Unexpected pregnancies are life-changing! They change your world view and put the truly important things into perspective. Unexpected pregnancies can force you to make a choice, not only for you as an expectant parent, but also for your child. If you are considering open adoption for your child, hopefully, this guide with an open adoption definition will inform your decision.

Open adoption gives an adoptee the opportunity to grow up with an increased perspective: one from the biological family, where the child inherits his or her genes, temperament, gifts, and talent; and the other from the adoptive family, where he or she inherits education, principles, and values. 

About 25 years ago, open adoption was generally unheard of; the norm was a closed adoption. There were not many adoptees who knew about their biological family. Not only was access restricted to the biological family’s information, but also the child was restricted from important information about medical histories. That meant the child did not know the biological mother’s name, location, ancestry, and medical information. This could cause trauma to the adopted child, unsure about the missing piece of their life: the biological family. It could also raise questions such as, “Why didn’t my mom want me?” “Who is my father?” “Why did they reject me?” and “Why have they never reached out to me?” In an open adoption, the answers to those questions are much more accessible than in a closed adoption. Let’s explore how open adoption can benefit all parties involved.

How does Open Adoption benefit my child?

  • They maintain connection post-placement. In the past, closed adoptions gave adoptees no opportunity to interact with the biological family. In an open adoption, adoptees can ask questions and build a relationship with their biological parents. Adoptees should know that they are not unwanted or worthless, but that circumstances were not originally optimal for raising a child. Keeping a connection with their biological parents informs them they are wanted and valued! This can go a long way in adoptee’s mental development.
  • They have an expanded family. Open adoption benefits the child by providing an expanded support system when their biological family cannot emotionally provide. The biological family is an important resource that can help fill in the gaps and strengthen the child’s self-esteem.
  • They have access to medical information. One of the biggest advantages to open adoption is access to medical/mental health and behavioral health history. With a closed adoption, adoptees have to guess at that history. Perhaps the most awkward part of an adoptee’s life is filling out medical applications when the form asks for family medical history. With open adoption, they can ask their biological parents, rather than leaving questions blank. 

How does an Open Adoption Definition benefit me as an Expectant Parent?

  • Connections. Having a child removed from your custody or voluntarily placing your child for adoption are different circumstances, but both painful. Very little can replace the bond between a mother and child. And the loss of connection may seem insurmountable! But open adoption allows you, as an expectant parent, to keep those connections. It allows your child to grow up with a knowledge of your family history, culture, and heritage. This connection allows you, as the biological parent, to be a part of your baby’s childhood. Photos, FaceTime, and phone calls are great, but there is no substitute for seeing your child face to face, on a regular basis.
  • Input into your child’s life. With open adoption, biological parents might get to attend birthday parties, graduations, and holidays. The adoptive parents may even allow you to attend doctor’s visits, if appropriate. Open adoption also allows you, as the biological parent to make suggestions, especially when it comes to the race and culture of the potential adoptive parents. You are a valuable resource to the adoptive parents that no one can replace.
  • Opportunity to grow. Placing your child in the hands of a loving adoptive family might be the hardest decision you ever make. But it can be well worth it. In your past, you may have made some bad choices. Or not. But rest assured, having an open adoption is a good choice! It may be painful, but admitting you are unable to raise a child, and asking for help, is a sign of maturity. It also gives you a second chance to make good choices. Perhaps, to finish that degree you’ve been working on, or to apply for that job, or to pursue better relationships. Whatever the case, making the choice to have an open adoption can help you get better as a person, and not stay stuck in a cycle of bad choices. 

How does an Open Adoption Definition benefit Adoptive Parents?

  • Opportunity to ask questions. Adoptive parents may have lots of questions regarding family history, medical history, or cultural heritage. Along with the swathes of information available on the internet, they have you, the biological parent, to reference. 
  • Opportunity to more clearly understand the biological parent’s perspective. Oftentimes, adoptive parents develop false impressions of the biological parents; that they are monsters or evil people. In reality, biological parents who place their child in adoptive homes are simply people who need to turn a bad situation into a good one. That’s what open adoption is all about.

What are some general principles of an Open Adoption Agreement? 

Each open adoption agreement is different, and each family is unique. But there ought to be some ground rules set before, and during, adoption finalization. Here are some general principles each open adoption agreement should have: 

  • Must have clear and unambiguous boundaries. Rather than saying, families shall meet in public, the agreement should say, “the families shall meet at a park, movie theater, bowling alley or restaurant. Families shall not meet at the home of one of the families.”
  • Must have clearly defined expectations. A good open adoption agreement should clearly define contact parameters, such as, “Families shall have in-person contact quarterly.” Or “families shall have phone contact monthly on the first Sunday of the month.”
  • Must be in the best interest of the child. Most open adoption agreements are in effect till the child reaches 18 years of age. However, the child may not want to continue the relationship with their biological parents before 18. If the relationship gets inappropriate, or if the child is hurt emotionally, then it is not in the best interest of the child to continue contact. 

