why they were adopted. Open adoptions can also help the child come to terms with being adopted, because the child's concerns can be addressed directly by everyone who was involved in the adoption process.
Although practices vary state by state, most adoptions start with the birth mother reviewing dozens of adoption profile books  or online profiles of prospective adoptive parents. Usually, these are adoptive families who have retained that agency or attorney to assist them in the adoption process. Most US states permit full openness not just regarding identities, but also personal information about each other. Just as the adoptive parents want to learn about the birth mother's life and health history, so does the birth mother want the same information about the people she is considering as the parents for her child.
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