As you set out on the road to adopting a new baby, the idea of an open adoption can be tough to swallow. Won't it confuse the child to have two sets of parents? Won't your relationship with the birth parents be awkward? But in reality, only about 5 percent of infant adoptions in the U.S. are "closed" today -- that means, in more than 9 of 10 cases, there's some level of contact with the birth family.
According to a recent report from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 55 percent of U.S. infant adoptions are open, meaning the adoptive family remains in contact with the birth family as their child grows. An additional 40 percent are "mediated," where the adoption agency or attorney facilitates communication between the two families. Overall, 36 percent of kids who were adopted, whether internationally, domestically, or through foster care, have some contact with their birth families.
In an open adoption, the adoptive and birth families work together to determine how often they'll be in touch, and whether that means calling, texting, emailing, meeting in person, or a combination of the above. According to a report from the Child Welfare Information Gateway, adoptive families and birth families make contact about seven times annually in the first few years after the adoption. Research shows that adoptive and birth families tend to lose contact as time goes by, with just 40 percent maintaining a relationship after 14 years. However, among the adoptive families who do continue to communicate with birth parents, the frequency of contact increases over time. The Evan B. Donaldson report found that greater levels of openness are associated with more satisfaction among adoptive families and adopted kids.
"The day we found out the birth mom had chosen us was amazing," says Anna Bonick, a 35-year-old in Des Plaines, Illinois, who adopted her 4-year-old daughter, Elise, when she was 4 months old. Bonick and her husband, Mike, also have an 8-year-old son by birth. "It's almost more profound than when you find out you're pregnant, because someone is choosing you -- in our case, we were chosen over six other families."
It's up to the two families to agree on boundaries. At a minimum, it's simple information exchange: "You want and need info about your child's history, biological issues, medical questions... If she asks about her family history, you already have the relationship, so you can find answers on a range of issues," explains Adam Pertman, Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. "Very often, strong relationships develop -- remember, it may turn out you actually like these people."
From a health perspective, the benefits of open adoption are undeniable. Contact with the birth family means access to medical history that has implications for your child now and in the future. But experts and adoptive families agree that open adoption's perks can often extend beyond health records.
"It destigmatizes adoption, and your kid picks up on that," Pertman says. "You don't have to bond with the person who created her, but there's a positive impact on the child when the people who care most about her care enough to have a relationship."
Still, some adoptive families do end up bonding with their child's birth family. "So much of the work we're doing -- making ourselves vulnerable, opening our hearts to each other -- is so that someday Elise can step in and take the reins of the relationship and make it hers," Bonick says. She communicates with Elise's birth mother at least once a week, often sending pictures and videos. "My daughter's birth mom is so brave and strong -- qualities I already see in Elise. I genuinely love her."
One downside of open adoption, Pertman says, is the potential for feelings of insecurity to crop up in adoptive parents (does she love her birth mother more than me?). And open adoption, much like any relationship, takes work; Bonick notes that two years in, they and Elise's birth mother still dance around what their boundaries should be and how often they want to talk. But research indicates that open adoption's benefits -- especially those for the child -- far outweigh possible emotional pitfalls.
Sometimes contact with the birth family isn't possible; perhaps they live on the other side of the world, or they don't want to communicate, or mental illness or emotional issues in a birth parent makes it impossible for her to have a healthy relationship with your child.
When this is the case, it's crucial to continue to honor the birth family for your child's benefit. "Give the child the opportunity to ritualize the loss in some way -- light a candle on Mother's Day or their adoption day," says Rita Taddonio, a licensed social worker and head clinician at Spence-Chapin, a private, not-for-profit adoption agency in New York. "You're creating an environment where they can grieve if they want to."
Later in life, your child may want to track down his or her birth family. The Child Welfare Information Gateway offers a portal to help you begin the search.
Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.