History of Open Adoption

History of Open Adoption

logoOpen adoption has become the norm in the U.S. for infant adoptions, rather than the standard “closed” adoptions of the days gone by. The closed practices that dominated adoptions in the past required that there be no exchange of information or contact of any kind between the adopting and biological parents. All decisions about who adopted which baby were made solely by “the almighty” agency social workers.   In the U.S. most of us grew up accepting closed adoption as the norm, but those adoption procedures were anything but normal.  What could be more important than who adopts what child?

Adoption was not always a matter of secrecy, nor did laws always seal adoption records. In bygone days, adoption could be accomplished by merely recording the transfer of a child, much like we now transfer the deed to our homes or title to our cars. All adoption court records, however, were open to the public.The origin of secrecy and the practice of sealing records has to be understood in the light of a different era, the early 1900s.  Unlike today, there were many destitute children available for adoption, but very few potential adoptive parents. It was largely believed that  social ills as alcoholism, crime, poverty and sexual promiscuity were passed on to children in their genes. For that reason, families feared taking into to their hearts a child of questionable parentage. The risk was just too great that the adolescent child would exhibit the shameful attributes of the criminal or perverted parents.

Social work as a profession in the early 1900’s was just beginning to develop.Social Workers needed to establish themselves as experts in matching children to families in order to sell the public on adoption as a viable means of caring for large numbers of children.   Social Workers then assumed the status of a third party between prospective adoptive parents and birth parents. The pressures of trying to recruit adoptive parents led social workers to give assurances that the child was without physical, emotional, or mental defects.  The selling job that social workers mounted  involved government, legislative protection as an essential element. Sealed records evolved, in effect to conceal the background of children.   In addition, the child’s birth certificate no longer was stamped with the fact of illegitimate birth. Later, replacement birth certificates began to be issued, listing names of the adoptive parents as if the child had been naturally born to them.  Colorado to this day still maintains this practice.  What started as a process to make adoption more attractive and to protect children from being  haunted bytheir illegitimate birth became linked with the idea of rebirth and the mandate of secrecy. By 1950 most states had laws forever sealing original birth certificates and court records, not only from the public but also from the adoptive parents and the adoptee.   Colorado, in fact, still remains one of the few states in our nation that still maintains sealed records.Pressure for change mounted in the l970’s and increased in the l980’s and l990’s. When adoption was the sole alternative to a lifetime of shame, a birth mother had little choice but to accept closed adoption. However, as the social mores against unwed motherhood disappeared, so did young people’s tolerance of these attitudes. Soon few women were choosing adoption for their child (by 1980, less than 3% of non-married women under 25 years of age). Adults who were adopted as children started demanding the right to know their genetic histories. Birth mothers from past years began clamoring for change. Just as other non-traditional alternatives emerged in those decades–from the civil rights movement to alternative schools–so, too, did open adoption.Evidence of the destructive impact of closed procedures continues to mount in the U.S.   In American society secrecy is associated with shame. The shame and stigma of closed adoption left many children feeling that there was something terribly wrong with their own biological heritage. With no information about their birth parents, many adopted children believed that they were just thrown away or that they were given away because they were ‘bad’ or ugly.

Contrary to popular opinion, closed adoption has been more, not less, prone to failure than open adoption. People get the opposite impression only because the failures of closed adoption are hidden from public view by the very secrecy of the process. When a birthmother with a closed adoption experiences the sense of loss and grief that can accompany choosing adoption for her baby, she has little to counterbalance that pain. She has no idea of where her child is going, nor can she experience firsthand the new parents’ excitement and gratitude for her gift to them.Surprisingly, much of the original impetus for openness came from adoption attorneys. Since they were not social workers, they had neither the long history of closed adoption nor the indoctrination that was common in the social work profession about closed adoption. With many agencies refusing to change, by the late 1980’s attorneys began to dominate infant adoption. Fortunately, there was growing pressure on adoption agencies to offer what the attorney’s could not: careful screening of prospective parents and comprehensive counseling, now in the context of open adoption. Colorado, during this time became an agency state, meaning adoptions must be directed through licensed child placement agencies and cannot be facilitated by attorneys. Attorneys, by law in Colorado are not allowed to process adoptions without adoption agency involvement.

Agencies that refused to change simply did fewer adoptions or stopped providing adoption services. After all, for most prospective birthparents deciding between open vs. closed adoption is a “slam dunk.” Would they choose a system that treated them as pathological, gave them no choice about who got their baby, and told them to pretend their child was dead? Or would they choose open adoption, where they were respected, even appreciated, had a say in who adopted their child, and could know how their child fared over the years? For adoptive parents, working with a closed adoption agency could easily mean waiting seven to ten years to adopt a child.Some pioneering agencies led the movement for change, beginning in the 1970’s. They included Lutheran Social Service in San Antonio, Texas under the direction of Kathleen Silber the author of the book “Dear Birthmother” , a program by Jim Gritter’s Catholic agency in Michigan the author of the book “The Open Adoption Experience” and The Spirit of Open Adoption”, and the nationwide Independent Adoption Center located in California. In the early 1990’s, annual meetings of the National Federation for Open Adoption (developed by the Independent Adoption Center) were still debating the merits of openness.   Infact, Geri  Glazer, and the agency she founded and led, at that time, hosted the 1994 National Federation for Open Adoption conference held here in Denver, Colorado in October 1994. While the National Federation was functioning both Geri Glazer and Jeanne Reisig were actively involved with the Federation as speakers at their National Conferences.   By the late 1990’s, the merits of open adoption were no longer relevant; the issues at hand were best practices in open adoption, not whether it was correct or not.
Today, 80% or more of domestic infant adoptions are open adoptions. Adoptive families now take for granted the ‘normalcy’ of open adoption. In practice, the amount of contact between birthparents and child varies a great deal. Sometimes there is considerable contact between the adopted child and his/her birthparents. In other cases, perhaps for the mundane reason that everyone lives far apart, the contact is minimal. Always the basic principle stays the same: caring contact between adopted children and birthparents is like any other normal, healthy relationship in our society, not something about which to be ashamed. In fact, the birthfamily is part of the adoptive family’s extended family because they are related to the child. This model of the birthfamily as extended family is the core of open adoption.

But there are still issues with open adoption, however, that need to be addressed. Birth mothers in Colorado are not” legally” entitled to have contact with the children they place for adoption. The Communication Agreement is simply a moral, ethical agreement between two parties, the birth parent and the adoptive parents, to allow ongoing contact. If the adoptive parents choose to change their phone number, move across country, or ignore communications from the birth mother, they can legally do so. Any promises of contact cannot and will not be enforced by Colorado Courts, at this time.

*Note: “Adoptions by Heart was founded in 2012 but staff experience exceeds 45 years.”