What Is an Open Adoption? How Open Adoption Works

Open adoption is one of the most common types of adoption today. If you are considering adoption, you may be wondering what is an open adoption?

Open adoption is defined as adoption in which both the birth parents and the adoptive parents share contact information to a level at which they feel comfortable. Continued contact after the adoption is common, and only to a degree that all parties involved consent and feel respected.

Open adoption can mean different things to different people. This is because open adoptions leave room for flexibility for both the birth parents and the adoptive parents.

The openness of adoption is only to a level in which both parties feel comfortable, so each open adoption is customized to fit everyone’s degree of comfort.

Let’s take a look at some common aspects of open adoptions that are often asked by prospective adoptive parents considering adoption.

Girl on bench outside looking up at her dad.

What is an Open Adoption?

In an open adoption, birth parents do not have to wonder if the child they put up for adoption is okay, where they are, or how they are doing. Contrary to a closed adoption, open adoptions take the secrecy and curiosity out of the adoption process.

The adopted child does not have to wonder where they came from and who their biological parents are.

And the adoptive parents have the peace of mind knowing the open adoption they chose is benefiting all involved.

What do you do, though, if the idea of an open adoption makes you as the adoptive parent feel a bit uncomfortable? Maybe even a bit insecure?

To address these natural and very common concerns, we will take a look at the perceived pros and cons of open adoption.

All you want to do is love and care for a child who needs you. Why then is adoption so expensive?

What Is the Difference Between an Open and Closed Adoption? 

In open adoptions, the birth parents and adoptive parents have a mutual agreement to stay in contact at a level they are both comfortable with. In a closed adoption, the adoptive parents have no information about the birth parents, and the child does not know who their birth parents are.

How Does Open Adoption Work?

Open adoption works by allowing the birth parents and the adoptive parents to remain in contact to the extent both parties are comfortable. Due to the positive aspects of open adoption and the advantages to the child, this is the most sought-after type of adoption today.

How an Open Adoption Works:

  1. What each partner wants from an open adoption is up to them to decide.
  2. An adoptive family is chosen by the prospective birth mother.
  3. Through communication prior to placement, both sides learn about one another.
  4. At the hospital, the prospective birth mother and adoptive parents have a face-to-face meeting.
  5. After placement, the bond between the adoptive family and the birth parent(s) remains intact.

What Is a Semi-Open Adoption?

The concept of semi-open adoption is rather recent; it only truly gained traction in the last several decades. It refers to adoptions in which birth moms and adoptive families communicate but no identifying information is shared.

Interactions between birth parents and adoptive families in these semi-open adoptions are typically handled by a third party (i.e. The adoption agency).

Typically, communication will take the form of phone conversations, emails, photographs, and letters that are all handled by the agency.

Adoptive families will send their letters and images to the agency first, which will then pass them on to the birth parents in order to protect privacy.

Most adoptive families and birth parents who desire to protect their privacy during the adoption process choose semi-open adoptions.

This form of adoption may be chosen by birth parents in the hopes that having less direct contact with their child and the adoptive parents may aid in their post-adoption healing.

This kind of adoption may be chosen by adoptive families who want to preserve their child’s relationship with his or her birth family while still maintaining their privacy.

It’s probably no mystery that adoption attorneys assist with the adoption process. But what exactly do adoption attorneys do?

The History of Open Adoption

Today, the preferred form of adoption in the United States is open adoption. Unfortunately, that’s not always been the case. Since research from the 1970s showed that open adoption was beneficial for children, open adoption has gradually increased in popularity.

The tide started to turn in 1975, and by the early 1990s, the majority of American adoption agencies offered open adoptions.

Research indicated that just a third of adoption agencies provided fully open adoptions as a choice between 1987 and 1989; by 1993, 76% of the studied agencies offered fully open adoptions.

These years saw particularly significant improvement. Approximately 50% of US states still see open adoption as legally obligatory as of 2013, however, communication is not always maintained.

In a closed adoption, no information was shared between a birth mother and the adoptive parents during these kinds of adoptions.

Rarely were the parents aware of the birth mother. The birth mother also had no knowledge of the placement of her child and no control over the decision of who would parent the child.

Closed adoptions strengthened the unfavorable notion that an unplanned pregnancy was inherently degrading. In a similar vein, a birth mother feels compelled to defend her child by nature.

She should select the parents for her child, not the government or social workers.

