Friday, October 26, 2012

Open Discussion about Openness in Adoption

One of the main areas of training for prospective adoptive parents is the question of openness in adoption. Most parents I’ve trained express their intention to be somewhat open, but also seem somewhat fearful and uncertain. It’s probably good to start with a definition of openness. Openness in adoption refers to at least one of two things between at least two of three groups of people.
For the purposes of this article, openness in adoption refers to  the exchange of CONTACT and/or INFORMATION between the Adoptee, Birth Family, and Adopting Family. I’m referring to “birth family” and “adopting family” rather than “birth parents” and “adopting parents” because there are other people – siblings, cousins, uncles, and grandparents among others – who can share information, and who might be beneficial for contact.

Historically, adoptions have been open. Most prospective adoptive parents are surprised to hear this, but people generally knew when a child was being raised by a family other than the parents that gave them birth. There were some negative aspects to the public nature of this knowledge, though: kids born to unwed parents were subject to prejudice, as were the women who gave birth out of wedlock. In order to avoid this, in 1917 Minnesota passed the first law to make adoption confidential from the public. Other states enacted similar laws. However, by the end of World War 2, confidentiality had morphed into secrecy. I imagine that this is because the adults involved in adoption drew benefit from the confidentiality and wanted to make it more secure.

The difference between confidentiality and secrecy is one of degrees and tones. Confidentiality says of a fact, “It’s my business, and I can share it with whom I want.” Secrecy says, “This is my shame, and I need to lie about it so that no one finds out.” Perhaps adoption laws moved towards secrecy as birth families saw a chance to hide the shame they felt over unwed births, and as adoptive families saw a similar chance to hide the shame they felt over being perceived as different. The change towards secrecy seems to have hurt open discussion,  and adoptees found that they were not able to access their own original birth certificates. Some adoptees were not even told that they were adopted.

In the 1970’s, Florence Fisher founded the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association. This association believed, in a nutshell, that adoptees have a right to know their own stories. Adoption sometimes involves painful truths – about the birth parents and about the adopting parents – but this does not require hiding the story from the adoptee. It does require processing the story with the adoptee, laughing with them, crying with them, reflecting with them, and helping them to own it as part of their life. But adoption isn’t shameful, and shouldn’t be a secret.

It seems best for adoptive parents to commit to be honest with children, in a sensitive and age-appropriate manner about how and why they came to be adopted, and how and why the adoptive parents decided to adopt. Books can be helpful in these discussions, and reviews of several recommended books and movies are available on this site.

Children who are adopted much past infancy will always know that they have been adopted, so talking about it openly is a service to them. Children who are adopted as infants might not know they’re adopted unless they’re told. Some prospective adopting parents ask when they should introduce adoption to the child they’ve adopted. The best answer is “all along.” This way, adoption is never a shocking revelation, but just a normal part of life.

Kids stereotypically ask “where do babies come from?” By this, they probably also mean “How did I get here?” An honest answer to both questions is, “They come from a lot of places. They all start with a mommy and a daddy, but when some are born, they are raised by just the mommy, or just the daddy, or the mommy’s mommy, or the mommy and a new daddy, or new mommies and daddies…” Joanna Cole’s book “How I Was Adopted” is a great reference for grade-school kids who were adopted as infants. “A Forever Family” by Roslyn Banish and Jennifer Jordan-Wong is a good reference for grade school kids who are adopted a bit older.

Honesty between you and your child creates openness, to some degree.  The question you’re left with isn’t “should my adoption be open or closed,” but rather, “how open will my adoption be.” A big question here is whether members of the birth family should be involved. This is a difficult question for many adopting families; they perhaps wonder if contact with the birth parents will diminish the child’s love for the adopting parents, or confuse the child. Some parents have expressed to me that they really aren’t interested in contact with the birth family because they want to feel like the child is “their own.”

I have a few responses. First, the primary question in making this decision needs to be, “what’s best for the child?” Families that would shun post-adoption contact with any birth family members are likely doing so because they fear that their needs for parenthood will not be met by adoption. This is an issue that the prospective adopting parents should work through together, and possibly with a therapist, before pursuing adoption. Once that issue is resolved, I think it’s safe to say that a child won’t love an adopting parent less for allowing birth family contact. Contact with the birth family has the potential to be confusing, but it could be confusing to forbid such contact. A task of the adoptive parent is to help their child understand and thrive in their unique circumstance in life.  
Lastly, adopting parents sometimes wonder if contact with the birth family would be safe – this is especially salient for parents adopting from foster care, when the birth parents may have been charged with abuse or neglect. In these instances, wisdom and discretion on the part of the adopting parent is important, and it’s a good idea to talk with social workers who know your case. But I wouldn’t automatically vote against contact. Remember, birth family contact can be with any birth family member – siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and even family friends.  If you can find a positive birth family member to have contact with, it can provide an avenue for your child to answer questions about their past and their genetic heritage. Contact can vary in degree, too; if visits in person aren’t possible, perhaps phone calls, letters to a PO Box, or shared email address can accomplish some good. Remember too, that people change over time. Contact that is imprudent now might be acceptable in the future.

No article can prescribe what you should do in your own situation, but I do recommend that before you make any choices – for openness or for closed contact – that you touch base with a social worker or therapist that knows your story, and run this by them. Best of luck as you consider moving forward into an exciting chapter of your life.

You might take a light-hearted next step in thinking about openness by watching some fun movies where an adoptee's parent finally gets around to telling the adoptee about the adoption. My adoption movie review of Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Panda 2 and my adoption movie review of Tarzan can help you ask yourself the right questions. Happy thinking!


  1. I love this. And obviously, the difference in secrecy and confidentiality is very important to me. I'm enjoying catching up on your blog so far, although I haven't seen any of the movies you've reviewed except Winnie the Pooh. Thanks for introducing yourself.

    1. It's great to meet you, too! Thanks for taking a look around. I'm hoping to keep adding movies each week.

      The difference between confidentiality and secrecy is hard to explain, but huge, isn't it!


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