Critical Study of Open Adoption and the Symptoms of Adoption


For much of the 20th century adoption were generally closed and confidential in nature. They were secrecy. It means since birthmother signed relinquishment papers, she would never see her child again and typically would never know about the future of this child. Secrecy adoptions were phenomenon which occurred in the mid 1800s and were at its peak in the early 1900s. Confidential adoptions were primarily designed to rescue the children of unmarried woman. Secrecy about adoption was also encouraged by societal attitude about sexuality – people excluded from society unmarried pregnant women and their child. These closed and secretive practices were developed to protect all three parties of the adoption triad (birth parents, adoptive parents and children).

Confidential adoptions were thought to ensure birth parents’ right to privacy and at the same time it lets protect unwed birth mothers from the stigma of “illegitimacy”. These practices also protected adopted children from social ridicule and adoptive parents from the humiliation of their infertility (Xiaojia Ge, 2008).

It was also assumed that birthmother wanted to maintain anonymity and forget that she had ever given birth to the chid. People also believed that confidential approach facilitate relinquishment of the child (emotionally and legally).

From the beginning of 1940s, social workers in every state (USA) convinced legislators to pass laws which were preventing adult adoptees and their birthparents from learning about each others. For decades birthmothers, adoptees and adoptive parents were protected from the stigmas of illegitimacy, unwed motherhood and infertility by stressing secrecy, anonymity and confidentiality in adoption process.

With the civil rights movement of 1960s, secrecy become a synonym of discrimination. In courts some adopted children maintained that their civil rights had been violated, because they had no access to information which another people had about them. Since these time also contraception and abortion become more available – marriage were no longer viewed as an essential prerequisite for a respectable pregnancy.

Today children rights to know their identity is assured by international and national lows. This right is assured for example in Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention was adopted and opened for signature on 20 of November 1989 (the 30th anniversary of Declaration of the Rights of the Child). It came into force on 2 September 1990, after it was ratified by the required number of nations. As of November 2009, 194 countries have ratified it. It means all this 194 countries are obligated by international low to assure children right to know their origins. According to the article 7 of convention: child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and. as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.

It took long time to accept and create the low which can assure this right. There has been gradual change in societal practices and views around parenting since the 1970s. Since these time female-headed households and pregnancy without marriage had become more and more accepted. Also tracing one’s genealogical roots and ethnic heritage had gained acceptance. At this time more and more adoptees and birthparents returned to adoption agencies seeking additional background information.

It was shown that adult adoptees had suffered a lot because they had no access to information about their origins and identities. Adoptees expressed their pain which appeared as a result of living in lie.

The changes were causes also by birthparents. They expressed that they did not forget about the children they had placed for adoption. They also always wondered if those children were alive, well, or knew they were adopted. They said that secrecy in adoption process made their loss more complex and difficult.

Another cause for changes come from adoptive parents. They expressed their frustration and feeling of helpless over their inability to help children connect with biological parents and impossibility to say their child about his/her heritage.

All these different voices and desires bring changes in adoption process. Nowadays we see that frequency of open adoption increases. Open adoptions becoming norm as stigma surrounding unwed births diminished and non-martial parenthood become more and more accepted. Openness in any adoption should be based upon mutual agreement between birthparents, adoptive parents, adoption agency and the adopted child, if age is appropriate. Nowadays it is quite common for birth and adoptive families to have some degree of postplacement contact with one another. Open adoption, in contrast to closed, is characterized by contact and communication between birth and adoptive parents. We cannot, however, share adoption exclusively on open and close. The degree of openness varies widely. Some adoption have minimal openness, for example, the two sets of parents never meet or talk with each other, share last names, but before the birth they exchange letters and photographs through adoption agencies. Other adoption can be much more open, for example before placement the two sets of parents meet, exchange complete names and addresses. Sometimes they go together to the doctor, gynecologist during the pregnancy, or even they live with each other. They can continue contact through adoptees’ childhood. Of course between these two examples of contact, there exist many another variables and the number of permutations is limitless. In essence, open adoption mean exchange of information before or/and after placement, either by letters (with or without photographs), telephone calls, or in face-to-face meetings. In the case of open adoption (as in the case of close adoption) birthparents need legally relinquish all parental claims and rights to the child. The adoptive parents are the legal parents.