By the 1970s, open adoptions began to gradually replace closed adoptions. This is believed to be due in large part to opposition from children who were also adopted.

Adoptees started to advocate for more open adoptions as they grew older and had a desire to learn more about their biological parents.

Additionally, birth moms were increasingly outspoken in their desire to know about and participate in the lives of these children.

Learn how long adoption takes and why adoption takes so long.

Post Adoption Contact Agreements

Post-adoption contact agreements permit communication or contact between a child, his or her adoptive family, relatives of the child’s biological family, or other people the child has a long-standing relationship with, such as a foster parent after the adoption has been legally finalized.

These agreements, also known as cooperative adoption or open adoption agreements, can take many different forms, from mutually respectful informal agreements between the birth and adoptive families to official, written contracts.

Enforceable Contact Agreements

State law generally does not forbid post-adoption communication or interaction. Because adoptive parents have the authority to determine who is allowed contact with their adopted child, they are free to permit any level of interaction with biological relatives.

These interactions frequently take place without a written agreement and are instead handled by mutual understanding.

The type and frequency of contact or communication between the parties to an adoption can be made clear in a written contract between the parties, and it can also offer a means for the agreement to be upheld in court.

Contact can take many different forms, from the adoptive and birth parents exchanging information about a child (such as cards, letters, and photographs via conventional or social media) to the adoptee exchanging information with the birth parents or relatives, or even paying them a visit.

Most of us know what adoption is, but did you know there are different types of adoption? Read our full adoption resource here.

Who Can Participate in a Contact Agreement?

Any person who is an immediate relative of the adopted child may enter into a contact agreement after adoption in the majority of states that allow enforceable agreements, provided that the nature and frequency of the contact are deemed by the court to be in the child’s best interests and are intended to safeguard the child’s safety and the rights of all parties to the agreement.

Depending on variables including the kind of adoption, the adopted child’s age, or the nature of the contact, some states place restrictions on the enforcement of these agreements.

Enforcing Contact Agreements

The court that has jurisdiction over the adoption must approve the agreements for them to be binding. Prior to the adoption’s finalization, all parties who will be included in the agreement must, in general, accept all of its provisions in writing. Only if all parties concur on its terms and the court determines it is in the child’s best interests will the agreement be approved by the court.

Important to keep in mind is that each state has its own specific laws regarding contact agreements.

Rights of Birth Parents in Open Adoption

Up until the adoption is legally finalized by a court, organization, or private entity, the birth parents will retain their legal rights. The birth parents then have little, if any, rights when the state ends custody and finalizes the adoption.

Until the child is old enough to understand, the adoptive parents can maintain contact with the birth parents and work to build a bond without including the child.

Visitation and visits that are possible for a short or long period of time may result from this.

There are no visitation rights for birth parents who have offered their child for adoption, though, and the adoptive parents are free to stop it at any time.

In most cases, when someone utilizes the adoption procedure, they lose all of their legal rights to the child.

When the child is placed for adoption, this is the usual procedure. Before the parents may go back and halt the procedure, it is the last stage, but once it is finished, the rights are lost.

The parents’ rights will be fully removed by the state from all visitation, custody, and other concerns.

The adoptive parents then have the choice to decide whether or not the birth parents will have any contact with the child.

8 Pros of Open Adoption

Most adoptions today are open, and there are proven pros to this type of adoption. Below are 8 pros of open adoption:

1. Birth parents choose the adoptive parents
2. More closure knowing the child is doing well
3. Photo exchanges and updates are optional
4. Adoptive parents are in control of contact
5. Apt to know child’s medical history
6. Child won’t obsess about who birth parents are
7. Child will know the adoption was done out of love
8. The child has the option to contact the birth parents

With so many pros of open adoption, it is no wonder that closed adoptions have become a thing of the past.

There are so many people who still to this day do not know who their birth parents are, and many do not have access to that information.

Birth Parents – Possible Pros of Open Adoption

Birth parents get to choose who the adoptive parents of the child are.

Having had the opportunity to meet with and interview the prospective adoptive parents, the birth parents end up feeling more comfortable knowing they chose whom their birth child will be raised.

Open adoptions allow birthing parents more information and access to how their birth child is doing. This in turn can help the birth parents to find closure knowing their decision to seek adoption was met with a good outcome.

Depending on the mutual boundaries established by both the adoptive and birth parents, the birth parents may have an opportunity to receive photos of the child while growing up, as well as even possibly meet with the adoptive family.

