Talk about a big question. Closed adoption versus open adoption is not a simple comparison. I myself might be inclined to say, “I’ll choose whatever will be easiest, for all of us.” But, is that possible? Are there competing interests or interests that might change over time? What have we learned about adoptions in the past, and how have views changed over time? What do the professionals say? 

Let’s start with the purpose of adoption. To say that adoption has always been about providing kids in need with homes would be naive. According to Ken Watson, an internationally known adoption expert, in Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past, by Betsy Keefer and Jayne E. Schooler, adoption has spanned a vast array of needs, not all of them noble. In history, adoption has provided royal families with an heir, and provided indentured, or slave, labor to those who needed a helping hand on the farm or manor. He goes on to say that more modernly, adoption serves two other, more acceptable purposes: to provide a child for a family who may not have been able to have one otherwise [and, I insert, to allow a family to chose to reach out and minister when called to this adoption life], and to give birth parents a solution to an unplanned pregnancy [and, I insert, to provide homes for children of the foster care system who are unable to be united with birth parents].

People often have a fantastical view of adoption. A healthy, caucasian baby is lovingly placed into the arms of perfect, wealthy parents who live happily ever after with a child that, in times past, may not have ever been told they were adopted, or nowadays, with a child that loves and adores the parents that ‘saved’ them from what could have been a wretched upbringing. There are no behavioral issues and no uncomfortable questions about birth parents. And that is truly a fairy tale. As an adoptive parent, life is anything but this simple story. Because adoption is, in essence, the tearing of the primary attachment of parents and baby, there can always be pain in closed adoption and open adoption stories. We just might not like to talk about it.

So, what is a closed adoption? A closed adoption is sometimes referred to as a sealed adoption, and it means that the birth parents have no information about or contact with the adoptive parents or their child. The adoptive parents have very little information about the birth parents and no continuing, even sporadic, interaction with the birth parents. Often, these adoption records would be sealed and difficult, if not impossible, for adoptees to access even as adults. The results were, at a minimum, children without access to even the most basic information about their past, or their hereditary medical history. It would not be uncommon for children to not be told about their adoption, or to be told rather abruptly at some point in their lives, or to even find out accidentally that the people raising them were not biologically their parents. Our understanding of how adoption affects both the adoptee and the birth families has come a long way in the last few decades. So much so, that in Canada, where I am from, closed adoption is no longer legal. The government has recognized the right of adoptees to have access to their history, including both their social and ethnic history, along with the parental medical history, where available.

Open adoption is, quite plainly, where there is at least some degree of exchange of information between birth and adoptive parents. There is a wide range in what is considered an open adoption. The base form of open adoption in Canada would be an adoptee requesting their records once they reach the age of majority in their province, and therefore gaining access to their birth information, parent’s names, and possibly Ministry for Children and Family Services records if they were removed from their birth parents at some point due to neglect, abuse, or an inability to parent. In the middle of the spectrum may be adoptive parents sending updates on the adoptee to a neutral party in adoption services that repackages the mail and then sends it on to the birth parent to maintain some privacy. This might also include restrictive emailing, occasional letters directly to the other party, or another occasional contact. On the opposite end of that spectrum would be birth parents and adoptive parents meeting together, in person, regularly. Adoptive parents may be a regular part of the adoptee’s life, maybe called mom and dad, and would be completely up to date on their child’s likes, dislikes, current school struggles, and may participate in the child’s activities, such as sporting events, club activities, private lessons, or hobbies.

So, which one is better? Although closed adoption is almost totally a thing of the past, some people still think it is a better method. To be fair, some adoptions come with special circumstances, such as a violent or dangerous birth parent. In these cases, open adoption is almost impossible, and not viable for the safety of the child. For countries where closed adoption is no longer allowed, these adoptive families may very well choose no contact whatsoever, and the child may access their adoption records when they become adults. I would hope that no adoptive parents out there are continuing to hide the adoption from their child. That is known to be damaging and, in the long run, quite hurtful, and even harmful. Even so, it is still important to explain why open adoption, at least in some form, is so important. Let’s take a look.

Alex Haley, in the book Roots, describes that many adoptees who have a closed adoption experience “disquieting loneliness,” devastating feelings of abandonment, rejection, shame, and guilt directly out of their lack of knowledge about their past and why they were placed in an adoptive family. Keefer and Schooler state, “Secrecy has not served the adopted person.” Even more concerning, Marshall Schecter, who is a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says 

“Some [adoptees] have trouble forming an identity when they reach adolescence because they have been told little to nothing about their past. Others may develop fantasies – both positive and negative – about their birth family. Some adoptees spend a lifetime never finding answers to their questions. For others, this black hole which exists where their past should be becomes too much of an emotional burden for them to bear, leaving deep psychological scars” (Keefer and Schooler, 2000).