There is no one and clear opinion about what is better: open or close adoption. Both of them have some advantages and disadvantage. For example opponents of open adoption say that continued contact between the adopted child and birth parents impedes the attachment and creating family ties between adoptive parents and their adopted child. It means that open adoption can bring destructive relationships and loyalty conflicts for adoptive family. In case of open adoption birthparents can intrude on the adoptive family and disturb their equilibrium. It can also cause the adoptee’s uncertainty about their identity.

In the case of open adoption, adoptive parents can feel also less in control and less secure in their parental role. It can happen also that adoptive parents feel need to distance from birthmother’s pain, loos and regrets which they live together in case of open adoption. On the other hand birthparents don’t want to hurt birth mother more, to stop or limited their contact. One of the question which occurs in case of open adoption is: how to set limits on frequency and type of postplacement contact without hurting feelings of birthparents.

Another disadvantages mentioned by adoptive parents is pressure which is put on them. It is the pressure to be the perfect parent when members of birthfamily are around.

Adoptive parents are also afraid about the influence of birthparents on adoptee. They are nervous that child can identify more with birth parents and they background than with his or her “new family”. Why they are afraid about thatMost of the birthparents of adoptee come from lower social class, they have low education level. Adoptive parents simply do not want their child fallow this way.

Among opinions against open adoption we can also hear that open adoption interfere with the grieving process that is essential for the mental health of the birth mother by not allowing her to experience a finality of the separation and a full mourning experience.

On the other hand some researches show that open adoption may help facilitate healthy adjustment to grief and loss. It means: relationship which develop between birthmothers and adoptive families in open adoption mediate the experience of grief. It occurs also thanks to well-being of the child from whom the birthmothers made an adoption plan, facilitated their coping with grief.

Grief is defined as the range of feelings, behaviours and thoughts which can occur as a response to a loss. The reaction, responses are different. Everyone can live this time in different way. To the responses on loss we can include: anger, crying, withdrawal, guilt, sadness, anxiety or numbness. Birthmother’s feeling of loss should be viewed as healthy and appropriate, regardless of which of the feelings associate this time. Resolution of these feelings results in the birthmother forming a new, integral identity in which the past is not denied.

Some researches shown that close adoption means: prolonged feelings of loos and continued mourning, depression, somatic symptoms, restless anxiety, anger and often intense attachment to and over protection of children subsequently born to and raised by birthmothers after the placement. Some researches reported even psychological impairment of mothers who didn’t receive appropriate support after adoption (Cinda L. Christian et al, 1997).

Study made by Cinda L. Christian and others (1997) support the opinion that fully disclosed adoption lets better cope with grief. In this study researchers examined grief resolution. Indicators of unresolved grief including: crying during interview, denying or repressing the past, expressions of guilt or regret, depression, dissatisfaction with the placement, desire to reclaim the child, continuing nightmares about the child, and inability to move beyond the placement decision.

Indicators of good resolution included among others: positive, optimistic opinions about decision, acceptance of the decision, ability to separate self from the placed child, demonstration of empathy for the child and adoptive family, ability to move beyond the placement decision and to express satisfaction from current life.

The results of this study shown that 4 to 12 years after placing child, birthmothers who have ongoing contact with the adoptive family either ongoing mediated or fully disclosed adoption shown better resolution of grief than birthmothers whose contact has stopped (in time-limited mediated adoptions). Moreover birthmothers in open adoption had significantly better grief resolution than those in confidential adoptions. This studies shown that 30% of birthmothers in close adoption, 38% in time-limited mediated adoption, 10% in ongoing mediated and 11% in fully disclosed adoption had very poor grief resolution. This results show that within each type of adoption, regardless of the time since adoption, there were birthmothers who were still experiencing problems with grief resolution, as well as, there were birthmothers who had resolved their grief issues. These findings mean that here is no one good way of placement child to another family.

Birthmothers with ongoing contact with adoptive parents have better grief resolution, they are much more reassured of their child’s well-being, and feel they had made the right decision. Some of birthmothers with ongoing mediated contact reported feeling ambivalent upon receiving pictures of their child. Even though they are pleased that they have opportunity to receive updated information. Having first-hand knowledge and an opportunity to acknowledge the adoption placement through actual observation and conversation about the adoption may have led to better grief resolutions for many birthmothers.

