Working With Birth and Adoptive Families to Support Open Adoption

Open adoption allows adoptive parents, and often the adopted child, to interact directly with birth parents. Also known as “fully disclosed,” this type of adoption can help children and parents minimize and resolve the change or loss of relationships. It also can help those involved to maintain and celebrate adopted children’s connections with all the important people in their lives.

What Is Openness?

Some think of openness occurring along a continuum. On one end of the continuum is a confidential, or closed, adoption. In such adoptions, no contact occurs between birth and adoptive families, and no identifying information is shared. (Some non-identifying information, such as medial history, may be provided through an open adoption agency or attorney.) In the middle of the continuum is a form of openness known as semi-open or mediated adoption. In semi-open adoptions, contact is made indirectly through a mediator, such as an agency caseworker or lawyer, or through an anonymous post office or email box. This type of adoption allows for communication, while also offering some privacy. On the far end of the continuum is an open adoption, also referred to as a fully disclosed adoption. In an open adoption, identities are known and there is direct contact between birth parents (and possibly other members of the birth families). and the adoptive families.

Open adoption can have many different meanings and structures, and there may be variations and structures, and there may be variations regarding several components of the arrangement. Communications may include a combination of letters, emails, telephone calls, or visits. The frequency of contact can range from every few years to several times a month or more, depending on the needs and wishes of all involved. Additionally, open adoption may include communication between the adopted child/person and the birth parent, or it may be limited to communication between the birth and adoptive parents.

Benefits of Openness

Recent research on open adoption has found that the practice is becoming more widespread and that the adoption triad, which includes adopted persons, birth parents, and adoptive parents, tends to experience open adoption positively. This research has debunked many of the common myths about the negative consequences of open adoption.

Supporting Successful Open Adoptions

Child welfare research on effective casework practice in open adoption is limited, but the following are recommendations from the literature about how agency staff can support successful open adoptions:

  • Keep the child as the focus of the process.
  • Ensure that parents (birth and adoptive) receive information, training, and counseling, as appropriate, to inform them about open adoption.
  • Help the parents determine what level of openness is best for their situation.
  • Assist the parents in building trusting, respectful, and nonjudgmental relationships; negotiating conflicts; developing empathy; establishing open communication; and defining roles.
  • Work with the families to plan for contacts (e.g. contact agreements) as well as prepare for potential changes in openness over time.
  • Offer parents post-adoption services to help them overcome challenges in communication.

As agency staff work with parents through this process, they can try to encourage and support the following characteristics that may help yield successful open adoptions:

  • Empathy
  • Respect
  • Honesty
  • Trust
  • Commitment
  • Flexibility
  • Open communication

Additionally, openness should be viewed as a process that occurs over time rather than something that occurs immediately. It may be helpful for the families to enter into this relationship gradually before moving to higher levels.

Understanding When Openness May Not Be Appropriate

In some cases, including the child in a relationship with the birth parents may not be in his or her best interest. This may be true if:

  • A birth parent is unable to maintain appropriate relationship boundaries with a child due to mental or emotional illness.
  • There has been violence directed at a child which indicates that contact with the parent would likely result in more trauma for the child.

Even when it is not safe for the child to maintain an open relationship with a birth parent, an extended family member may be able to provide a link to the child’s past without causing additional trauma. Confer with an adoption-competent mental health provider and talk to the adoptive family for additional assistance in making difficult choices regarding the amount of openness to include in a child’s adoption.

Addressing Ethical Issues

In addition to the ethical issues that arise in many adoptions (e.g. the exchange of money between parties, the level of voluntariness of the relinquishment), agency staff should be aware of the ethical issues specifically related to open adoptions. Perhaps at the forefront is the amount of direction that agency staff give to families about their openness. Agency workers vary greatly in the amount of guidance they provide, ranging from little advice or encouraging self-determination to a paternalistic attitude. Agency staff should help inform the birth and adoptive families’ decision-making process but ultimately allow the families to make the decision.

An ethical issue that public child welfare workers may encounter is the practice in some states of offering the possibility of an open adoption as an incentive for the birth parents to voluntary terminate parental rights and, conversely, to tell the birth parents that an open adoption would not be an option if they did not voluntarily terminate their rights.

