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Journal Issue: Adoption Volume 3 Number 1 Spring 1993

Risks and Benefits of Open Adoption
Marianne Berry


This review indicates that open adoption is often viewed positively by birthmothers, who perceive the benefit of knowing about the adoptive family and the child as he or she grows up. Research also suggests that adolescent birthmothers are not usually developmentally ready to assess the long-term costs of openness, but only consider the short-term benefits. Adoptive parents often note that birthmothers are overly dependent and immature in their contacts in an open adoption.

Research on adoptive parents finds that parents in open adoptions are generally favorable toward openness. Increasingly, research is indicating that a key correlate of adoptive parents' comfort with openness is a sense of control over contacts. When adoptive parents are surprised by the incidence, frequency, or duration of postplacement contact, they express more discomfort and dissatisfaction with openness.

Surveys do suggest that many adoptive parents feel pressured to agree to an open arrangement in order to receive a child. Many in open adoptions also state that they are uncertain about what the future in open adoption may hold. However, those in open adoptions do feel entitled to the child, and most have a generally positive impression of the birthparents and are positive about openness, saying that they feel it is in the best interests of the child.

Research is beginning to contribute to an adequate picture of the practice of open adoption, but much more rigorous research is needed to understand the effects of openness on children and families. The child's interpretation of any contact or relationship with biological parents in an open adoption is at the center of the debate over the benefits of continued access, and it is precisely this interpretation that is yet to be illuminated by research. Although openness and information sharing may prevent the genealogical bewilderment and pain of searching in adulthood, research studies to date have not found a temporal relationship between openness and subsequent adjustment. McRoy and Grotevant have found mixed reactions to openness in their interviews with children and have yet to identify key correlates of comfort or amelioration of "bewilderment."6

Given the present state of knowledge, decision making around open adoption remains a risky business, with substantial need for caution, assessment, and planning. The primary need is for further research, particularly longitudinal research, to help determine whether and how openness contributes to stronger adoptive families and healthier adopted individuals. Several large-scale longitudinal studies of adoption are currently in progress, including one by McRoy and Grotevant in Texas and Minnesota, and another by Barth and Berry in California. The Texas/Minnesota study should provide detailed information about the experience of openness by all adoptive family members, while the California study should provide substantial information about a variety of factors that contribute to adjustment among adoptive families and how openness contributes to adjustment.

The Role of the Fathers

Recent research suggests the importance of the feelings and perceptions of adoptive fathers to the stability of an adoptive placement.58 Although most research has asked only one parent about the adoption, research questioning adoptive parents individually has begun to identify significant differences in how mothers and fathers feel about adoption and about openness.47,58 Westhues and Cohen find that dissatisfaction of the adoptive father is related to adoption disruption. Coupled with Belbas's finding that adoptive fathers are more hesitant about openness, this finding suggests the need for further research about the role of adoptive fathers in adoption outcomes and in open adoptions. These findings also imply the need for adoption practitioners to assess and involve the adoptive father in decisions about open adoption.

More research is also needed about the role of birthfathers in open adoptions. A recent survey of adult adoptees in Canada found that, while many adoptees were interested in meeting or getting information about their birthmothers, the majority (77%) felt indifferent toward their birthfathers.22 Additional research is finding that birthfathers are not typically involved in the decision to place a child for adoption, but are often influential in the adolescent mother's decision to keep the child.59

There is also a need for more research concerning the role of birthgrandmothers in the choice and practice of open adoption. Kallen and colleagues46 and others have found that the mothers of birthmothers have an influential role in a teenagers' decisions to place children for adoption, both in the Anglo community60,61 and in the African-American community.45 Anecdotal evidence from the California Long-range Adoption Study also indicates that birthgrandparents often remain in contact with the adoptee when birthparents have stopped contact.62

Continued Contact Must Exist in a System of Continuing Support

Given this research to date and because of the importance of honesty in family relationships and the need to enlist birthmothers in making positive and responsible plans for their children, continued access between birthparents and their adopted children should be available and supported. It is the social and legal responsibility of adoption agencies and attorneys, however, to balance the rights and responsibilities among the parties—the birthparents, the adoptive parents, and the adopted child—and to support each of these parties during the decision-making process and after a decision has been made.

The adoption attorney or social worker has the societal mandate to protect the interests of vulnerable parties in working with more powerful parties. With birthparents' rights and interests most likely to be heard, given the supply and demand characteristics of the current adoption market, it is the adoption worker's responsibility to support the best interests of the child. Any policy regarding adoption practice should consider the short- and long-term impacts such a practice will have on the adopted child. Because empirical evidence about the long-term effects of open adoption is scarce, adoption practitioners' work is made more difficult.

Professionals generally agree that the child is least confused about loyalties to either parents when the open relationship between the adoptive and biological parents is clear and positive. Adoption attorneys and social workers must help birth and adoptive parents identify their beliefs and expectations about contact and devise an agreeable plan for contact, respecting the adoptive parents' rights as the functioning and legal parent. Although adoption professionals have always emphasized that the choice of any open adoption be made in the course of extensive counseling with trained professionals, the extent to which this occurs in independent adoptions is unknown. Lack of counseling is a potential source of later disagreement and conflict among the parties. Some independent agents state that they help to guide the relationship between biological and adoptive parents at the beginning of the adoption, then step out of the way as both sets of parents start to form their own relationship. However, the child's interests must be the paramount concern of adoption counselors, and relinquishment of control to the birth and adoptive parents over such a new practice is disturbing.

It is important that birthparents interested in continued access have a commitment to a lifelong plan, however limited or extensive that plan is. Birthparents are typically adolescents who may not understand or comprehend the long-term consequences or implications of such choices. If contact is planned and regular at first, but then drops off or unexpectedly stops (when the birthparent gets married or begins a new life), this can be a second separation or source of confusion for the child.

In this changing era of adoption practices, those birthparents who desire openness will and should continue to have access to their children throughout the child's life. That access brings with it, however, new challenges for every member of the "adoption rectangle"1: the birthparents, adoptive parents, adopted child, and adoption agency. Birthparents must recognize the lifelong commitment they are making to the adopted child, adoptive parents must acknowledge the role of the birthparent as an extended family member (but not a primary parent), the child must be supported in working out the unique relationships of these various family members in his or her environment, and the adoption agency must provide lifelong supportive postadoption services for all parties as they forge these new relationships.