Trusting and secure relationship with the adoptive family (through direct or indirect contact) may lead some birthmothers to the gradual acceptance of the adoptive parents entitlement to the child. This situation allows also to the birthmothers to develop positive feelings about their own role with the adoptive child.

There was one another factor which influence grief resolution of birthmothers – current relationship with birthfather. This factor occurred regardless of openness level. Birthmothers who were still in relationship with birthfathers were at greater risk for prolonged grieving. It is difficult for these birthmothers to stay with birthfathers after having chosen to place their child for adoption – these birthmothers may feel exaggerated guilt and blame regarding the choices they have made.

Another factor which influence grieving is religion interpretation and giving birth to another child. It means accurately inability to have a child after placement one for adoption. These two factors sometimes trigger past losses and rekindle old feelings of helplessness, regret, or anger associated with placement.

To sum up the results of this study: there is no one option which is the best for everyone. Some of birthmothers can feel better with fully disclosed adoption and another with confidential adoption.

Another argument which support open adoption is that for a birth mothers openness in adoption allows her a more active role in the child’s future. Thanks to possibility to choose open adoption, birth mother can be assured she will receive information about child-well being.

Another issue related to satisfaction from adoption process is parent’s feelings toward close and open adoption. In study made by Siegel (Siegel, 1993) respondents were asked, “Why, if any, were your initial fears, anxieties, and concerns about the adoption being open?” Most of the parents who took part in this study answered that they felt some fear on the beginning. Many of them were reluctant to deal with the pain of birth mother. Some of these adoptive parents were afraid also that that the birth mothers would want their babes back, even that babies could be kidnapped after adoption. Parents expressed also that open adoption on the beginning seemed to them weird, uncomfortable or awkward. Some adoptive parents were worried also they can be rejected by birthmothers. One adoptive mother said:

A year or so ago, the idea of birth mother were so threatening to me. It was just so terrible obstacle between me and getting baby. At that point, I didn’t want to deal with birthmother at all. I wanted my own baby. And if I couldn’t have that, I wanted the closest thing I could get to it.

On the other hand the proponent of open adoption suggest that adoptive parents in open adoption benefit significantly from information about birth parents through ongoing process with them. In case of open adoption, adoptive parents can comparatively easy gain knowledge about their adopted child’s medical and mental health histories, ethnic and cultural background, and reasons for adoption. Open adoption lets parents to feel more sure about this knowledge (it is better for parents to ask all questions, to gain knowledge about the child by their own than from intermediary person). All this information can have significant influence on rearing process of the adopted child. Adoptive parents can gain also “troubling” information, for example, about lack of parental care or birthparents alcoholism, substance abuse, or genetic risk factor. This kind of information are, in truth, difficult but for adoptive parents it is better to know all of them. Thanks to these information, adoptive parents can know what to expect and they can be prepare for some difficulties, troubles which may occur in the future. In this view open adoption helps adoptive parents feel more, rather than less, secure in their parental role. Adoptive parents feel that birth parents can give them important information about child and it makes adoptive parents more competent. Adoptive parents can feel also they received explicit consent to parent child from his or her birth parents.

Some parents mention also the need to know that birthmother had chosen adoption freely and willingly. This knowledge diminish adoptive parents guilt about having someone else child and alleviated fears that the birthmother would come in the future and demand her rights to the child. What is also important for adoptive parents – it is the need to know that birth parents felt good about the decision which they undertook. Otherwise adoptive parents could have moral doubts and wonder if birthparents think adoption had been mistake and they regret it.

Some parents in the Siegel study (Siegel, 1993) mentioned also that they felt more pleasure at knowing that the birthparents would welcome the children according to the belief that the more people love their child, the better.

Openness in adoption has advantages also for children. Information about birthparents are much more accessible to the children. Thanks to that, they can decide if they want to search birthparents later in life. Adoptive parents who know last names and addresses of birthparents, feel more helpful for their adoptee. They can freely hand over this information to their children. Children can have also more adequate information about their biological heritage and about the reasons for adoption.

