Know Thy Parent

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Adopting a child.

WebMD Feature

August 7, 2000 -- All his life, questions about the circumstances of his own closed adoption have nagged Tom Angelo: Who were his birth parents? Why did they give him up? What were they like? So when he and his second wife decided to adopt a baby, the Angelos opted for an open adoption. They were determined to let their child know everything about his or her birth family.

The Angelos are not alone. In the past several decades, the tide has turned from closed adoptions, where all information about the birth and adoptive parents is kept strictly confidential, to open adoption, where some details are shared. Advocates argue that the trend makes sense. Open adoption reduces the agony birth parents may feel about not knowing the fate of their baby, they say. It also helps the adoptive parents understand their baby's origins. And someday it may provide the child with solid answers about his or her adoption. What's more, adoptive parents have "fewer worries that the birth family will reclaim the child, because they get to know the adoptive parents individually," says Madelyn Freundlich, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

The Open Door Policy

Tom Angelo agrees. His son John's birth mother can phone "any time she has the urge," he says. There were lots of calls, cards, and visits early on, but nowadays she calls every six to nine months

In contrast with this easygoing relationship, Angelo recalls that when he was little, his own adoptive mother was always afraid someone would "come out of the woodwork to reclaim [her] child." Now she is threatened by Angelo's curiosity about his birth family, reawakened by baby John's adoption.

"I look at his experience through the prism of mine and I think, 'Gee that's neat,' " says Angelo. "I find myself envying John's acquaintance with his birth family and wondering, 'Is it too late for me to go back and get some of that?' " But for now Angelo is not actively searching for his birth parents, partly because he would have to do it without his adoptive family's knowledge or blessing. "Which is very sad, I think," he says. "This whole veil of secrecy just makes adoption seem kind of unholy or something."

The Dark Side of Openness

Of course, not everyone favors open adoption. Mara Duffy, vice president of the National Council for Adoption, warns that open arrangements can go sour. "People often agree to things they don't really understand at the time of adoption," she says. "Sometimes things change, and people aren't comfortable with the agreements they made." Where closed adoption involves no negotiation with the birth parents, open adoptions can -- in the worst-case scenario -- become much like a bad custody agreement.

At issue is rarely the question about who has legal parentage: Birth parents have it before the adoption is finalized. Adoptive parents have it thereafter -- even if they cannot fulfill promises made at the time of the adoption.

What can cause problems, Duffy says, is the raised expectations or pressures on the two sets of parents. What happens, she asks, when an adoptive family moves across the country and the birth parent expects continued contact? Or what if the birth mother changes her mind about giving up the baby? Will she feel undue pressure to go through with the adoption because she's met the adoptive parents?

Because of the potential for problems, counseling is important for those who choose open adoption, says Duffy. It's a point she and some of open adoption's most ardent champions agree on. In fact, Bruce Rappaport, executive director of the Independent Adoption Center, requires extensive counseling for all participants in the center's open adoptions.

The Childrens' Viewpoint

Though the adults may be adequately prepared, what about the children of open adoption? Freundlich says concerns that they might grow up confused about the different roles of their birth parents and adoptive parents are unfounded. Preliminary research suggests they really don't seem to be suffering from that confusion, she says.

Angelo hopes that's the case with John. "Today, there are fewer lines about who was born into this family and who wasn't," he says. "We're all family."

Writer David R. Dudley is based in Berkeley, Calif. His stories have appeared in The New Physician and The San Jose Mercury News.

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