Adoptive Parents – Possible Pros of Open Adoption

Knowing you were personally chosen by the birth mother to raise her child is a wonderful feeling for the adoptive parents and adds a level of self-confidence knowing they were perceived as desirable enough to be selected as the parents of the adopted child.

Even with open adoption, it is up to the adoptive parents to decide when to share with their child that they are adopted.

Adoptive parents can feel confident knowing that because of the openness that can be shared with all involved, the child will not grow up secretly wondering who their birth parents are. As humans, we naturally want what we cannot or do not have.

With all information about a child’s birth parents out in the open, the adoptive parents can feel more secure knowing that their adopted child will have no reason to secretly obsess about where they came from.

Adoptive parents are more apt to know the medical history of their adopted child, which is a tremendous advantage.

Adopted Child – Possible Pros of Open Adoption

One of the biggest pros of open adoption for the adopted child is having the opportunity to not only know they were adopted but not have to wonder who their birth parents are.

It is natural for an adopted child to wonder and even obsess about who their birth parents are. They may be wondering, what do my birth mom and dad look like?

Do I have any biological siblings? Depending on the kind of open adoption that has been mutually agreed upon between both the adoptive parents and the birth parents, these natural curiosities can be things the adopted child knows upfront from the very beginning.

Being an adopted child in a closed adoption and not knowing why you were put up for adoption may cause unnecessary grief, and sadness, and lead to low self-esteem.

In open adoptions, there is no wonder and only the feeling of knowing the adoption was done out of love and in their best interest.

If the adopted child has any questions about their birth parents or their birth family, they know they are welcome to give their birth parents a call or send them a text or email.

9 Cons of Open Adoption

As with everything in life, nothing is perfect. Some may consider there to be cons of open adoption. Below are 9 cons of open adoption:

1. Birth mothers have less anonymity
2. Less of a sense of closure for birth parents
3. Contact may feel like an obligation
4. Natural fear of child and birth parents bonding
5. Boundaries may be pushed to uncomfortable levels
6. A child may feel confused juggling two families
7. Awkward for child explaining family to friends
8. A child may have identity confusion
9. A child may play both sets of parents against each other

These possible cons are all subjective and mean different things to different people. One con of open adoption could be viewed as an advantage to others.

Despite any perceived cons, open adoption also has a multitude of benefits that may far outweigh any possible cons.

Birth Parents: Possible Cons of Open Adoption

Depending on a birth parent’s level of comfort, open adoption may leave a birth mother feeling a bit exposed with less anonymity than what a closed adoption provides.

An open adoption typically involves the exchange of information such as email addresses, phone numbers, and names. Not everyone may feel comfortable providing this information.

Some birth parents wish to find some sense of closure after their adoption, yet an open adoption may prove to be a challenge in accomplishing that expectation. Perhaps in an open adoption, there can be ground rules set that respect those reservations.

There may be times when the adoptive parents help the birth mother financially and may expect things in return that make the birth mother feel uncomfortable.

With this said, a birth mother should never feel obligated in any way to agree to anything that makes her uncomfortable.

As a side note, an adoptive parent must also be emotionally prepared, too, that a birth mother may change her mind about the adoption altogether, even down to the very last minute.

Adoptive Parents: Possible Cons of Open Adoption

There is always the natural fear that the birth parents and your adopted child will become very close making you feel like an outsider.

What is worse, however, is when your adopted child does not know who their biological parents are.

They then obsess about finding and establishing a relationship with them. At least if your adopted child knows upfront who their biological parents are, there is no longing or obsession to find them.

Boundaries are a thing, and an open adoption stands the chance of creating a monster if there are no mutually established boundaries.

What you do and do not feel comfortable with needs to be established from the very beginning.

The adoptive parent’s feelings on what they are comfortable with may change as they begin to realize the threat they initially perceived is not as they once imagined.

Adopted Child: Possible Cons of Open Adoption

Depending on the openness of the adoption agreement, the adopted child may experience challenges acclimating to one family or the other.

The idea of open adoption is wonderful, yet having such an open experience may contribute to the confusion of which family one truly belongs to.

An adopted child of open adoption may experience the awkwardness of having to explain his or her adoption status to friends.

Just like children play one parent against the other in traditional families, an adopted child may play his biological family against his adoptive family when it makes sense for them to do so.

There may be identity confusion as the child gets older regarding family history and his or her genealogy.