Open adoption is perceived also as good for birth parents. First of all some people mention that it is more human and compassionate to enable the birthparents to choose the children’s family. Open adoption helps also to mitigate birth mothers’ feelings of pain and loss, which in turn resulting in less destructive behaviour and greater emotional-well being. Thanks to the direct contact which birth mothers have with adoptive parents, they can feel assured of their child’s well-being and welfare. Adoptive mothers can see their child is in safe and caring home. This knowledge is really helpful for birthmothers and their well-being. In contrast in the case of close adoption, birth mother often feel isolated, have unresolved feelings of guilt and self-blame. They feel also uncertain of the well-being of the child. Meanwhile greater certainty of the child’s well-being not only may alleviate the birth mother’s grief but even may contribute to her sense of pride regarding the decision.

Opponents of the close adoption mention that this kind of adoption is a way to punish woman for being sexually active.

It can be difficult to examine the effects of openness and closeness in adoption on birth parents, adoptive parents or children. One of the reason to give clear answer on this question is that this effects may very depending on how long ago the placement occurred. So the length of time since placement may very well be a confounding factor.

In the study of Xiaojia Ge and others, researches using 323 matched parties of birth mothers and adoptive parents, examined the association between the degree of adoption openness (e.g. contact and knowledge between parties) and birth and adoptive parents postadoption adjustment shortly after the adoption placement (6 to 9 months). A unique future of this studies was the inclusion of birth fathers (112 birth fathers took part in these researches). The results of this study shown that for adoptive parents and birth mothers the degree of openness in the adoption was significantly and positively associated with satisfaction with the adoption process shortly after the adoptive placement. Increased openness was also significantly related to the better postplacement adjustment of birth mothers. This finding was also further strengthen by interviewers’ reports of their impression of birth mothers’ well-being. This study shown also that levels of choice or control birth fathers had in determining the degree of openness was positively associated with birth fathers’ satisfaction toward the adoption experience.

There are opinion that children benefit most from openness in adoption. Proponents of open adoption list many benefits for children. One of the arguments concern child’s identity. Adopted children need to integrate the facts surrounding their birth into their identity. Formation of identity can be more complex for adopted adolescences because of the existence of many unknowns. There is many information which adopted children desire and which are unrecognized by most of the people who have automatic access to such information. For example, knowing about one’s medical background, where one’s red hair came from, who else in family was an artistic. Access to this kind of information is underestimates but it is very important to everyone and is perceived as our basic need. Denying adopted children this information is seen by some as violation of basic human rights. It can lead to an array of emotional and identity problems.

Openness in adoption can assure children access to this kind of information. Many children desire to have contact with birthparents. This contact can facilitate identity development and satisfaction with the adoption experience.

Proponents of open adoption show that close adoption gives rise to more fantasies about the biological family which can be reason for some emotional problems.

Jerica M. Berge et al (2006) made study about adolescents’ feelings about openness in adoption. They examined adolescents’ satisfaction from having or not having contact with birthmothers. Their findings support the idea of open adoption. We can share adolescences which took part in this study on four groups:

Adolescents who were satisfied with the contact they were having with their birthmothers;
Adolescents who were not satisfied with the contact they were having with their birthmothers;
Adolescents who were satisfied with not having contact with their birthmothers;
Adolescents who were not satisfied because there was no contact occurring with their birthmothers.

First group were the largest. There were 56 adolescents who were satisfied with the contact they were having with their birthmothers. These adolescents had very positive feelings about their birthmothers. When they were talking about their birthmothers they often used terms like: “thinks she is great woman”, “like our relationship”, “love her”, “friend”. These young people emphasis especially friendship which connected them with their birthmothers. They told that birthmother have different role than adoptive parents. Birthmother was viewed like another person who love them, friend but not as a person who fill parental role. Positive relationship with birthmothers give them extra support and it was something which adolescents appreciated a lot. These adolescents mentioned that birthmother is very important to them.

Another aspect mentioned by adolescents was “identity formation”. Relationship with birthmothers allowed them to ask question why they look the way they do. For adolescents knowing how they were similar in personality traits to their birthmothers is very important. It helps them to make sense of who they are.

Adolescents who were satisfied with the contact they had with birthmother expressed also desire to meet other members of family, for example: siblings, birthfather, grandparents.

Another group of young people included adolescents who were not satisfied with the contact they were having with their birthmothers. There were 20 adolescents who expressed they were not satisfied with this contact but at the same time only three of them wanted contact to stop.

