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.
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.
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Likely the most common arrangement in open adoptions is for the adoptive parents to commit to sending the birth mother photos of the child (and themselves as a family) each year, and short written updates, until the child reaches the age of 18. Often these photos and updates will be sent more than just once a year, such as the child's birthday or other significant events. Sometimes an intermediary is selected to receive and forward the updates, and sometimes it is done directly. This can be through mail or email. Some adoptions are more open than just sending photos and updates and include face-to-face contact. The amount of contact can vary greatly from just once in the first year, to multiple times annually throughout the child's life. Some of the adoptees raised in open adoption are now in adulthood and are writing about the experience of growing up in an open adoption.
Historically, the four primary reasons for married couples to obtain a child via closed adoption have been (in no particular order) infertility, asexuality, having concern for a child's welfare (i.e. would not likely be adopted by others), and to ensure the sex of the child (a family with five girls and no boys, for example). In 1917, Minnesota was the first U.S. state to pass an adoption confidentiality and sealed records law. Within the next few decades, most United States states and Canadian provinces had a similar law. Usually, the reason for sealing records and carrying out closed adoptions is said to be to "protect" the adoptee and adoptive parents from disruption by the natural parents and in turn, to allow natural parents to make a new life.
Increasingly common nowadays is the "open" adoption process, in which the adoptive parents actually meet and usually stay in touch with the birthparents. Each adoption is a unique experience and the degree to which there is openness and interaction between adoptive parents and birth parents varies. It depends on how comfortable all of the parties are with the process and circumstances. However, most adoption agencies now encourage some degree of openness.
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.
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.
A 1996 study reported in Child Development found that all the children studied “reported positive levels of self-esteem, curiosity about their birthparents, and satisfaction with the openness situation” regardless of whether their adoptions were closed, semi-open, or open. What this seems to mean is that the child's sense of security in his adoptive family is more important than contact with the birth family.