The words “open adoption” can bring up many emotions and questions. Open adoptions allow for some sort of contact with the children’s biological family and the child(ren). The attorneys can complete and present an open adoption agreement in court or it may be done in a more intimate setting between the two parties. Your adoption worker/placement worker can assist you in understanding the expectations of the agreement. Once agreed, signed, and entered into the court, it becomes part of your child’s adoption journey.
There can be a lot of fear around the open adoption agreement. This is why an open adoption needs open communication. The first area of communication begins internally. It is important to ask yourself what your expectations are with adoption and with keeping in contact with the biological family. Some areas of reflection may need to be on your own fear of having to contact them on your own. Many times, open adoption agreements require the biological family to reach out to your family. Some states have visitation programs but often these visits take place in the community. This can be challenging due to recent events and COVID-19 restrictions.
The open adoption agreement can be cards and letters to a P.O. box, visits with the children, or children attending biological families’ events. There will be questions regarding the frequency of these visits and how long the child(ren) will attend. Both parties will have requests and hopefully, a compromise will take place. It is important to reflect on how you feel about the biological parents or extended family. In my first adoption with my two oldest children, I entered into an open adoption agreement. I reflected on my feelings and realized that so many of my feelings regarded attachment. I often questioned if my children had visits with their biological family would affect their attachment to me. It soon became apparent that my children had many questions and memories about their stories. I had no answers and the biological family was able to fill in some of them.
One important area is discussing your feelings around open adoption with your partner. You may have worked on how you feel but it is a good idea to see where your expectations lay against your partner’s. I saw this as an adoption worker. We would be in court, on the day the agreement needed to be done, but parents were not on the same page. I was surprised how often this happened as there had been months of pre-discussion on both sides regarding the agreement. I realized that there had been little to no discussion with each party as a whole. It is okay to ask your adoption social worker to ask the parents’ attorney what their expectations are regarding the open adoption agreement.
I cannot stress how much an open adoption needs open communication. There has been an unspoken and sometimes spoken expectation that open adoptions create more chaos for the child(ren) and/or family. On a personal level, these were some of the harder conversations in my relationship. My partner had very limited views regarding visitations. I on the other hand already had adopted two children who had an open adoption agreement. We had many discussions of what our plan would look like and what we would accept from the biological parents’ team. We were very mindful to acknowledge that this was not just our journey as it impacted our child’s long-term needs. We made sure to educate ourselves about the impacts of biological families remaining in the child’s life.
I caution who you ask regarding these hard questions. It is important to look to ones who have experience or education regarding open adoption. Family and friends who have not had to enter an open adoption agreement often have good intentions but lead with their own learned bias. There are many studies that support open adoption as children often seek to learn about their biological families.
Once you and your partner, if you have one, are able to establish your expectations regarding the open adoption, the next area where an open adoption needs open communication is with your adoption team. This may include an adoption social worker, placement worker, attorney, probation, and in some incidents, the child’s protective/adoption social worker. Phew, that seems like a lot of communication and yes, it can be tiring to have to share your expectations over and over again.
In my first adoption, I shared and shared with all that would listen. It didn’t occur to me until my second adoption that I could create my own open adoption document. It was a simple PDF reflecting my family’s expectations regarding my third child’s adoption plan. I provided this, when requested, through email so I could create the paper trail so much needed and expected in an adoption. We wanted to be as transparent as we could with our expectations.
We broke it into three areas. The first was letters and cards to a P.O. Box of our choice. The second was one visit a year (bio-family was not active in our case) if they contacted the P.O. Box within the first year. After the first year of no contact, the agreement was not expected to be kept. The third expectation is that after the first year if the biological family contacted the courts, the courts had permission to notify us of their information.
We also put in that visits were dependent on our child and if his mental health providers felt it was in his best interest. This was not a legal document but more of a tool that allowed us to present on the same page. There are many ways to communicate your needs regarding your open adoption agreement. These were just some things we did that were specific to our adoption. There is no right or wrong way to engage in the process of open adoption.