Closed Adoption & Things to Consider

A closed adoption is one in which there is little to no communication between the adoptive family and the birth parents. This notion of a closed adoption also implies that personally identifying information is often kept private.

For instance, the birth and adoptive parents frequently do not exchange information like last names and personal contact information.

Is a closed adoption right for you? Let’s go over some things you may wish to consider.

Closed Adoption Is a Way to Move On

Closed adoptions offer the greatest degree of privacy and could give some birth moms the sense of closure that many are looking for.

The key factor in a closed adoption is the birth mother’s outlook on her life after the adoption. Are the adoptive parents a part of it? Does she interact with her child in any way? How much or how little, if so?

What’s best for her and her child only the birth mother may decide. And in other circumstances, she could decide to cut off communication and carry on with her life.

The Adoptive Family Has More Control

Although this privacy has certain drawbacks, many families see it as a plus. They won’t need to recollect to submit an occasional image and letter updates throughout the year. At the hospital, they won’t speak to either of the birth parents. With the birth parents, they won’t have phone or email conversations.

The maximum privacy will be afforded to adoptive families who are paired with the uncommon birth mother seeking a closed adoption.

These are advantages of closed adoption for certain families, yet they are significant downsides for other families.

No Contact with Birth Parents for the Adoptee

The adopted child will always be curious about his or her biological mother, wondering what she looks like and why did she decide to have me adopted.   Did she not care about me? The child in a closed adoption might never learn the answers to such questions and might feel as though a significant part of his or her life is missing.

The child will have to wait until he or she is old enough to look for her before getting the answers to these inquiries. Even then, there are no promises the young person will discover the solutions to the problems they are searching for.

Remember that it’s human nature to want what we don’t or can’t have.

Information About the Birth Parents or Adoptee Isn’t Accessible

Adoptees have their own curiosities about who their birth parents are just as the adoptive parents do. In a closed adoption, adoptive parents will lack important medical information about their adopted child.

Birth parents may also have regrets later in life and wish they’d not opted for a closed adoption. It’s only natural to wonder what your biological child looks like, who their adoptive parents are, and so much more.

The Adoptee Will Have Identity Issues

Identity is a challenge that many adoptees experience. Our identities are formed from the minute we are born, but the majority of them happen throughout adolescence. Knowing what makes us constant and different from other individuals is made easier by our identity.

Numerous events and experiences throughout our formative years influence how we see ourselves. This formation may be a little more challenging for adoptees.

In some sense, when a kid is adopted, they leave a piece of themselves behind. If things had turned out differently, it may have been a different life.

They are not in any way lacking. Instead, adoptees have a dual identity that pertains to their present self and their adoptive identities, as well as a distinct perspective of what it means to be adopted.

For a variety of reasons, adoptees may struggle with their identity, and each adoptee has a unique set of experiences that can either support or impede this process.

Identity development may be a difficult process. Teenagers already have a lot on their plates, and one of those things is trying to figure out who they are.

A foreign culture, a different set of parents, and a lot of unanswered questions come to mind. Adolescent adoptees must deal with this reality.

Identity confusion can cause a range of additional problems in an adoptee’s life. The ability to feel good about oneself is essential for emotional stability.

They may feel lost if they can’t fully develop their individuality. For instance, difficulties in education, difficulty establishing wholesome relationships, and general unease.

These are only a few of the difficulties adoptees have while trying to balance their adoptive identities with their present selves.

Searching for Birth Parents

Many adoptees will eventually want to find their birth family. Adoptive parents need to consider this upfront when choosing a closed adoption.

In the beginning, it may feel more secure to opt for a closed adoption. After all, there won’t be any birth parents or family around to compete with or secretly feel insecure over.

Will my adopted child love his biological parents more if I choose open adoption? Closed adoption may seem very tempting indeed.

What adoptive parents need to keep in mind is that a closed adoption for security purposes is very likely to have the exact opposite effect from what you were hoping to achieve with a closed adoption.

After all, we all want what we can’t have. An adopted child will feel a longing, an inner ache, and an unsatisfied desire to know who his biological parents are.

Adoptees in an open adoption know from day one who their biological parents are. There is no deep, secret yearning to find them one day, as there is no void or hole that needs to be filled.


Trina Greenfield - Adoption Author

About the Author:
Trina Greenfield is passionate about providing information to those considering growing their family. Trina does not run an adoption agency. Her website is strictly information-based, so she is able to provide unbiased, credible information that she hopes will help guide those along their journey.