Helping Families Overcome Challenges

Although most adoptive and birth families appear to be satisfied with open adoptions, this arrangement does present some challenges. One study cited several potential challenges, including one party desiring a different level of contact, not following through on the agreed upon contact, breaking trust, and the violation of specified or assumed personal boundaries. Additionally, family needs regarding openness may change over time. Birth and adoptive families may need to decide whether to adjust their commitments due to changing circumstances or react to changes requested or made by the other party. Caseworkers can use the following methods to help families overcome these and other challenges:

  • Encourage parents to communicate openly and honestly.
  • Help educate birth and adoptive parents so they can help better understand the other parents’ perspective.
  • Keep the focus on the needs and experience of the child.
  • Support the development of written contact agreements that help establish appropriate expectations, set boundaries, and offer flexibility for needs that may change over time.
  • Offer post-adoption support services to adoptive families, birth families, and adopted persons.

If families need additional guidance establishing relationships, overcoming differences on how or when contact should occur, or navigating changes in the relationships, caseworkers can refer them to meditation. Mediation, which refers to meeting with a neutral third party such as an agency or adoption professional, can help families develop written agreements before an adoption or aid in sorting out changing needs and roles later in the adoption.

Implications for Agencies

Although agencies should have policies regarding openness, including staff roles, agency policy should not dictate how the openness of an adoption is structured. A “one size fits all” model is not the correct approach. Instead, a variety of options should be made available to families, and staff should help birth parents and adoptive families identify the degree of openness that is best for them, both in the present and as their needs change in the future. Agencies also should ensure that post-adoption services are available, either in-house or through referrals, to help families prepare or respond to their openness levels. Furthermore, agencies should ensure that staff are educated about open adoption and understand how to implement any agency policies.

Openness, especially mediated openness where the agency relays information between the birth and adoptive parents, increases the workload of agency staff in an era of shrinking resources and increased demand on social service providers. From a staffing perspective, a fully disclosed adoption may be less costly in the long run than a mediated adoption because there is no need to transfer the information between parties. There may be a continued need, however, for post adoption counseling in these types of adoptions.

Adoption and the Internet

With seemingly everything available on the internet, birth families and adopted persons now are much more easily able to research contact information than they had been in the past. This increase in information availability is changing the landscape of privacy and confidentiality, including adoption. Adoption agencies may have internal policies in place to protect individuals’ identities or establish other boundaries, but they ultimately cannot control the actions of adopted persons, birth parents, or adoptive parents who are seeking another party’s information or trying to make contact.

Agency staff should be aware of any laws or regulations that limit or require action on their part when a member of the adoption triad attempts or does not make contact with another party through social media or other means outside the level of openness previously established. Additionally, agency and staff may want to discuss social media consideration with birth and adoptive parents and consider including social media provisions in their contact agreement.

Some steps for professionals to help support adopted persons who want to search for or contact their birth families include:

  • Try to slow down the process so that you can talk through various issues and next steps with the adopted person.
  • Start with a series of adult-adult meetings, if possible, before the adopted person makes contact.
  • Discuss and validate the adopted person’s fantasies and expectations about the contact (e.g. there will be a strong personal connection, the birth parents will be famous or rich); explore other possibilities.
  • Prepare the adopted person for initial issues that may arise, such as no prior relationship, lack of commonality, and different values.
  • Limit the initial contact to the birth parent’ birth siblings can be brought in later.

Searching For Birth Family Members

While many adoptions are open from the start, others become open years later. An adopted person and/or the person’s adoptive parents may initiate a search to find general information about the person’s birth family, obtain a medical history, or establish connections with birth parents or siblings. State adoption agencies may offer services to help with accessing information, arranging reunions, and supporting adopted children and youth in dealing with the powerful emotions related to search and reunion.


With the increase in open adoptions over the past two decades, it is essential that public and private adoption agencies develop the knowledge and skills required to guide birth parents, adopted persons, and adoptive parents thought this sensitive, yet critical, process. Although open adoption may not be the right choice for every situation, families who choose open adoption tend to be satisfied with their decision and that it benefits all members of the adoption triad.


Source: Child Welfare:

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