The next piece of advice I would give is to stand your ground but understand how this document will affect your child for the rest of their life. The biological family may want multiple visits a year and if you are not comfortable with this, you must say it. It amazes me how many important decisions are made without much time. We go to buy a house or a car and within a day, we make a decision. We are programmed by society to do this with most things that impact our life in the long term.
I can’t stress enough that an open adoption needs open communication in the very earliest stages of the process. By the time you get to the open adoption agreement, there can be an overwhelming feeling to get it done. This is not the time to rush. The courts tend to be overwhelmed and will push for answers right away. This is why having these conversations and forming a plan early can ease these tensions. Some states allow you to be more flexible but others will take the open adoption agreement as gold.
Another area where an open adoption needs open communication is what can happen if one of the parties (yourself or biological family) does not comply. Please communicate your fears and ask the right people the hard questions. Oftentimes, it is helpful to seek legal assistance. It is helpful to review whether your state has wording in the agreement if the biological family is not compliant. There may be different options within your state regarding open adoption, semi-open adoption, or closed adoptions.
When adopting older children, it may be beneficial to have them in on the conversation. It is important to bring in any mental health providers that the child works with to assist in these conversations. If you are not working with an attachment specialist, these conversations must be at the child’s level of understanding. You can inquire through other providers around how much the child may be able to handle.
If you are adopting older children, they will have a social worker assigned to them. This person may have vital information regarding the attachment between the child and their biological family. You may get some of this information from the disclosure but you have every right to ask in reference to the child. There are specific HIPPA laws that may prevent full disclosure of the biological parents’ concerns but in most cases, when it is framed around for the child’s benefit, they can share more.
My first adoption was a sibling group who were five and six years old. My son, who was six at the time, had many memories of his biological parents and extended family. My daughter did not have many memories at the time. He would frequently ask for his grandparents as they were also having visits while in foster care. This was a driving force for me to have a more open adoption plan that included extended family. My children’s biological father passed away but we stayed in contact with his extended family. This has been both a blessing and challenging at times.
We slowly worked up from P.O. box letters and gifts to in-person visits. My children are now in their teens and will go for weekend sleepovers with their biological extended family. They have been there to answer some very hard questions about their biological father. Without this open adoption agreement, my children would have many questions left unanswered. That said, I have had to have hard and open conversations with the biological family around my expectations as the parent.
My children have done a lot of work with an attachment/trauma specialist throughout the year. As they got older, they were able to communicate their needs for more or less contact with their biological family. There also have been incidents when the biological family has not maintained their agreement which has caused my children additional trauma. In these cases, I have had to be honest and upfront with the biological family on how it impacts the children. However, I was not crude and did not lose my patience when having these conversations as I need to set examples for my childrenon how to handle future situations.
In some cases, there is no formal open adoption plan but just a verbal one between parties. Regardless if there is a formal or spoken agreement, an open adoption needs open communication. These types of agreements may need even more communication as there may be unspoken expectations or boundaries. When at all possible, it will be helpful to write down what is expected. There may be concerns regarding language or cognitive ability so it may be helpful to have a third party read what is written. Other families find that just having an ongoing conversation of needs and wants is enough within their adoption.
There are no right or wrong answers when discussing an open adoption plan. Taking the process slowly and educating yourself on your state’s expectations is key. Talking with your partner regarding expectations after the adoption is finalized will lead to less stress later. Also, considering the impact that the plan will have over the lifetime of your child is important.
There are many times when we hear the stories regarding the birth parents or families that we go into protection mode. This is necessary but also we need to be open to how our child has experienced their world. They may not understand why they have a goal of adoption and still have feelings for their biological family. They are allowed to feel what they need to feel. You are allowed to feel what you feel. You can have real, heartfelt conversations with your partner, a trusted friend/family, or a therapist. However, your child deserves to be able to continue their attachment with their biological family if they want to. This will help your attachment process as well. When they see their parents mirroring healthy boundaries and behaviors regarding their biological family, they can do this long into their adulthood.