“It removes the mystery, but it doesn’t remove the grief,” said Claude Riedel, a psychologist and family therapist who co-directs the Adoptive Family Counseling Center in Minnesota. “The reality is that, at certain stages, it’s normal to have questions: why did you choose not to parent me, not to keep me? And there may be complexities: have you kept your other children, but not me?”
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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".
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.
Open adoption, sometimes called fully disclosed adoption, refers to a continuum of options that enables the birth parents and adoptive parents to have information about and communication with one another before placement, after placement, or both. Open adoption may include the exchange of communication between birth and adoptive parents that includes letters, emails, telephone calls, text messages and/or face-to-face visits. Regardless of the level of openness in adoption, open adoption is based on relationships — and, like all relationships, the people involved grow, change, and evolve over time.
Reunion registries were designed so adoptees and their birth parents, siblings or other family members can locate one another at little or no cost. In these mutual consent registries, both parties must have registered in order for there to be a match. Most require the adoptee to be at least 18 years old. Though they did not exist until late in the 20th century, today there are many World Wide Web pages, chat rooms, and other online resources that offer search information, registration and support.
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.
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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.
Although open adoptions are thought to be a relatively new phenomenon, most adoptions in the United States until the twentieth century were open. Until the 1930s, most adoptive parents and biological parents had contact at least during the adoption process. In many cases, adoption was seen as a social support: young children were adopted out not only to help their parents (by reducing the number of children they had to support) but also to help another family by providing an apprentice.
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Choosing an open or a closed adoption is just one question among many that you'll face in the adoption process. There are also important legal questions that will arise as you take on the custody and care of an adopted child. A skilled family law attorney experienced in adoption cases will be able to set your mind at ease and ensure a smooth process.
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.
Closed adoption, not to be confused with sealed records, is an adoption in which the adoptive family and the birthmother never meet and know nothing or very little about one another. With the advent of open adoption, closed adoptions have become the exception in domestic adoption rather than the rule. The term closed adoption is most often used in relation to post-adoption contact, whereas the term sealed records is related to the access of legal documentation surrounding the birth and placement of the adopted child once the adoption is final. It is entirely possible to have a closed adoption and unsealed records or an open adoption with sealed records. The two practices are not mutually exclusive.
The placement of older children can take two widely divergent paths. Generally speaking when a child has bonded to a birth parent then a need for an adoptive placement arises, it is usually critical for that child's emotional welfare to maintain ties with the birth parent. Sometimes a parent raised a child, but a problem has arisen, and parenting is no longer possible, and there are no family members able to take over the parenting role, so adoption is the best option.
Closed adoption, also called a confidential or traditional adoption, refers to an adoption in which there is no relationship between the adoptive family and birth parents. In a closed adoption, the birth parents and adoptive family arrange the adoption via a facilitator, attorney or a case worker at an agency. Neither member of the adoption triad knows identifying information about the other. By opting for a closed adoption, a future birth mother is trying to have as little involvement as possible with the placement process. For some women, this is a way to distance themselves from the emotional decisions associated with placement. However, the distance is something many adopters fear will make it easier for a birth mother to change her mind about placement.
“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.”
Choosing between an open and closed adoption depends entirely on the adoptive family's preferences. It's strongly advised that couples that do not entirely support an open adoption should not engage in one. However, it's more rare to find an agency or attorney that is completely comfortable with a closed adoption and will not suggest a semi-open adoption to a birth mother.
Like any relationship, open adoption relationships evolve over time. Post-adoption contact may increase or decrease, or the nature of the contact may change along with people’s changing lives. However, even in the most open adoption relationship, the birth parent is not a co-parent but rather another very important person in the child’s life. The child’s adoptive parent(s) are his or her legal parent(s) and they have all rights and responsibility for the child. Most importantly, when birth parents and adoptive parents set out to forge their relationship, the child’s needs must always be paramount.
The nature of adoption has changed greatly over the years, and open adoptions are one of the many ways that birth parents can take charge of their adoption plans. Instead of having to wonder whether or not they chose the right family or how their child is doing, they will always know. In an open adoption, birth parents have the opportunity to get to know the family they have chosen for their child, which puts many people at ease and makes the difficult decision of adoption much easier.
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.
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Some states have confidential intermediary systems. This often requires a person to petition the court to view the sealed adoption records, then the intermediary conducts a search similar to that of a private investigator. This can be either a search for the birth mother at the request of the adoptee, or vice versa. Quite often, in the many years which have passed since the adoptee was born, a birth mother or female adoptee has both moved to another address, and married or remarried resulting in a change of her surname. While this can make the search difficult and time consuming, a marriage certificate may provide the needed clue as to the person's whereabouts. If and when the intermediary is able to contact the birth mother (or adoptee), she is informed that her adopted child (or birth mother) is inquiring about her. In the few states that have open adoption records, should this party indicate that he or she does not want to be contacted, by law, the information would not be given out. Upon completion of the search in which the birth mother agrees to be contacted, the intermediary usually sends the adoptee the official unamended birth certificate obtained from the court. The adoptive parents' application to an adoption agency remains confidential, however.