how to have an open foster adoption

How to Have Openness in a Foster Adoption

open adoption adviceQuestion: Can you talk about open adoption for foster kids who have been abused? We are about to adopt Daughter through foster care and there has been severe and repeated abuse. Birth Dad was the abuser and is in jail for it, and we’re not sure how to proceed with Birth Mom. By court order, Daughter hasn’t seen her in months, possibly a year by the time the adoption is final. I’m concerned about Birth Mom’s lack of understanding of the severity of the situation and her lack of concern for the safety and welfare of Daughter.      — Kate

Guest advising today is Addison Cooper, LCSW, of Adoption at the Movies. Addison is a supervising social worker for a foster care/adoption agency, and he lives in Southern California.

Safety First

Dear Kate: It’s wonderful that you’re starting from a position of wanting to be open. In any adoption, the ideal and desired outcome is a healthy openness — to the degree possible. However, especially in foster care adoption, the kids have often experienced abuse or neglect, and if the situations that led to those physical or emotional injuries have not been resolved, contact with certain birth family members could be harmful or dangerous, at least for a season (the risk level should occasionally be re-evaluated).

how to have an open foster adoption

Here are some thoughts that might be helpful as you decide how to proceed in this case.

Let’s not Confuse Openness with Contact

Especially within the realm of foster adoptions, we must understand that though openness and contact are similar, they are not synonymous.

Adding a dimension to the open adoption spectrumLori has written about openness being an “inside job,” a heartset parents use to guide their efforts, both within themselves and between themselves and their child (unlike Contact, this measure has little to do with birth parents). Sometimes this is as simple as being open to openness. Some parts of openness are entirely in the domain of the adoptive parent. For example, it’s up to you to be honest with your child about the adoption in an age-sensitive way. It’s also up to you to be open to contact as long as it’s not detrimental to your child.

Some prospective adoptive parents (perhaps especially those adopting from foster care in internationally) enter the process expecting no openness. But as a social worker, I’ve seen that it tends to be healthier for all involved to be “open to openness.”

The 6 Word Shift

Once you’re there (clearly you are, since you’ve asked), the honest discussions you have with your daughter about adoption as she processes at advancing cognitive levels, along with your willingness to act in her best interest, will change your question from Will my adoption be open or closed? to instead, How will we live out this open adoption?

When I begin my foster parent training sessions I distill this point to six words: “Not IF open, but HOW open?”

One Person Isn’t All People

Because it’s an expansive concept, I see openness as a continuum rather than as poles, and as dynamic rather than static.

Openness can look many different ways. Talking honestly,  age-sensitively, and empathetically with your daughter about the circumstances of her adoption is a good first step. Openness can sometimes also involve contact, and how that looks can vary from member to member of the birth family. It sounds like your daughter’s Birth Dad would not be safe for contact right now, but Birth Mom might be (with precautions). Grandparents might be. Her siblings quite likely are.

In foster care adoptions, there are often folks from the child’s life — either relatives or family friends — who can be appropriate and beneficial for the child to maintain a relationship with, but for whatever reason, they were not able to adopt the child. It’s worth keeping ties with as many people from your child’s past as is healthily possible!

Contact Comes in Many Forms

Contact can involve physical visits, but it doesn’t have to. Contact can be visits at your home, visits in the community, birthday parties at a park, phone calls, Skype calls, emails or letters and photos. Contact can be between your daughter and her birth mom, or between you and her birth mom. Since you’ve adopted through foster care, your agency or the County might be willing to be an intermediary for letters between you and her birth mom. Those could be helpful so that you can one day provide your daughter with information about her birth family, and so you can see whether, over time, her birth mom comes to understand the significance of the abuse your shared daughter experienced.

“Openness” can be very flexible in practice, and while your heart should always be “open,” what the openness actually looks like can be adjusted over time to best meet the emotional and safety needs of your child.

Addison CooperAddison Cooper, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and the founder of Adoption at the Movies, where he has reviewed over a hundred films for foster and adoptive families. He has also written for Adoptive Families, Foster Focus, Focus on Adoption, Fostering Families Today, The New Social Worker, and Adoption Today magazines. Find him on Facebook and Follow Adoption at the Movies on Twitter @AdoptionMovies

My 2 Cents

I’m thankful to Addison for addressing Kate’s question. As I pondered it, I recalled Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which helps parents of any type to always be aware of the basic needs of a child, especially the fundamental need for safety.maslows hierarchyAccording to Maslow’s hierarchy, a person will have difficulty working on higher levels of development unless lower level needs are met. Along with immediate needs like air, water, and food, the requirement of physical safety must be provided through shelter and protection from harm. Our responsibilities as foster or adoptive or just plain old parents is to secure this need so we can help them move on toward higher levels.

See also:

Maslow’s hierarchy image courtesy FireflySixtySeven [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Readers, what say you?

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About this Open Adoption Advice Column

  • I may occasionally call on others to help with answers, to tap into group wisdom.
  • I am not trained as a therapist. Please do not rely on words in this space to make your own major or minor decisions.
  • Readers are encouraged to weigh in thoughtfully and respectfully. I ask everyone to remember that this is a teaching endeavor rather than a shaming endeavor, and that we aim to bring light rather than heat. It’s my belief that people do the best they can with what they have to work with, and our goal is to give folks more to work with.

Send in your own open adoption question. I’ll either offer an answer or find someone who can address your issue.

3 thoughts on “How to Have Openness in a Foster Adoption”

  1. One of our adoptions years ago involved TPR due in part to criminal activity, and someone I’m close to is pursuing a foster adoption with significant safety issues. (I just finished tightening the privacy settings on my Facebook, in advance of the day when there might be pictures to post.) What I’ve learned is that the Maslow’s hierarchy Lori mentions applies to adoptive parents as well as to our children.

    I think in order to keep your heart open, it’s important to be clear about what issues are actually about safety and security and what ones are more existential. All engaged parents want to keep our children safe in a risky world. But in terms of openness, wondering and worrying over how a person could allow harmful things to happen to a child is different from wondering whether it would be safe for that person to attend a birthday party in a public place, with me supervising any interaction.

    The first worry may be unproductive in terms of openness. The abuse already happened; we have no power over that event and dwelling on it can make us fearful. The second is something we can think through and control to provide safety and security going forward

    When I think about that hypothetical birthday party, I would first be asking myself about physical and emotional safety and security for my child. Then I hope I would remember to ask myself, “Can I project the confidence my child needs to see, that this is going to be ok?” “Can I interact with the person without obvious strain or judgment?” Children, and especially children who have suffered trauma, tend to be hyperalert to signs of stress and anger in others. A parent’s calm presence is a refuge for them.

    With or without visits, or letters, or whatever form of contact, our children have to put their past and their ongoing connections into perspective in their lives. And as adults they may well want to connect even with parents who did them harm as children. My own parental bias is on the side of collecting all the information we can, in case they do want it later. I also favor providing whatever safe contacts we can, so their background is more than some hazy memories and a big, scary mystery.

    1. Wow, Bluepoint. I really love what you said. Especially this, ” in terms of openness, wondering and worrying over how a person could allow harmful things to happen to a child is different from wondering whether it would be safe for that person to attend a birthday party in a public place, with me supervising any interaction.

      The first worry may be unproductive in terms of openness. ” – Thanks for your comments.

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