Updated: 01 July 2013
The following definition changes our notion of adoption from a legal process which divides families to one which unites them in a new configuration: "Adoption is a means of providing some children with security and meeting their developmental needs by legally transferring ongoing parental responsibilities from their birthparents to their adoptive parents, recognising that in so doing, we have created a new kinship network that forever links these two families through the child. In adoption, as in marriage, the new legal family relationship does not signal the absolute end of one family and the beginning of another, nor does it sever the psychological tie to an earlier family. Rather it expands the family boundaries of all who are involved" (Reitz & Watson, 1992).
What is open adoption?
Open adoptions are not shared parenting arrangements as both the birth and adoptive parents have their own separate and distinctive roles.
At its most basic, open adoption is where each of the parties knows the names of the other, and usually the address or contact details. It is not new; prior to 1955, parties to an adoption could know each others’ names, consent only being valid when signed to named applicants.
The Adoption Act 1955 does not prevent birth parents and adoptive parents from meeting and sharing information before the adoption is arranged. As adoption is a complete transfer of the actual parenting role from one set of parents to another, the first birth registration is closed to inspection and a new adoptive “birth registration “is made.
The secrecy which the 1955 Act brought about was in making the original birth entry ‘unavailable’ except on special grounds. People could actually know information about one another if they were determined to do so, but the stigma of illegitimacy and ex-nuptial births conditioned the attitudes of society to ‘protect’ the child and the birth mother from this being known. Along with this view went the belief that an adopted child would benefit from a “clean break” with the birth family in order to be able to form secure bonds with the adoptive family.
In practice modern open adoptions vary, ideally by mutual agreement. Some are very open arrangements in which there is frequent direct contact between birthparents, their wider family members, and the adoptive parents and the child. At the other end of the range are situations in which people do not have face-to-face contact, but maintain some connection with each other via e-mail, letters and/or ‘phone calls, possibly at pre-arranged times.
Open adoption does not prevent feelings of loss
In adoption, as in other situations in which the child is parted from his or her mother, the child experiences a profound loss of the known world. Nancy Verrier calls this the ‘primal wound’ (1993). She believes that it is necessary for parents to acknowledge this loss in order to allow the child to form a new primary attachment.
The general feeling of birth families has been that current knowledge about the well-being of the child has helped them cope with their grief. By being able to grieve, feelings become easier over time. Birthparents are less likely to experience fantasies of guilt and shame, or to wonder if their child will ever think about them, or feel badly towards them for having placed them for adoption (Grotevant & McRoy, 1998).
Adoptive parents have reported that they feel secure in their role as a parent, having been chosen by the birthparents to raise the child. Contact with birth families has given them the opportunity to obtain health and behavioural information at times when it has been needed. They feel less fearful of the birthmother turning-up unexpectedly wanting to claim the child.
Both adoptive applicants and prospective parents need time to learn about how openness can be arranged and time to think about it and talk it through with those close to them.
Applicants encounter the concept of birth family as an on-going reality of the child’s existence during the Ways to Care preparation programme. Whether or not the child ever knows the birth family (as they may not in cases of abandonment) the genetic continuity and the pre-birth experience are ineradicable. The idea of the original parents is one that remains in the mind of the separated child forever, as the experience of post-adoption information legislation has shown world-wide. Applicants may need time to explore the reality for themselves in the social work assessment interviews following Ways to Care.
Birthparents can seldom be provided with a group experience, but are encouraged to view relevant DVDs in the office, and to attend any support groups available and/or meet with other birthparents who are willing to make themselves available for consultation.
Refer to the Resource: Contact agreements (DOCX 20 KB) for an example of what a contact agreement might look like.
Open adoption has no legal mandate
Open adoption is not supported by statute. Adoptive applicants, having had the opportunity to explore how they feel able to parent a child not born to them, will indicate clearly in their profile their readiness or otherwise to meet with birthparents, who will make their choice accordingly.
If either party declines to meet, their wishes are to be respected. Both parties need to be aware that in future years they might regret having lost that opportunity. Assist by exploring the reasons, fears and/or anxieties they may have about meeting with the ‘other’ parents of ‘their’ child. Provide the necessary preparation and support to ensure the emotional strength and self-esteem to face the meeting.
If they remain unwilling, encourage parties to keep their options open for a later date when they might feel differently about meeting.
Open adoption and whāngai
Grotevant, H.D. & McRoy, R.G. (1998). Openness in Adoption: Exploring Family Connections. California, USA: Sage Publications.
Reitz, M. & Watson, K. (1992). Adoption and The Family System: Strategies For Treatment. New York, USA: The Guilford Press.
Verrier, N. (1993). The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child. Baltimore, USA: Gateway Press.