open foster adoption

Open Adoption Grid: Adding a Dimension to the Open Adoption Spectrum

How Shall We Think of Open Adoption?

I bet if you asked a bunch of people who know about adoption what open adoption is, you would get variations on the theme of contact, that there is a continuum of contact, and that each adoption will find its way on to a point on the continuum. On one end might be a fully closed adoption, meaning no contact and no identifying information. At the other end people might place full openness — adoptive and birth parents treating each other as extended families.

open adoption spectrum

Seems kinda flat, no?

But as we move into the third decade of the movement toward open adoptions, I submit that we should stop using contact as our measure. Why?

Because Contact ≠ Openness.

Contact is not the same as openness.

Further, because of the need to consider contact and openness separately, we need a better tool than a spectrum. How about a grid? A grid that takes into account a measure other than contact — the level of open-heartedness on the part of the parents of the child.

Adding a dimension to the open adoption spectrumLet’s look at each of the boxes:

Box 1

  • Traditional Closed Adoption. Not only is there very little contact or identifying information available to the child, but the adoptive parents are ill-equipped to deal with adoption openly. They may have unresolved grief left over from their infertility struggles. Perhaps they were counseled to act as if their child were born to them. They may not be comfortable having tough conversations and confronting “icky” feelings about adoption, either theirs or their child’s as she grows and advances cognitively. This box may be the most crippling for a child to grow up in, the least conducive to integrating her identity from both her sets of parents.

Box 2

  • Obligatory contact. Here is where there is contact with birth family, maybe through exchanges of photos, emails or even meetings. Parents here may say things like, “We follow our open adoption agreement and send monthly updates and pictures.” or “We’re not afraid to let the birth parents know where we live.” But what’s lacking in Box 2 is what Jim Gritter calls the Spirit of Open Adoption. Adoptive parents may harbor feelings of guilt, envy, distaste or even superiority about their child’s birth family, either consciously or subconsciously. (By no means am I saying that all do, but rather the observation that some do.) These adoptive parents may enjoy having all the power they hold in the relationship rather than inviting the first parents to co-create their open adoption relationship. Because of the lack of openness here, the child is still at a disadvantage, feeling split between her clan of biology and her clan of biography, for there is quite a gap between them.

Box 3

  • Openness with discernment. This box is at play in many foster and international adoptions, as well as some domestic infant adoptions where distance or birth family availability is a factor. It involves low contact but high openness. Logistics and safety issues may make actual contact not possible or unwise, but the parents in Box 3 still parent with openness. They are able to deal with their own emotions about their family-building story mindfully, and they are able to open their hearts to their child as she processes her adoption story and integrates her identity. She is in a good position to have the space and support from her parents to do just that.

Box 4

  • Extension of family. Here is where the birth family is considered extended family, both in contact and in openness. This relationship may be no different than one with a beloved uncle, sister-in-law or grandmother (or even a relative not so beloved!). The relationships are child-centered and inclusive. The child is claimed by and able to claim both her clans, thereby helping her integrate all her pieces as she grows through her toddler and school years, through her tweens and teens and into adulthood. She is not pulled to choose or rank one family over the other and she is therefore not split — she is free to integrate herSelves and pursue wholeness in her identity.

Which Box is Best?

What matters as we set our parenting GPS isn’t where we are left-to-right on this grid. After all, we have only partial control over the level/type/amount of contact. What matters more is the elevation we operate at. The openness required by and afforded to Boxes 3 and 4 is likely to foster healthier relationships than mere contact in Boxes 1 and 2.

Adopting and adoptive parents, where would you plot yourselves? Consider both aspects of open adoption — contact and openness — as you build and sustain a child-centered adoption constellation.


Feedback from some adoptive parents indicated that since they can’t fully control the level of contact with birth family, why should they be penalized for being in a less-than-ideal box?

First of all, no one is being penalized. In Adoption World, it’s better to deal with What Is rather than what we wish things would be. The boxes are meant to self-assess, not to personalize. I would counsel adoptive parents to focus on openness — what they CAN control — over contact, which they only partially control. Boxes 3 and 4 are where the benefits of openness in adoption occur, anyway.

One family may have open adoption relationships in more than one box, based on differing situations with birth family members for each child.

A reader pointed out that plotting can change over time, as contact and openness can both be fluid measures.


Lori Holden's book coverLori Holden, mom of a teen daughter and a teen son, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life.

62 thoughts on “Open Adoption Grid: Adding a Dimension to the Open Adoption Spectrum”

  1. That grid is such a great way of looking at this issue! As foster parents people always ask me if we have “contact” with the kids’ birth families, and I always find myself wanting to expand on that discussion – telling you how often we happen to see their birth families doesn’t in any way describe the kind of relationship we have with them.