The Bridge 

So, what does an open adoption look like? Open adoption consists of what those in the adoption community call: shared parenting. This is when two parents participate in the parenting of a child. This term is commonly referenced in divorce proceedings in regards to child custody issues. In the divorce decree, the court outlines who has custody of the child, how much custody, and what type of decisions can be made by each parent. Open adoptions are similar to custody agreements, with the exception that adoptive parents are the sole legal and custodial guardians of the child, not the biological parents.

The best shared parenting analogy is that of a bridge. Foster Parent College uses this analogy in its Pre-Service Training for foster parents. On one end of the bridge is the adoptive parent. On the other end of the bridge is the biological parent. They must meet somewhere on the bridge. Where they meet on the bridge is a decision that must take place prior to the adoption. There are many variables in the decision including, location, frequency, and type of contact. Each family will make different decisions based on their needs and mutual understanding. Each case and circumstance is totally unique. Your level of trust comfort can help you make an educated decision. Here are a few possibilities to consider:

  • Cards/letters. Birthday cards, greeting cards, and special event cards can be exchanged. The adoptive parents may obtain a post office box. Maintaining anonymity may be of value to either party in the beginning. Keep this in mind if your parental counterpart chooses to obscure their address. Trust can only be built with patience and understanding. 
  • Photos. Exchanging pictures is a good idea, again, with supervision. Physical photos, photos through smartphones, social media, or emails.
  • Social media. In the world of social media, you may need to approach social media with caution. Facebook, Twitter, and the like are a source of much drama and may cause more heartache than connection. If trust has not been built yet, it may be a good idea to refrain from contacting the biological parents until you are both more comfortable.
  • Phone calls and text messages. Calls should take place at designated times and dates. For example, the first Sunday of every month at 7:00 pm. Who calls who should be clearly outlined. Again, maintaining a schedule and being gracious will help parties learn to trust one another.
  • Family visits. Agree where, when, and how often regular visits will take place. Foster children have the convenience of family visits being supervised by the courts or by Child Welfare. Adoptive children have no such protections. Therefore, the adoptive parents must supervise the visits.
  • Holidays and special events. Birthdays, Christmas, and Thanksgiving are great times for the family to gather… or not. Special events like graduations, etc., are other meetings you need to consider. Decide together with the adoptive family when, where, and how often to meet and how long the event will be.

Legal Considerations

Each biological parent considering open adoption should obtain a specialized lawyer. Adoption attorneys can counsel you through the legal paperwork and represent you in court. The adoptive family should do the same. Your lawyer should have years of experience in adoption matters. A good adoption agency can lead you to the right attorney. Here are some legal issues to consider: 

  • Termination of Parental Rights. This option, also called TPR, is when a biological parent’s legal and custodial rights are involuntarily relinquished or severed. This is a long legal process that is not to be taken lightly. The courts give biological parents every opportunity to recover. Depending on which state the TPR occurs in, this process could take over 2 years. The state needs to show that they have given the parents considerable time to rehabilitate. Biological parents have the right to object to the TPR and may proceed to a trial. If they win their appeal, they have an opportunity to regain custody of their child. If they lose, or if they default by not appearing at the trial, their parental rights are terminated, and the child becomes available or eligible for adoption. 
  • Voluntary relinquishment of parental rights. This is a bit different than above, in that biological parents volunteer to relinquish their rights, rather than involuntarily. In this case, it is easier because there may be no abuse or neglect. And in this case, the legal process may be streamlined, especially if the birth mother starts the process before she gives birth.
  • Post Adoptive Communication Agreement. This is a legal document, negotiated between attorneys for the biological and adoptive families, which is approved by the court. The agreement outlines terms of contact with the adoptive child. Who? What? Where? When? And how often contact will occur? are all included. 
  • Enforceability. Open adoption agreements may be legally enforced in some states. In other states, they are not. Check with your attorney to determine your state’s laws.

When is Open Adoption no longer a good idea?

Needless to say, there are times when open adoption is no longer in the best interest of the child. Below are a few examples: 

  • When there is unresolved conflict.
  • When it becomes dangerous to do so.
  • When it is emotionally damaging for the child to do so.

But this doesn’t mean that both families step off of the bridge. It means that both ought to step back, or back down from the bridge, and re-evaluate. 

So, what is a good Open Adoption Definition? Try this: 

“Open Adoption is a legal term which describes the parameters and level of contact between biological parents and their children who are now being raised by adoptive parents, keeping in mind the best interest of the child”

Is open adoption perfect? No, it is not. People are not perfect. But it is a system that considers the failings of individuals and allows for grace. It is a system that affirms the connection between adopted children and their birth parents. It is important for a child to know where they come from, who they are, and what their heritage is. Done correctly, open adoptions can benefit the child in ways that we can never imagine.

Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have 8 children: 6 of which are adopted. His adopted children are all of different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican, and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast, and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption is a passion and calling for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.