In 2013, the film Philomena based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, opened in cinemas worldwide. It tells the true story of Philomena's 50-year-long search for her forcefully adopted Irish infant son, who was sent to the United States. She is eventually assisted by BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, which takes up the majority of the film. Starring Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as Sixsmith, it was nominated for four American and four British Academy Awards.
In an open adoption, as I define it, the adopters and the birthparents both know each other's full names, both first and last names. (It is not open if only one side has identifying information about the other.) They may agree to exchange photos and letters directly, without using the agency or attorney as a middleman. Sometimes a semi-open adoption later becomes an open adoption, if both parties decide that they want it that way.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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These are just some of the possible scenarios that fall under an open adoption. For older children and teen adoptees, their adoptions are almost always open because they already have spent a good deal of their life with their birth parents. Therefore, they most likely will have some sort of identifying information about their birth parents or other members of their family, such as their siblings who might have been placed separately.
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.
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.
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.
Open adoption is now the most widely practiced form of adoption in the United States. In an open adoption, identifying information is shared, including names, phone numbers, and email addresses. Additionally, an open adoption includes varying degrees of openness after the adoption process is finalized. This typically includes the exchange of emails, letters, pictures, and phone calls. A fully open adoption also includes in-person visits. Fully open adoptions can also include extended family members, such as birthgrandparents and siblings.