 To me, that says it all. Kids need to know information about their adoptions. And that does not happen in closed adoptions.

Being the parent of five children, two biological and three adopted, I have had my share of hard conversations. And you know what? It never gets easier. Adoption stories often have hard, sad components to them. As an adoptive parent, I want to protect my child’s precious heart, and I don’t want to hurt them with information about their past. At the same time, I believe that it is the right of every adopted child to have all the details of their personal story by the time they are of the age of maturity. But what about the hard parts? What if there are really ugly parts? Well, who decides what parts you, the parent, get to leave out? Many adoption specialists now advocate for frequent, age-appropriate conversations about adoption, in which your goal should be to slowly, and safely, provide the whole picture of a child’s adoption, over the course of many years. This way, adoptive parents prevent overwhelming their child with sometimes shocking and troublesome facts. 

Although this is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to open adoption, the below list, from Keefer and Schooler, is very helpful when it comes to knowing how, when, and what amount to tell an adopted child:

The 10 Commandments of Telling (from “Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child”)

  1. Initiate the conversation about adoption
  2. Use positive adoption language
  3. Never lie to a child about the past or a birth family member
  4. Allow a child to express anger toward a birth family member without joining in
  5. Omissions are okay until age twelve. After that, all information should be shared. (*some families, including ours, may choose to share complicated or adult issues more slowly than this. Examples may include: rape, incest, murder, etc)
  6. If information is negative, use a third party, such as a therapist, to relate the most troublesome details
  7. Don’t try to fix the pain of adoption (there is no way out of the pain, just a way through the pain)
  8. Don’t impose value judgments on the adoption information. Be neutral. 
  9. Allow the child control of sharing their adoption story outside of your family
  10. Remember, the child probably knows more than you think he or she does

Speaking about adoption is just one part of openness. Each family will have to decide for themselves how much openness they are comfortable with. Our family has chosen a radical openness. After praying about it fervently, we felt a call in our life to include and love the birth parents of our adopted children like family. This has not always been easy, but we were determined to never give up. We were determined not to easily take offense, and to be humble and admit when we were wrong. Which, to be honest, was a lot! We have had birth parents come for holidays, stay in our home over Christmas, and even live with us for a season. 

We recognize that (wide) open adoption is not for everyone. We acknowledge that it is not always an option and that the safety of the child and families involved is paramount. Mental illness and addiction issues can make open adoption difficult, or impossible in some cases. But, because of the incredible healing I have seen come out of open adoption, I have always been an advocate for it. Some people get really creative and make dedicated email accounts to stay in touch with a birth parent they have a hard time meeting in person. Some families use Facebook to show what the adoptee is up to in a safe, and distanced way. 

The truth is, the adoptive parents have all the power here. Whatever they decide, goes, until the child is an older teen (yes, older teens have been known to run from adoptive parent restrictions in search of their own past…closing an adoption guarantees nothing). I do caution adoptive parents to always be compassionate. When you hold the power, you also hold the responsibility. 

Most adoptive parents just want what is best for their adopted children. But don’t let bitterness or jealousy creep in. Your adopted child’s birth parents will always have a place in the adoptee’s heart. For some kids, this is a BIG place. For others, maybe not. Recently, one of my adopted daughters, who has been with us for nine years, sang out, “I love you, but I love my birth mom more!” It was a moment of silliness, and in a split second, I felt a choice: be offended, or accept the fact that her birth mom still holds first place in her heart. I chose to accept it. It did hurt, and my stomach did sink, but I smiled, laughed along with her, and just said, “Yeah, I know”. I texted her birth mom and told her about it. She replied back that it made her cry, and she told me she loved me. This birth parent, who entrusted her daughter to the system that brought her to our home told me that she loved me. 

This is open adoption. This is healing, and This is putting the child first. Out of three adopted children, one has a harder time accepting her past and is often wishfully thinking that her birth parents could meet up again, fall in love again, buy a house and be her parents, again. The adults in this story know that this won’t happen, and is not able to happen. But, because of open adoption, the adults in this story, myself included, will work together to make sure this precious child knows how loved she is. And for this reason, I love open adoption.

Jamie Giesbrecht is a stay at home mama to three adopted and two biological children. When she isn’t homeschooling the kids, she can be found seeking adventure with her family in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, hunting, fishing, camping, or trail-riding the horses to town for some snacks. Her hobbies include cross stitching, sewing jingle dresses for powwow, reading, and horseback riding as often as she can. Jamie married her high school sweetheart and best friend, Tyler, and together they enjoy watching the kids hatch ducklings and chicks, shear sheep, race around the yard on their horses, and raise pigs on their small farm in rural Northeastern British Columbia, Canada. Jamie is passionate about adoption and has been a foster parent on and off and in between adoptions since 2011.