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What Is the Difference Between an Open and Closed Adoption?

After you have decided to make an adoption plan for your child, it can feel overwhelming figuring out which avenues you should take next. You may have heard terms being thrown around like “open adoption,” “semi-open adoption,” and “closed adoption,” and are unsure how to proceed. In this article, we hope to answer questions like: What is the difference between open and closed adoption? What are the pros and cons of the types of adoptions? Which direction is the best for me and my child? If I decide on one type, can I change my mind later even after the adoption is over? 

Open Adoption

According to Oxford Languages, the definition of open adoption is “a form of adoption in which the biological parents participate in the process of placing the child with an adoptive family and may continue to have contact thereafter.” When you choose an open adoption, you will be able to contact your child’s potential adoptive family before, during, and even after the adoption is over. Phone calls, texts, emails, social media posts, and in-person visits are just a handful of ways to form a bond with the adoptive family, as well as keep a relationship with your child. This is also a great way to interview and get to know families that are interested in adopting your child. 

Did you know that open adoptions are actually becoming more popular versus closed adoptions? There are many benefits to keeping your adoption open:

Relationships Between You, the Adoptive Family, and Your Child

As I’ve mentioned before, in an open adoption you will be able to start contacting the adoptive family as soon as a match is made. If you prefer, you can maintain contact through every step of the adoption process. This helps build a strong foundation between the three parties involved. Some family triad’s connection has blossomed throughout the years, and now the members are very close. Most adoptive families are supportive of keeping in contact with the birth parents, as it will help the child understand that they weren’t abandoned; they have an adoptive mommy and daddy that stepped up to help take care of them, and a tummy mommy and daddy that made the bold sacrifice to give their child a better life.

No Identity Crisis for Your Child

In most adoption cases (especially ones that are open), the records are not sealed and are easily accessible. If your child was adopted at birth, or at a young age, with access to these records, they will be able to know exactly who they are and where they came from. A lot of children have to, unfortunately, grow up without knowing their birth parents or how to find them. This can cause what is known as an “identity crisis” as they struggle to try and understand themselves better. When the adoption is open, not only will they be able to understand themselves and their situation, but they’ll be able to appreciate the decisions that were made in their best interest and not feel “abandoned,” as some adoptees do.

Medical History Is Very Accessible

After the adoption is final, the adoptive parents will be in charge of your child’s doctor appointments and medical journey. When asked, “What is your child’s medical history?” they’ll be able to answer that question with confidence, since they have easy access to medical records. In closed adoptions, adoptive parents are usually left in the dark about the adopted child’s medical history and can be unsure of what to do. In an open adoption, the adoptive parents can even contact you, personally, to ask any questions they have during an appointment, or if an emergency occurs. 

Yes, there are some great things about open adoption, but there can be cons as well:

“Sharing” Your Child

Some adoptive families feel that their child is being shared with you, which can, unfortunately, cause unnecessary tension. Even though the child is legally bound to the adoptive parents, they might feel threatened, and maybe even scared, that the relationship that they’ve built with your child might be compromised. However, that’s usually not the case, and you and the adoptive family can work together to ensure that there is harmony in your relationship. 

No Privacy

Even though access to records can be a blessing, it can also be a burden. If there was abuse or other forms of neglect in the child’s life, the adoptive family may not want their private information, such as location, readily available to protect themselves and the child. In some cases, the birth parents may not want an open adoption because of the wave of emotions caused by grief in their decision. Open adoption isn’t a “clean slate,” and some birth parents may want to protect their privacy. In an open adoption, everything is literally out in the open for both parties.

Life Changes

As life changes and your child gets older, there may be some strain between the triad. The adoptive parents may want to try a different approach with communication or reassess other agreements. For example, there might be an agreement that your child solely attends public school, but your child may not do well in that environment as they get older. The adoptive family may want to try homeschooling or private school, which wasn’t in the original agreement. Even though they have “more say” as to try various methods that could benefit the adoptee, the relationship between the birth parents and adoptive parents could be tested. Perhaps the child wants more or less communication from the birth parents than agreed. How does one go about that? It’s very important in an open adoption to be open-minded as circumstances and people change all the time.

Semi-Open Adoption

What is the difference between an open and closed adoption? They’re two extremes, whereas a semi-adoption can be the middle ground. A semi-open adoption is when there is some contact between the family triad, but it’s usually through a third party, such as an adoption attorney or agency, which means there usually isn’t direct communication between the birth parents and adoptive family. However, every case is unique, so it’s really up to you and the adoptive family on how much, or how little, contact there will be. This is usually a more comfortable approach since it’s almost right in the middle of an open and closed adoption. The adoptive family will send updates and pictures, but there won’t be visitations or other communication. This can be beneficial for the triad if the birth parents want to still be a part of their child’s life, but aren’t comfortable with keeping in close contact with the adopted family and adoptee. For the adoptive family, a semi-open adoption could almost be a sigh of relief, since it could be daunting to keep in contact with the birth parents. As long as both the birth family and adoptive family are unanimous in the selection of this option, this could be a great way to proceed in the adoption process.