    1. So true! There are so many components to contact — breadth, depth, frequency, intimacy, etc. Each constellation must figure out its priorities and build their relationship accordingly.

      Like most relationships, the ones we create in open adoptions are infinitely complex.

  2. I love the grid. Not only because it really calls out that contact does not equate to openness, but also because it can be applied to so many other situations. I’m sitting in a coffee shop and still reflecting on a bitter conversation from a woman who is clearly sharing custody of her children with her ex. She complained bitterly and loudly about this arrangement and after reading your post, it made me wonder about the children and how whether they were struggling with feeling they needed to chose parents.

    Anyway, I think this is a great post! And congratulations on the honor!! I’m sure you’ll be awesome.

  3. Congratulations on your well-deserved award! I hope you have a great time attending the Gala!

    Your grid totally appeals to the math nerd in me – I love anything in a quadrant! I think it gives a much better representation of all the possibilities of adoption than the continuum too…

  4. Lori,
    So thrilled for your award and keynote speaking spot. I love the grid – one of you many posts that has so much thought behind it and provokes so much thought in reading it.

  5. This grid focuses on the adoptive parents’ attitudes. What about the birth parents’ attitudes? There are adoptive parents who would love to have meaningful contact with their children’s birth parents, but the birth parents are unable or unwilling to reciprocate. Birth parents don’t automatically know how to navigate an open adoption anymore than adoptive parents do. However, it seems that adoptive parents who want openness seek out information about it. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of support or information about openness that is centered on birth parents. That could just be my perception, of course. Maybe, in the first box, the birth parents are the ones who aren’t capable of dealing with adoption. Contact is too much, so they shut down, for example.
    I appreciate that adoptive parents have more control in open adoption relationships, but birth parents do have control over their actions and attitudes. I think their contributions, or lack thereof, need to be reflected in the grid.
    Also, what does “high contact” mean? Is it about the number of times one contacts another person in a year? Is it the type of contact – visit, letters, phone calls, etc.? Is it how meaningful the contact is? For example, the families get together only once a year but they usually rent a house on the beach and have a grand ol’ time vs. those who send letters to one another every month. Does the amount of contact have anything to do with how often contact is reciprocated? I’ll take an example from my life: I send updates to DS’s birthmom every 2 months or so. I almost never hear from her in return. What level of contact would that be?
    I think the grid is a really interesting idea. I just think it needs to be fleshed out more.

    1. Hi, Robyn, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      I disagree that the grid focuses on adoptive parents’ attitudes. It is not about anyone’s attitudes or intentions or wishes, but rather about what is, especially from the point of view of the child at the crux of an adoption.

      Box 3 covers the situation in which there is low contact — for whatever reason, including birth parent availability (or unavailability, as the case may be). It doesn’t matter WHY there is low contact, whether that is on the adoptive parent or the birth parent. Just that it is. It’s not about blame; it’s simply a neutral assessment about contact.

      And you’re right that “high” and “low” contact will have different meanings to different people. Facets of this measure might include frequency, type, intimacy, duration, and medium. And the ultimate measure remains: how well is it working for the child to integrate her biology and her biography? And APs must keep asking themselves, Given the hand we are dealt, what can we do to help our child grow up whole?

      The point of the grid (as opposed to a spectrum) is to dispel the myth that contact = openness. Adoptive parents can say “We send letters 4 times a year!” and maybe that means they are open (narrowing the gap between the child’s two clans and facilitating healing of the adoption split) and maybe it doesn’t.

      You can have contact without openness and you can have openness without contact.

  6. Congratulations on the award and being the keynote speaker at the Gala! And thank you for continuing to educate me about adoption and the need for openness. We didn’t (have to) go the adoption route in order to build our family, but I am so glad that I now have so much more insight into what it means and how it can be made as positive as possible for everyone involved. Thank you for enlightening me and so many others.

  7. Lori!
    What a great resource that helps to explain how and why daily text messages could create the illusion of contact, but really it’s not expressed in the true meaning of openness and open-heartedness. As we all try to learn more about what would be or *might be* best for the adoptee, parents ought to take note!

  8. 50 shades of adoption, perhaps? Wow! So many things to make you think about all of this. And how each “shade” creates a different life for all involved. You so smart 🙂

  9. Lori – congratulations and I’m looking forward to hearing all about the gala. Also – I love, adore, respond to, and appreciate the grid. Seriously brilliant! As someone who had hoped for intimacy, openness, and a precious relationship with my son’s adoptive parents, your grid is the first thing I’ve ever come across that helps me explain what I had hoped for. Something that I think we all struggled to identify in our relationship and couldn’t put into words. We all said “Yes – we want openness, but when it came down to living out the relationship, “openness” did NOT mean the same thing to each family. We had hoped for a relationship like extended-family; one where everyone reciprocated. What we determined they were really looking for was open-information with no relationship. Such good stuff, Lori! Love, love, love!

