Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Adoption Volume 3 Number 1 Spring 1993

Risks and Benefits of Open Adoption
Marianne Berry

Empirical Research onOpen Adoptions

Most research concerning the effects of open adoption consists of cross-sectional studies of small samples of adoptive parents; some samples also include birthparents. This research is complicated and limited because, as in most family research, each open arrangement is unique and constantly changing.5,6,44 Research to date provides some information about how birth and adoptive parents experience openness, but little is known about the actual impact of openness on family relationships, children's behavior, or psychological adjustment.

Relinquishment by Birthmothers

Studies have found that some birthmothers are more willing to relinquish their children for adoption when they can receive information about the adoptive parents or maintain some form of contact after relinquishment. This is the situation even among the African-American community, where formal adoption is not widely practiced. Sandven and Resnick report that their study of 54 African-American teenage single mothers found that 22% said that "if they had had some control in choosing the adoptive family, they would have been more interested in this option [open adoption]."45 Barth also found that availability of openness options was related to the decision to relinquish in his study of teenage mothers.15 Kallen and colleagues found a clear concern among teenage mothers who kept their children that adoption would prevent them from knowing about the children as they grew up.46 Their comparisons of teens who parented children with those who placed their children with others found that the decision to place the child is not related to a concern about the well-being of the child, but is usually a more self-related concern about their own ability to know about the child. Given the developmental status of adolescence in regard to altruism versus self-concern and the difficulty for teens to think through the long-term consequences of behavior, this finding is not surprising.

Acceptance of Status as Adoptive Parents

Regarding family adjustment, several studies have found that adoptive parents often chose open adoption because they felt it was in the best interests of the child.47,48 Those adoptive parents having more extensive contact with birthparents tend to show more understanding of them,49 and open adoptions in many studies have been characterized by a positive relationship between the adoptive parents and the birthparents.47-49

In older-child adoptions, preplacement openness is very typical, particularly when foster parents are adopting an older child. Foster parents support and facilitate visiting between children and their biological parents in the hope of achieving reunification, so there is often substantial contact and information shared during foster placement. Meezan and Shireman's study of foster parent adoptions found that 62% of the foster parents had met a member of the biological family.49 Contact with the biological parents was associated with foster parents' subsequent decision to adopt, either because of resentment of the biological parents and concern about the child's future with them, or because of the foster parents' understanding of the biological parents and acceptance of the child's heritage. Those with more extensive contacts with the biological parents tended to show more understanding of them. Although the decision to adopt a foster child seemed to be most influenced by a negative feeling about the biological parents, the practice of continuing contact after the adoption, although rare, was characterized by a positive relationship between the two sets of parents.

Adoptive parents in open adoptions have cited the advantages of the security of knowing about the birthmother's health and personality.5,44,47,50 Siegel's interviews with 21 adoptive couples found that many were comforted by specific knowledge of characteristics of the birthmother. Belbas's study of 12 adoptive couples also reported that they appreciated having the contact with birthmothers to answer questions as they arose.47 Berry's survey of 1,396 adoptive families in California found that families in open adoptions reported having more information about a variety of aspects of the child's birth and medical history.5 Berry also found that, in independent adoptions, adoptive parents who had met the birthparent prior to adoption were significantly more likely than those not meeting a birthparent to feel well prepared for the adoption.

Security About the Adoptive Relationship

In an in-depth study of adoptive parents in 12 open adoptions, Belbas found a relationship between adoptive parents' feelings of entitlement to the child and the degree of openness (ranging from letter writing to face-to-face contact) of the adoption.47 The more frequent and direct the contact, the less the adoptive parents worried about being the child's real parents or about feeling entitled to the child. Parents who had letter-only contact worried most about the biological parents wanting to take the child back. All families in the study had adopted at least 3 years earlier, and many had adopted more than once. All children in this sample had been adopted before the age of 3 months.

Belbas also found that adoptive fathers in the minimum contact group were more resistant to contact than adoptive mothers, but that the response from a biological parent usually reduced the general fears of either adoptive parent. Adoptive parents usually did not talk to friends and family about the openness decision until after this decision had been made. Friends and family members who were consulted were often negative about openness and suggested severing all ties with the biological parents. The adoptive parents in fully open adoptions had been personally chosen by the biological mother to adopt the child, so they often felt reassured about a positive relationship between themselves and the biological mother.

McRoy and colleagues,48,51 in interviews in 17 open adoptions, also found that the more open the adoption, the more comfortable adoptive parents were about their entitlement to the child. It is unclear from these cross-sectional studies, however, whether openness contributes to a sense of entitlement or vice versa.

Grief and Overdependence in Biological Parents

Hanson interviewed a small nonrandom sample of 28 teenage mothers, comparing those who kept their children and those who relinquished them for adoption, and found that, in general, the latter had more negative scores on questions concerning their roles as parents or children, indicating some confusion about whether they were a parent or a child.52 However, those in open adoptions had an even higher risk of role confusion than those in closed adoptions. In a mailed survey of 59 relinquishing birthmothers,53 18 in open adoptions and 41 in confidential adoptions, researchers found that birthmothers in open adoptions were significantly more troubled than those in closed adoptions regarding social isolation, somatic complaints, physical symptoms, despair, and dependency. They concluded that birthmothers in open adoptions did experience more prolonged grief and dependency than those in closed adoptions.

