What Open Adoption Is Really Like

Open adoption accounts for the majority of domestic adoptions. Here's how one adoptee and their family navigate these complex relationships.

<p>Shaw Photography | Getty</p>

Shaw Photography | Getty

We already had two beautiful boys when we decided to foster. We wanted more kids, but I'd had difficult pregnancies, and there were children in care waiting for families. Why not us? We fell in love with our first placement, a bright, active little boy, who quickly came up for adoption.

Adoption comes in many forms—foster care, kinship arrangements, domestic, international, and through private agencies. According to a report by the Children's Bureau, an office of the administration for children and families, the majority of adoptions in the United States have some degree of openness. Open adoptions account for 60% to 70% of domestic adoptions. In open adoptions, adoptive families and birth parents—also commonly called first parents—have the ability to maintain some degree of contact.

Atlanta-based Leah Atkins is an interior designer and parent to two children with open adoptions. Atkins says people act shocked when she and her husband mention their children's birth parents, but they wouldn't have it any other way.

"We were chosen by their birth mothers while they were each pregnant," says Atkins, "and we adopted our children at birth. We talk to the birth mothers every day, and they have become two of our closest friends, as well as becoming amazing friends with each other."

Openness in adoption occurs on a spectrum. Some adoptive and birth parents share two-way, direct communication. Others keep in touch anonymously through a mediating agency. Birth parents may contact adoptees directly or through their adoptive parents via meetings, texts, calls, letters, or social media. Arrangements often evolve over time.

At first, we felt most comfortable with one-way communication with our son's birth mother. We were provided with an address, and I sent her photos and letters on his birthday, using the agency's return address. We kept in touch with half-siblings, who'd also been adopted. We created a book about his adoption, which included photos of his birth mom. The book was one of his favorites to read at bedtime.


From Secrecy to Social Media

Despite the prevalence of openness today, adoption's history in the United States is marred by secrecy. After World War II, adoption agencies and state laws promoted confidentiality. They actively prevented contact among the adoption triad—birth families, adoptive parents, and adoptees. Many adoptees and birth families suffered from unresolved shame and grief.

Adoptees and their families spoke out against the harm caused by secrecy, and attitudes slowly changed. Many state laws were overturned to open adoption records previously sealed. Agencies facilitated varying degrees of contact between families and adoptees. The rise of social media and DNA testing gave adoptees and birth families new avenues to reconnect on their own.

Kyle Bullock, Chicago, was raised in a transracial adoption. At age 16, he found his birth mom through MySpace. Bullock, now in his thirties, compares the experience of connecting with his birth family to finding the missing piece of a puzzle. "Finally, you find it, and you put it together, and you can see the picture." Bullock has a strong relationship with his white, adoptive parents but says talking to his birth family allows him to process being a Black man and issues like police brutality.

Today's research supports claims that open adoption is beneficial for kids. Studies show that adoptions with some degree of openness lead to the best outcomes for adoptees. Adoptees in open adoptions fare better socially and psychologically and are more secure in their identity than those in closed adoptions.

John DeGarmo, Ed.D., is the founder and director of The Foster Care Institute and parent of six children, three of whom are in open adoptions. Dr. DeGarmo says navigating birth family relationships can be challenging at times, yet also rewarding. "Open adoption benefits both sides, especially the child," says Dr. DeGarmo. Connection gives adoptees a chance to resolve feelings of loss and get answers only birth families can provide.

Our arrangement of one-way communication with our son's birth mom remained stable for many years. Then, at age 9, while reading his adoption book, he asked, "When can I meet her?" We knew we needed to do more, but we also worried. Was he ready? Was it safe?


Slow and Steady

Parents whose children experienced abuse or neglect may fear that opening contact will retraumatize their adoptees. Despite the benefits of open adoption, says Dr. DeGarmo, it's important to respect the child's comfort level and put their physical, mental, and emotional safety first. When the child is ready and if the family decides to make contact, Dr. DeGarmo advises supervised meetings at a neutral location, like a park or coffee shop. Adoptees can choose a code word to indicate privately to their adoptive parents if they want to leave.

Some families are never able to make contact with their adoptee's birth parents. "Openness is the spirit in which you approach your child's biological roots as much as it is anything you do," says Lori Holden, adoptive mom and author of The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole. When contact isn't possible, says Holden, adoptive parents can reach out to extended family members, like siblings and grandparents. They can also honor the important part first families played in forming their amazing children.

One morning this summer, I waited nervously in a steamy park with my son. We'd learned that another of our son's half-siblings had entered care. This time, the adoption was open. We kept in touch with the adoptive family. The contact had been highly positive, and his birth mom was doing well. We decided to reach out.

Soon, a woman I had only seen before in pictures and briefly across a courtroom approached us. She looked nervous too. She introduced herself, and my son smiled. She smiled back. Relief washed over me. One of his questions—"When can I meet her?"—finally had an answer. I hope that, with time, more answers will follow.