One of the reason why they were not satisfied with the contact they had with birthmothers was desire for more contact or a different intensity level of contact. It happens in situation when adolescents had, for example contact with their birthmother by email and they wished to meet them face-to-face. Another example was an adolescent who had mediated contact with birthmothers through the adoption agency and wished to talk with her by phone, but couldn’t arrange it. These adolescents desire also to have more deep contact with their mother.

Adoptees who had not satisfying contact with birthmother felt gratitude towards them for what she had done for them. It means that this adolescents were thankful to their birthmothers for placing them to adoption. In point of view of these young people , their birthmothers care a lot about them and found better lives for them. So adoption was viewed as an act of selfless love.

Adolescents who were satisfied with not having contact with their birthmothers. To this group belong 21 adolescents. In the opinion of these young people, adoption didn’t have much impact on them personally. For these adolescents adoption was just abstract concept not something what connect to them personally.

These adolescents felt also “lucky”, they have better life thanks to adoption but at the same time they didn’t feel any gratitude towards birthmother for placing them to adoption. These adolescences simply did not feel that contact with birthmother is something what they need or want. They expressed also they could feel uncomfortable with having to face information about their adoption.

Some of adolescents express also that such contact would be negative experience for them. They were simply afraid about it. Also that they could hurt adoptive parents by meeting birthmothers.

The last group of young people who took part in this study belong to group of adolescents who were not satisfied because there was no contact occurring with their birthmothers. There were 26 adolescents belonging to this group. These adolescents express negative affect towards birthmothers. Among their feelings there was: anger, sadness, they were disappointed and hurt. These adolescents felt so bad because their birthmother did not make effort to contact them. Some of them wonder if their birthmother is healthy, fine. These young people express desire to contact their birthmother.

Many of these adoptees mentioned wanting medical information and to know similarities – both in physique and personality – that they had with their birthmothers. This information could help them to answer questions who they are, why they are like they do and why they were placed.

Many of adolescents in this group did not desire to have contact with their birthmother. Some of them made some efforts to contact them but there were not successful (for example they wrote letter to birthmother but never send it). They were also thinking their adoptive parents would not like the idea to have contact with birthmother.

Findings of these study shown that searching of the birthparents, having contact with them do not change adoptees feelings towards their adoptive parents. These adolescents do not love their adoptive parents less. They rather viewed relationship with birthmother as a separate type of supportive contact.

These results challenge also belief that when birthmother has a contact with her child she will reclaim the adopted child and her rights to his or her. None of the adolescents in this study who had contact with birthmother reported that she ever tried or even mention of trying to reclaim them.

To sum up there is a lot of advantages and disadvantages of openness in adoption. However, many of doubts, disadvantages do not find confirmation in the recent studies. These researches showed us that all three parties of adoption triad can benefit significantly from openness in adoption. At the same time we can find people who are not satisfied from the contact which they have with each other. It shows me there is no one and good solution – everyone is different and have different needs and adoption agencies need to answer on these needs. Adoption always will be difficult process and in my opinion all actors of this process need to receive very good support from professionals, like from psychologist or social worker regardless of type of adoption. Satisfaction from openness in adoption process depend largely on the contact which children and adoptive parents have with birthparents. If they are satisfied from this contact they will be satisfied also they choose open adoption.

Berge, J.M., Mendenhall, T.J., Wrobel G.M., Grotevant H.D., & McRoy R.G. (2006) Adolescents’ Feelings about Openness in Adoption: Implications for Adoption Agencies. Child Welfare, 85, 1011 – 1038
Christian. C.L., McRoy, R.G., Grotevant, H.D., & Brytan, C.M. (1997) Grief Resolution of Birthmothers in Confidential, Time-Limited Mediated, Ongoing Mediated, and Fully Disclosed Adoptions. Adoption Quartely, 1: 2, 35 – 38.
Siegel, D.H. (1993) Open Adoption of Infants: Adoptive Parents’ Perception of Advantages and Disadvantages. Social Work, 38(1), 15 – 23.
Xiaojia Ge., Natsuaki, M.N., Martin, D.M., Neiderhiser, J.M., Villareal, G., Reid, J.B., Leve, L.D., Shaw. D.S., Scaramella, L., Reiss, D. (2008) Bridging the Divide: Openness in Adoption and Postadoption Psychosocial Adjustment Among Birth and Adoptive Parents. Jurnal of Family Psychology, 22(3), 529 – 540.
Convention of the Right of the Child

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