Closed Adoption

A closed adoption is exactly what the name entails – everything is closed and sealed. If the adoptee has been abused, or if the birth family is considered “dangerous,” then this avenue is preferred to protect the privacy and safety of the adopted family. However, if that’s not the case, then you might still consider closed adoption for a variety of reasons:

A Way to Move On

Some birth parents look at a closed adoption as a way to move on from either the shame, guilt, or grief that they felt from placing their child for adoption. They may feel that it’s better for them and their child to have no contact, whatsoever. It’s almost like a “clean slate,” so to speak. Ultimately, it could be an outlet for the birth parents to heal, or find peace.

More Control for the Adoptive Family

We all have heard the saying, “ignorance is bliss.” In some closed adoptions, there is either minimal or no information known about the birth family. The adoptive family can use this opportunity as a “clean slate” for the adoptee. Since there were no prior agreements, like in an open adoption, they have more control over how they raise the adoptee. They may also find relief in the notion that their child won’t be confused about having birth parents and adopted parents in the picture. That being said, I strongly believe that adopted parents should be open and honest with their adopted children about the circumstances pertaining to the adoption. Children are embedded with curiosity. Very rarely will a child have little to no interest in where they came from.

No Contact for the Adoptee

Back to the case of abuse and neglect, it may be beneficial that the adoptee has no contact with the birth family. Even if an individual case wasn’t extreme, severing contact could be more about the issue of stability. Some birth parents have been inconsistent about being in their child’s life, which can negatively affect the adoptee. There isn’t a need to deal with broken promises or anxiety if the adoptee doesn’t have contact with the birth parents. 

Of course, there are some negative aspects of closed adoptions too.

Information Isn’t Accessible

What is the difference between an open and closed adoption? One answer is: information isn’t as easily accessible. In an open adoption, medical records, and other information about the adoption case is available for the family triad to view. On the flip side of things, a closed adoption has its records sealed. The adoptive family might know very little about the birth family, and thus have very little information on the adoptee’s medical history. This can be frustrating when it comes to doctor appointments, any situation a medical complication might arise, and other medical issues.

The Adoptee Won’t Know Their Full Story

Sealed records mean that the adoptee won’t know where they came from. This opens the possibility of the adoptee developing an identity crisis. In a world and culture that is constantly emphasizing “finding yourself” and knowing your identity, this can be disheartening for a child, since they are restricted from knowing about their past. In that same regard, the feeling of abandonment might begin nagging at the back of their mind, since they are left unsure of the reason they were placed with an adoptive family. Unfortunately, this can cause a lot of stress and feelings of hopelessness for the adoptee on their search to find an identity. 

The Search Can Be Difficult

If the adoptee wants to find their birth family or vice versa, the sealed records can make that extremely difficult. Is it possible? Of course, it is, but with the information being limited, either party might not know where to begin. The adoptive family could have given the adoptee a different name, the birth family could have moved to the other side of the country, or either party might not be willing to give out information. It can make the journey for reunification complex, and sometimes heartbreaking, for the adoptee and the birth family.

What If I Change My Mind?

Depending on which state you reside in, which adoption agency you go through, what the adoptive family’s desires, and the circumstances of the adoption, you can request more or less contact with the adoptive family and adoptee. Help and resources are available to answer any questions you have at the Gladney Center for Adoption website. Click here to talk to an options counselor.

What is the difference between an open and closed adoption? The simple answer: the amount of communication and information shared between the family triad. Ultimately, it is up to you as the birth mother, or father, to decide which way you want to go. If you want to be as involved as possible and form a relationship with the adoptive family, then I would suggest that you choose open adoption. If you want to be involved but want minimal contact, then a semi-open adoption might be right for you. If you want to look at the adoption as a way to heal and move on, then consider a closed adoption. Each type of adoption has its pros and cons, so it’s up to you to weigh the options and your feelings. Most adoptive families are more than willing to form and keep a relationship with the birth parents. Don’t let the pros and cons scare you into making a hasty decision. Select the one that you’re the most comfortable with and what you consider is best for your child. 

Emily Perez is a stay-at-home mama to 2 sweet boys and wife to a handsome electrician living the small-town life in Idaho. She has a BS in Elementary Education from Eastern Oregon University and loved teaching 2nd grade. When she was younger, her parents did foster care and adopted 5 kiddos from all walks of life to be her siblings. She hopes to do foster care and adoption in the future. Along with adoption, her other passions include advocating for mental health and special needs. Emily enjoys being with family and friends, snuggling her babies, playing the piano, singing, reading, and writing. Coffee is her go-to drink for fuel and she loves anything chocolate!

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