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"Open" or "Closed" Adoption?

Learn the difference between an open and a closed adoption, and find out which one is better for you and your family.

"Open" or "Closed" Adoption?

Familybuilding Tips

In an open adoption, the adoption arranger often creates a contract that spells out what is expected of each side; for example, how often photographs and letters will be exchanged, and how they will be exchanged (either directly or through the adoption arranger).

If one side reneges on the agreement, the other may be able to take the matter to court, depending on which state the parties live in. However, in most cases, the contracts do not appear to be enforceable. But parties should be encouraged to act in good faith.

When you decide to adopt, you'll also need to think about whether the adoption will be confidential, semi-open, or open. Everyone seems to have different definitions for these terms. For our purposes, I prefer the following definitions.

  • In a confidential adoption, neither the adopter nor the birthparents know each other, nor do they ever meet. Instead, all the arrangements and paperwork occur through a middleman, usually an adoption agency or an attorney. Some people call this a closed adoption, although I prefer the terms confidential and traditional because they sound nonjudgmental. A confidential adoption doesn't mean that the adopters and birthparents know nothing about each other. What it means is they have no identifying information about each other.
  • Adoption Alert

    If you adopt your child from foster care, an open adoption may not be possible, either because the agency has a policy of not releasing identifying information for any reason or because doing so in your situation isn't in the best interests of the child. Most international adoptions are confidential as well.

  • Usually, semi-open refers to an adoption in which the adopters and birthparents meet once or twice and on a first-name-only basis. In addition, they may agree to exchange pictures and letters on an annual or fairly infrequent basis through the adoption arranger. (If your adoption arranger advocates a semi-open adoption, be sure to ask for an exact definition of her terms.)
  • 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.

Many wannabe adopters don't realize that they have more choices than they know. For example, if they want an open adoption, but their agency does not advocate open adoptions, they can choose another agency.

Conversely, if they want a confidential adoption, they should not feel unduly pressured into agreeing to an open adoption. Adopters who agree to an open adoption against their wishes may later find it difficult to fulfill their side of the agreement (for example, sending the birthmother letters and photos). This is terribly unfair to both the birthmother and the child. Agreeing to an open adoption when they don't want one is also unfair to the adopters themselves.

The exact definition of open adoption varies from agency to agency, as well as between attorneys. So you need to ask the agency or attorney how they define open adoption.

Familybuilding Tips

Some studies indicate that open adoption is a better choice for everyone involved, while others point away from that conclusion.

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.

For many agencies, open adoption means that the birthmothers choose pre-approved families from five or six resumés or autobiographies.

Some (not many) agencies encourage a complete disclosure of identities between birthparents and adopting parents, as well as an ongoing close relationship. Agencies that support fully open disclosures believe that an open adoption is a better way for both adoptive parents and birthparents—as well as the children. Agencies that don't support open adoption feel just as strongly that continued contact is not a good idea for any of the parties.

The pros and cons of open adoption have been endlessly debated by social workers and attorneys. It appears that those who support open adoptions are completely committed to them; those who believe in confidential adoptions seem equally convinced that open adoptions are catastrophic. Adopters need to deal with an adoption arranger that they feel comfortable with. The following table presents some classic differences between the two styles of adoption.

Open Adoption Pros and Cons
Pros Cons

Your child will never have to search for birthparents. Your child may never wish to search for birthparents
The adopted adult can easily establish a relationship with birthparents. The birthparents may want more or less contact than the adopted adult wants.
The minor child may be able to have a positive relationship with birthparents. An unstable birthparent could cause problems.
You may feel more relaxed about the adoption knowing exactly who the birthmother is. You may feel less of a sense of entitlement and see yourself as not a "real mother."
You gain more "extended family." Do you really want more extended family?
The birthmother may be less likely to change her mind about the adoption because she knows you. Open adoption may attract birth mothers who don't really want their babies adopted, and see open adoption as "halfway."
The birthmother may be less likely to change her mind about the adoption because it would hurt you too much. The birthmother might feel she should have more input into childrearing than you'd like.
As time passes, if the birthmother has a change in her health status, she can notify you about conditions that could later affect your child. Often people lose track of each other and the birthmother may not tell you about health changes.

Bottom line: Make sure you completely understand what level of openness is expected of you, and that you're comfortable with any future obligations you agree to before committing to an adoption.

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