‘Open adoptions:’ Removing anonymity,
replacing fear with empowerment
By SANDY GROS, LBSW
Catholic Social Service
Billy came home from school one day very upset. His teacher had given the class an assignment to write an essay about their ancestry. Sobbing, Billy asked his mother, “What should I write? We don’t know anything about my birth family!” Billy was adopted as an infant and his adoptive parents received little information — even his race was a mystery. This true story provides one example of how secrecy in adoption affects children and their adoptive families.
Adoption has historically been a subject surrounded in secrecy. Expectant mothers often “hid the problem” until they gave birth and then pretended the child never existed. Now, many families are realizing the benefits of talking openly about adoption with their children. In the late 1800s, America began a trend toward secrecy in adoption. Beginning in 1854, charitable organizations such as The Children’s Aid Society began placing children in Kansas through the use of orphan trains. Founders believed that the children would thrive in the fresh air and learn good Christian values in the homes they were placed. Unfortunately, many of the 6,000 children placed in Kansas were never formally adopted and some were forced to become indentured servants. Because adoption was generally informal and very little legislation existed regarding placement of children, Kansas officials saw the need to regulate the placement of children into the state.
If placement of older children was not supervised, placement of infants was regulated even less. Monitoring the placement of infants came under the scrutiny of the early child welfare system. By the 1930s most states had developed laws that required an investigation into the suitability of the adoptive home. Anonymity was promised in order to protect the adoptive family, the birth family and the child from the stigma of illegitimacy. With increased regulation, sharing of identifying information rarely occurred.
When Catholic Social Service opened its doors in 1965, we too practiced “closed adoptions”. However, as adoptees began to express a desire to know more about their origins, agency staff began to question the ethics of withholding identifying information. Families needed to determine what information they wanted.
In reality, this change in philosophy causes great confusion for families seeking to adopt. Families want to know how openness in adoption benefits them. The answer is simple. Living in fear of the secret being exposed creates turmoil in everyday life. With full disclosure of information, this fear dissipates.
Catholic Social Service bases its Infant Adoption Program on the concept of open adoption. The expectant parents choose the family that will raise their child. The adoptive family selected builds an ongoing relationship with the expectant parents. After placement, the child benefits from having a forever family while maintaining a relationship with his or her birth parents. Discussion about adoption occurs openly and any issues are readily addressed.
With the help of educational workshops focusing on open adoption, families learn valuable skills that prepare them for the challenges of parenting a child through adoption. They explore the philosophy behind open adoption and the benefits they receive in return. Adoptive parents learn how to talk to children about adoption in a positive and respectful manner. Adoptive parents also return to their families and communities with an increased awareness that benefits everyone involved.
So, what did Billy do? Without the secrecy of closed adoption, he would have been able to request help from his birth family on the assignment. Instead, he created a fantasy family.