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Journal Issue: Adoption Volume 3 Number 1 Spring 1993

Risks and Benefits of Open Adoption
Marianne Berry

Definition of Open Adoption

Open adoption refers to the sharing of information and/or contacts between the adoptive and biological parents of an adopted child, before and/or after the placement of the child, and perhaps continuing for the life of the child. Open adoption is in direct opposition to the traditional confidential adoption practices of the recent past, where birthparents often did not know the identity of the adoptive parents and could not maintain any contact with the child or the adoptive family after placement. Until very recently, adopted children when reaching adulthood had no way of finding their biological parents. Today adoption professionals are generally supportive of giving adoptees access to records holding details of their genealogical and biological past and information necessary to pursue reunion with their biological parents if they have made known their availability for contact.1,2

This push for open records and adoptees' rights to information has been joined by a call for increased openness from the beginning of the placement, allowing birthparents to have continuing access to their child from the time the child is placed for adoption throughout the child's life. The call for continuing access is based on two distinct developments in adoption practice. First, many professionals have expressed a concern about adoptees' heightened identity confusion in adolescence arising from the secrecy attached to information about the past and have advocated openness as a way of ameliorating this confusion. Second, continuing contact is more common because the decreasing availability of adoptable infants has bolstered the involvement of the birthmother in adoption decision making and practice. As the number of infants in adoption has decreased over the past three decades, the influence and control of birthparents in the adoption process has increased dramatically. In independent adoptions, which have flourished in the recent past, attorneys and agencies have strengthened the role of the birthmother in the adoption process, allowing her to participate in the selection of the adoptive parents and supporting requests that she be allowed continuing access to the adopted child.

Thus, there is great variation in open adoption today. Adoptions can be open prior to placement, for a set period of time after placement, or for the duration of the child's life. Openness can involve a sharing of identifiable or nonidentifiable information during the preplacement period, a meeting of both sets of parents, and agreements concerning ongoing contact and/or sharing of information after adoption. Biological and adoptive parents are asked to specify at the beginning of the adoptive process how open they wish that adoption to be. Sorich and Siebert recommend matching adoptive and biological families partly on the basis of their choice of open, semiopen, or closed adoption.3

Although some have proposed frameworks to determine the extent of openness and categories of open adoptions,3,4 researchers are finding that these frameworks must be very fluid, fluctuating along a continuum of openness.5,6 Adoptive family relationships, like all family relationships, are constantly changing, and open arrangements will evolve and develop as the child and the families grow.

Open adoption arrangements are informally practiced in the United States, and there is usually no legal contract filed with the court for an open adoption.7 This process has both strong critics and staunch supporters. Most of the criticism and support is based on the philosophical or legal rights of members of the adoption triangle, and empirical evidence to support either position is sparse. This article first describes the arguments for and against openness and then reviews empirical research that supports or refutes these hypotheses.