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Journal Issue: Adoption Volume 3 Number 1 Spring 1993

Risks and Benefits of Open Adoption
Marianne Berry

Postulated Benefits of Open Adoption

Open Adoption May Preclude Adoptive Parents' Maladaptive Beliefs

Traditional, or closed, adoptions, where little or no information about the biological parents is shared with the adoptive family, are said to create many problems by their secrecy. They decrease adoptive parents' sense of control over the adoption because the agency controls the flow of information.8 Problems in the adoption itself can be blamed on genetics or on the biological parents' unknown lineage,9 and secrecy contributes to the denial by adoptive families that they are in any way different from biological families.9,10 Openness precludes the secrecy that encourages these maladaptive beliefs. Adoptive parents' understanding of, and positive relationship with, birthparents should increase empathy toward the birthparents of the adopted child and reduce denial of the child's biological heritage.

Open Adoption May Diminish Birthmothers' Separation Grief

Counselors to birthmothers have postulated that these women experience extended loss and grief following the placement of children for adoption.11 Open adoption gives biological parents more control over the adoption decision by providing information about the adoptive parents who will be receiving their child. Having this information enables the birthparents to imagine or visualize the family environment in which their child will live and may relieve some of the guilt and uncertainty that accompany relinquishing a child.12 The counseling process throughout the preparations for open adoption is thought to facilitate the biological parents' grieving and their decision making about the adoption itself.13,14

Also, the ability to have some continuing knowledge about a relinquished child may encourage birthparents to choose adoption,15 thereby increasing the number of children available and decreasing the wait for an adoptable child. In a very general way, therefore, openness may benefit prospective adoptive parents by increasing the pool of adoptable infants.

Open Adoption May Prevent the Adoptees' Identity Confusion

Professionals have long postulated that confidential adoptions contribute to greater identity confusion for adoptees in adolescence.9,16,17 In addition, a 1973 study of 70 adults who were searching for their birthparents found a correlation between search and low self-esteem (although the research could not determine whether searching was a result of low self-esteem or whether low self-esteem was a result of the need to search).18 Adoptees are also reported to be high users of mental health services, particularly in adolescence, for emotional disturbance and identity problems.19-21 Adoption professionals further hypothesize that the secrecy resulting from altered birth certificates and sealed adoption records contributes to adoptees' curiosity and confusion about their past and that a negative image of the birthparent, which persists because of secrecy, may interfere with a positive identity formation in the adoptee.22

Open adoption precludes the adoptees' need to search for their biological parents in adolescence, a process termed "outreach" by Spencer.23 Outreach has been characterized as an adaptive effort to complete the chain that stretches from the present into the remote past,24 either as a move toward healing the early pain of separation25 or as a result of the adoptee's need for "an internal sense of human connectedness."26 Lack of information about heritage has been linked to problems with both individual adjustment and adoptive family problems.18,27

Some professionals believe that early openness will prevent psychological maladjustment. If children have access to their birthparents, they can obtain answers to questions about their identity or their biological roots as those questions arise, rather than in retrospect once they reach adulthood. If biological parents are known and available, they may not be idealized or villainized by the child, but seen as real people who are a part of the child's past and present.

For children who are adopted when older and who know and remember their birthparents, continuing contact with their birthparents may be especially appropriate. The relationship between older adopted children and their adoptive parents has been compared to that of stepfamilies.28 They are individuals with a past history in another family and the ideas and beliefs about family life that history has spawned. If adoptive parents avoid dealing with their children's history, they are denying those children a part of their identity. Open adoptions that acknowledge an older child's history and preadoptive genealogy should therefore support a more complete identity development.

Adjustment issues are particularly salient for adoptees in adolescence, as they experience numerous physical and psychological changes and wrestle with identity. Berman and Bufferd propose that the adoptee in a confidential adoption does not have the "biological reference points" that her nonadopted peer has and is unable to compare her physical development and maturation with that of her biological mother.29

Open adoption may also benefit adoptees by increasing their circle of supportive adults. Hajal and Rosenberg apply the concept of "metafamily" from the remarriage literature30,31 to the open adoption families. The adopted child in this circumstance has a larger-than-average extended family, resulting in a variety of relationships. Adopted children who are in direct contact with biological parents throughout childhood may indeed treat them as aunts or uncles or other extended family members.32-34