My Account



by Patricia Irwin Johnston, MS


For nearly 30 years now-a generation and a half-a handful of pioneering agencies scattered from Michigan to Texas to California have been offering varying degrees of communication between birth and adoptive families in what has come to be called open adoption. As their system proved popular and successful with birthparents, who had begun to abandon adoption planning under the closed system, other agencies followed the trend. Even now, however, the spectrum of openness ranges from a one time exchange of letters without identifying information to what the experts in the field define as continuing open adoption: the ongoing back and forth sharing of information between an adoptee and his families of birth and adoption, designed to foster communication and cooperation for the adoptee's benefit throughout the lifespan.

As openness has matured over time, researchers have been watching to see how relationships work, and most are doing fairly well. In domestic infant adoptions today, it is almost a minimum standard that most birthparents examine profiles of prospective adopters and then have an opportunity either to meet them face to face or to speak with them over the telephone. Once that connection is made, it almost always continues for the remainder of the pregnancy. That's where things might begin to follow several different paths.

  • Some birthparents believe, in their grief, that ongoing face-to-face contact with their child would be too hard on them. Most of these don't just disappear, though. Instead, they elect to ask that periodic updates and pictures be sent to them via the intermediary. Sometimes the adoption continues like this for the child's entire growing up years, or at least until the child begins to ask for more information. Sometimes, after having time to heal, the birthparent(s) may come back to the intermediary and suggest that they'd like to reconnect with the family.
  • Some participants in open adoptions feel confident about continuing the relationship on their own and commit to staying in touch-mostly by letters and emails or telephone-for years. They do so in a casual, not particularly close, way. Many ebb and flow. Since contact doesn't feel intimate, these kinds of relationships tend to offer any participant not feeling fully satisfied by or valuable to the relationship "easy outs." "Well, she never answers my notes or responds to the pictures, so why should I keep sending them? She must have moved on." Or "The family just seems so busy! He doesn't have much to say to me when I call, so maybe, since he's doing fine, I should just let him decide when he wants to talk to me." Based on purely anecdotal evidence from the many agencies I have worked with and the many families I know, I suspect that most open adoptions right now are pretty much like this.


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