What’s The Difference Between Open and Closed Adoption?

This guest post is by Karie Boyd, an adoption attorney.

What’s the difference between open and closed adoption?

If you’re hoping to adopt or thinking about placing your baby for adoption, you may be asking yourself that question and wondering which route is right for you and your child.

There are many misconceptions about adoption, and about open and closed adoption in particular.

Adopting a baby or placing a baby for adoption is a complicated and deeply personal decision. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages.

At the end of the day, it comes down to a number of factors, including your own individual wants and needs and, ultimately, the best interests of the child.

To help you make your decision,  here is some general information about open and closed adoption — how the two routes differ, and the pros and cons of each one.

Open Adoption

Generally speaking, an open adoption refers to any adoption relationship between adoptive family and birth parents in which identifiable information as well as contact are shared between both parties.

Identifiable information in an open adoption may include first and last names, address, phone number, personal email address and more.

Contact may include contact before and after the adoption, including phone calls, emails and visits.

Of course, some open adoptions are more open than others. Some of these adoption relationships can include personal visits agreed upon by both the adoptive family and birth parents.

Other open adoptions, known as “Semi Open Adoptions” may just include periodic phone calls on holidays or birthdays.

Over the past few decades, it has become more common for birth parents and adopted parents to agree to some sort of open relationship.

A recent survey found that 100 infant adoption programs in the United States reported 5% of their adoptions were completely closed, while 55% were fully open and 40% were mediated through an agency.

One of the most difficult adjustment periods can be the first year after the adoption. Even very strong proponents of open adoption emphasize that relationships between adoptive parents and birthparents can change, sometimes quite a bit, after the adoption.

No matter how well you and the birthparents get along before the adoption, it’s always a good idea to encourage communication in putting both yours and their expectations in writing.

Closed Adoption

Prior to the 1980s, it was a common practice to keep adoptions closed. This was most likely a result of the lack of understanding of its effects on members of the adoption triad, particuarly birthparents and adoptees.

However, closed adoptions are becoming less requested by birth mothers every year – an estimated 1 out of every 10 – unlike adoptions in the past where majority were closed.

In a closed or confidential adoption, very limited contact or identifying information is exchanged. The adoptive family still receives medical records in closed adoptions, but very little else.

There are always high chances of an adopted child wanting to learn about their birth parents and adoptees in closed adoptions often experience difficulty obtaining information about their adoption as sealed adoption records prevent adoptees from knowing who their biological parents are and having any contact.

Depending on the state where the adoption was finalized, an adoptee may be able to request adoption records or non-identifying information at 18 and 21 years of age.

Non-identifying information may include information about birth parent’s medical history, education, and reason for placement, occupation, hobbies, and more.

As adoptive families, birth mothers, adopted children and child placing agencies continue to see more negatives from closed adoptions, most adoption agencies today encourage the birth mother to make the most of the decision in the adoption, including how much contact she wants with the adoptive family and the child.

It’s then the adoption agency’s job to find the appropriate family for each adoption situation.

Here’s a brief re-cap of Open and Closed Adoptions and their Advantages and Disadvantages:

Open Adoption: “Direct interaction between birth and adoptive families. Identities are known.”

Open Adoption Advantages

For Birthparents
  • Increased ability to deal with grief and loss.
  • Comfort in knowing child’s well-being.
  • Sense of control over decision-making in placement.
  • Potential for more fully defined role in child’s life.
  • Potential to develop a healthy relationship with the child as he or she grows.
  • Less pain and guilt about the decision.
  • May make the decision to place for adoption easier (compared to a contested termination of parental rights trial)
For Adoptive Parents
  • Increased sense of having the “right” to parent and increased ability for confident parenting.
  • Potential for authentic relationship with the birth family.
  • More understanding of children’s history.
  • Increased empathy for birth parents.
  • Less fear of birth parents reclaiming child because they know the parent and their wishes.
  • Delight of being “chosen” as a parent.
For Adopted Children
  • Direct access to birth parents and history.
  • Need to search is eliminated.
  • Identity questions are answered (Who do I look like? Why was I placed?).
  • Eases feelings of abandonment.
  • Lessening of fantasies: birth parents are “real.”
  • Increased circle of supportive adults.
  • Increased attachment to adoptive family (especially if the birth parents support the placement).
  • Preservation of connections (e.g., with siblings, relatives).
  • Lessens loyalty conflicts (according to recent research).
  • Exposure to racial and ethnic heritage.
  • Ability for evolving, dynamic, and developmentally appropriate account of the adoption.

Open Adoption Disadvantages

For Birthparents
  • Full responsibility for setting relationship limits and boundaries.
  • Potential abuse of trust (fewer safeguards).
  • Potential disappointment if adoptive family cannot meet all expectations or needs.
  • Birth mother may feel obligated to place child due to the emotional or financial support given by the prospective adoptive parents.
For Adoptive Parents
  • Full responsibility for setting relationship limits and boundaries.
  • Potential pressure: accept openness or no child.
  • Potential difficulty with emotionally disturbed birth parents.
  • Potential for supporting both child and birth parents (emotionally).
For Adopted Children
  • No clean break for assimilation into family, which some feel is necessary.
  • Potential feelings of rejection if contact stops.
  • Difficulty explaining the relationship to peers.
  • Potential for playing families against each other.

Closed Adoption: “No contact between birth and adoptive families. No identifying information is provided.”

Closed Adoption Advantages

For Birthparents
  • Provides real choice for birth parents when compared to open adoption.
  • Privacy.
  • Some feel this provides a sense of closure and ability to move on with life.
  • Increased ability to deal with grief and loss.
For Adoptive Parents
  • No need to physically share the child with birth parents.
  • No danger of birth parent interference or co-parenting.
For Adopted Children
  • Protection from unstable or emotionally disturbed birth parents.

Closed Adoption Disadvantages

For Birthparents
  • Less grief resolution due to lack of information about the child’s well-being.
  • May encourage denial of fact that child was born and placed with another family.
For Adoptive Parents
  • Allows for denial of “adopted family” or fertility status.
  • Increased fear, less empathy for birth parents.
  • No access to additional medical information about birth family.
  • Less control: agency controls information.
For Adopted Children
  • Possible adolescent identity confusion (unable to compare physical and emotional traits to their birth families).
  • Limited access to information that others take for granted.
  • Potential preoccupation with adoption issues.

Open and closed adoption are very different and each option has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. Whether you’re a prospective adoptive parent or an expectant mother considering adoption, the key is to carefully research both options and choose the path that is right for you.

Karie Boyd is an experienced family law attorney in San Diego, California with extensive experience handling different types of family law cases including adoption, step parent adoption, open adoption, closed, adoption, and many more.

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