An “open adoption” is one in which the birth parents retain the opportunity to be in contact with the adopted child, and maintain a relationship with the adopted child. This can be contrasted with a “semi-open adoption,” which is one where the adoptive parents provide periodic updates (letters, photos, etc.) about the child to the birth parents but there is little or no contact or relationship directly between the child and the birth parents.
An open adoption is still a “real” adoption. The adoptive parents become the legal parents of the child, and the birth parents relinquish parental rights. It isn’t a halfway adoption, or a trial adoption, or an adoption that the birth parents can reverse and take the child back. It is simply one in which all parties have agreed that the birth parents may remain an active part of the child’s life.
This will generally include letters and phone calls between the birth parents and the child. Unless it is not possible logistically, or the birth parents change their mind and realize they can’t handle it emotionally, it will also include the birth parents spending time with the child in person.
Such visits—especially early on, when all parties are still getting to know each other and getting comfortable with each other—must of course be handled with much sensitivity and patience.
The details of the visits will vary depending on the individuals involved, their preferences, and where they are emotionally in this process.
Some find it most comfortable for the first visit to be in a family-friendly public place, like a park, a restaurant, or the zoo. Others prefer it be in the adoptive family’s home. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
A public meeting is more likely to have distractions, and to feel a little less intimate than hosting the birth parents in one’s home. At this early stage, though, some will prefer the lesser intimacy of the public meetings, and the fact that its planned activity and distractions relieve the pressure of a more “heavy” meeting with the expectation of a serious connection and conversation with the child. Others will feel just the opposite, that they want the closeness of a meeting in the child’s new home, they want to see the child’s room and understand more about the life the child now has.
Whatever type of meeting and location is arranged, there are several further recommendations that can be made about it.
One, it’s important that all parties be able to rely on the visit taking place as planned. That means only for an absolute emergency should it be postponed and rescheduled.
Two, open communication is essential. During the whole process of setting up the visit, the time between then and when the visit occurs, and then during the visit itself, all parties must know that they can speak openly about how they’re feeling, what is making them comfortable or uncomfortable, etc.
Three, all parties should know where they can take a break if they become emotionally overcome. This is especially apt to be an issue for the birth mother. One need only imagine oneself in the shoes of a birth mother in this situation to understand how overwhelming it can be to try to establish a relationship with your own child, knowing that you have permanently given up parental rights to that child. If the visit is in the adoptive family’s home, for instance, they can let the birth mother know that she’s welcome to step into the den or the patio or wherever she can be alone for a moment to collect herself, if she feels a need to.
Four, the adoption agency typically isn’t going to just turn everyone loose as soon as the adoption is completed. Normally the counselor or case worker who was involved in the adoption process will still be in the picture when these early visits are being arranged. Therefore, the parties should make use of that resource, keep the adoption counselor informed of the plans and how things are going, and take into account any feedback or recommendations.
Five, as a rule of thumb, though this too can differ depending on the individuals involved, it’s best to keep the peripheral people to a minimum. That is, if the visit takes place in the adoptive family’s house, it’s probably not a good idea to have numerous friends or extended family visiting at the time. Similarly, it’s probably not a good idea for the birth mother to bring her current boyfriend and some other friends with her. Later it may be fine to loosen up on this, but in the early going when the primary parties are still getting to know each other and establishing a comfort level, they don’t need other people around, complicating the dynamic.
Clearly open adoption visits can be difficult, tricky occasions that require a great deal of consideration, compassion, and communication, and even then can be painful or develop into something confrontational. As can the whole process of open adoption, which is why so many people do not choose it.
But those that do choose it feel that the pros outweigh the cons. Analogous to the way when you get married you don’t lose your family and cease to have any contact or relationship with them, people in an open adoption believe the birth parents should remain an important part of the child’s life even as the child moves on to a permanent relationship with a new family. And they’re determined to make that arrangement work.
Deb Donatti, “Open Adoption Visits: Getting Started.” Adoption.com.
Coley S., “How to Plan a Visit.” Adoption.com.
“What is Open Adoption?” Open Adoption Insight.