McRoy and Grotevant found that, while adoptive parents in open adoptions were generally satisfied with the amount of contact they practiced, biological mothers generally wanted more, regardless of how much contact they practiced.51 Adoptive parents in direct contact with birthmothers expressed some concern about the maturity of biological mothers and about the amount of time and energy that contact with them demanded, but felt that openness was in the best interests of the children. Biological mothers often treated the adoptive family as an extended family or a source of social support. Although contact did create some pain for the biological mothers in McRoy's study, the benefit of knowing about the child and the reassurance that they had made the right choice was often seen by the biological mothers as worth the pain.

Adoptive parents in other studies have also complained about the overdependence of birthmothers.5,44 Some adoptive parents have noted that, while the openness agreement was for a limited time after placement, birthmothers continue to call, and calls were often related to their own needs for money and advice, rather than to the child's welfare.44

Competition and Control

Barth and Berry's study54 of 120 older child adoptions and a more recent study5 of 1,396 infant and older-child adoptions found that adoptive parents' comfort with contact is related to their perceptions of control over the contact. In 79% of the adoptions studied, there was contact between the children and former caregivers; 42% of the children had contact with foster parents, 27% had contact with biological parents, 32% had contact with biological siblings, and 27% had contact with other relatives. Only 38% of the adoptive parents thought these contacts were helpful, but 77% of the parents who found the contacts helpful were those who also had complete control over the contacts. Conversely, the more control the adoptive parents had, the less open was the adoption. Those who did not find the openness helpful at all (28%) said they had no control over the contacts.

Berry found that the key predictor of adoptive parents' comfort with open adoption was that these parents had planned for openness from the beginning of the placement.50 Other important predictors of comfort were: the child's absence of a history of maltreatment, the birthmother's higher level of education, the directness of contact, the adoptive mother's older age, and the fact that the adoptive parents had talked with the birthparents prior to placement.

Nelson's study of 120 older-child adoptions found that 20% of the children maintained contact with a biological relative, usually the mother.55 Contact occurred infrequently, usually once every 2 months. Of those adoptive parents whose child was in contact with a relative, 50% were glad that the child had that contact, but 34% were ambivalent, and 9% wished the child did not have that contact. Partridge and colleagues found that 14% of the disruptions in their study of older-child adoptions were blamed by the adoptive parents on the ongoing relationship between the children and their biological parents.56

Regarding infant adoptions, most adoptive parents in Belbas's study said that they at first felt openness was demanded rather than offered by the adoption agency and that they believed refusing would jeopardize their chances of adopting.47 These adoptive parents regarded continued contact, however, as a benefit to either the biological parents or the child. Siegal also reports that many of her nonrandom sample of 21 adoptive couples said that they agreed to an open adoption despite misgivings because of the unavailability of closed adoptions.44 When asked about the disadvantages of open adoption, uncertainty about the future was a common response among this sample, a finding corroborated by Berry's sample of 1,396 adoptions.50

Adoptees' Fears, Confusion, and Adjustment

Brodzinsky and colleagues interviewed 100 adopted children and found that it is not until 8 to 11 years of age that children begin to understand that being adopted is different.57 It is also at this time that adopted children begin to feel tenuous about their family status and acknowledge a concern that the biological parents may somehow come to claim them. By the age of 11 or so, these fears are usually allayed, and children once again feel more certain about their place in the adoptive family. True understanding of adoption and its legal ramifications is not attained until adolescence. These findings suggest that openness and contact before adolescence should be handled with great care and with assurance to the children about the permanency of their place within the adoptive family.

In the California study of 120 older-child adoptions,54 adoption workers planned for contact in 54% of cases, and plans were usually for contact between the child and his or her biological siblings. Planned or not, when any contact did occur, workers usually reported that it weakened the relationship between the children and their adoptive parents, even though those children in open adoptions were significantly less likely to display extreme behavior problems such as aggression or hyperactivity. This was a subjective assessment on the part of adoption workers, and they were not asked to elaborate on how the relationship was weakened or how they arrived at their judgment.

In the larger California study of 1,396 adoptions of children from infants to 16- year-olds, Berry found that children in open adoptions had significantly better behavior scores (as rated by their adoptive parents) than children in adoptions with no access to birthparents and that the adoptive parents of children who were in contact with birthparents had more positive impressions of those birthparents. However, because this is a cross-sectional survey, it is unknown whether adoptive parents in open adoptions rated their children's behavior more positively because of those positive impressions of the birthparents, whether parents were in open adoptions precisely because of those positive impressions, or whether open adoption is truly related to more positive behavior in children.

McRoy and Grotevant's qualitative findings show varied interpretations among adopted children; some embrace contact and some are frightened or confused by it. These researchers do not identify an age-appropriate time for contact or other correlates of adaptation.6