  10. Thanks for stopping by my blog today. I love this model. My son was adopted from China at age 7 1/2, and we have no information about his birth family. My husband and I grieve that. I think we are in Box 3.

  11. it’s a wonderful image that illustrates well some of the complex dynamics at play. I’m grateful that we are in box 4 with J’s maternal birth family, but we are in box 3 for much of her paternal birth family, where we honor the spirit of openness but have very limited interaction or contact with many on that side.

    1. I was just thinking about this as it relates to my sister’s family and which boxes they would be in for each of their two children. As Luna said, they have different relationships with each birth family and thus, at least for now, do probably occupy more than one box. In fact, in the time they have been parenting their children I would say they may have even moved back and forth between the boxes for various reasons.

      Thank you for another thought-provoking post Lori! I am so proud of and happy for you to have the opportunity to be honored and speak at the Gala. I hope that you have many more chances in the year(s) to come to share your perspective on open-adoption. I CAN’T WAIT TO READ YOUR BOOK!!! Is it March yet?! 🙂

      The grid is so interesting, I look forward to sharing it with my sister, if she hasn’t seen it already. 🙂

  12. What a great goal and topic – love the grid! I’d have to put us somewhere between box 3 and 4. I’d say we have high openness and medium contact. Because our kids were placed in foster care, we have no contact with the parents, but low to medium contact with other family members.

  13. YES! this is such a great change – because the relationship between birth mother/father and adoption mother/father needs to take into account BOTH sides – not just the birth side!

  14. This is a great way to explain adoption contact and openness. I suspect your grid will be a valuable resource for years to come. When we were initially considering which type of adoption to pursue, we attended an informational meeting. This grid would have been very helpful to guide prospective adoptive families in deciding which type of adoption to pursue. It might also challenge some families (birth and adoptive alike) to strive to be more child-centered.

  15. Appreciate what you both had to say here. Lori, I absolutely agree that it is from the child’s point of view….YAY for finding someone else who sees that! That is how we approach it in our family. Also, even if one or both birthparents aren’t willing or able to be in relationship, there are sometimes other members of the birth family (grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins) who are open. In my experience, the birth-adoptive family relationship changes over time. Members of the family (on both sides) that were distant or disapproving at placement can be gently nudged along toward more open-heartedness and/or more contact as they see other family members model a loving, non-threatening, child-centered relationship.

  16. Congrats on the honor.. I love this idea of a grid. I hope more kids and parents get to experience the last 2 boxes you describe. Also, i love how you put this: ” feeling split between her clan of biology and her clan of biography, for there is quite a gap between them.”

  17. First of all, congratulations! So exciting!

    Second of all, thank you so much for this. I feel like the last few weeks have involved an inundation of information about adoption from many varying perspectives (some of it harder to swallow than others), and this really helped me to figure out how to file some of that away in my brain. So thank you!

  18. Phenominal post. I think this is a great way of explaining the various levels of openness. You are so clever.

    And congratulations on the honor! Well deserved indeed 🙂

  19. What a thoughtful approach to a contemporary topic! I am so happy for your honor–Rochester is my hometown, and March is a rather odd time to have an event in the Snow Belt, so I suggest you plan ahead to be there in plenty of time–lake effect snow is crazy in winter! Congrats. A really big deal to be honored like that.

  20. Great post! Thank you for sharing this information. I’ve been thinking of adopting a child in the future and this is a very interesting topic to learn about the openness of your relationship to the child birth families. I myself do believe that it is important for an adoptive parent to have good relationship and openness to the child’s family.

  21. Hi Lori,

    I love your grid, but I have to tell you that what really REALLY struck me in this post is that you used the term birth family instead of birth parents/mother/father. I’ve been talking a lot about this in our community and can’t tell how how many people have their jaws drop when they realize that true openness as your final box describes really is having extended family. There hasn’t been a lot of education (that I’ve seen) about the loss birth families feel when a child is adopted. I just wrote a post about it at PAIL:

    I’m really hoping that more people who are in OA’s can speak to the gift of having extended family beyond just birth parents 🙂

  22. Lori, thank you for guiding me to this post. I finally get ‘it’.

    Funny, I had a laugh…look who commented right before me!!! It’s my girl. 😉 LOL!

    Nobody really explained to me what or how “Openness” can look. I always thought that high contact meant openness and that this was how it HAD to be.

    I truly do believe that my heart is Open. I feel relief in knowing that sometimes because contact is so inconsistent, or sometimes not safe, it doesn’t mean that our relationship is not Open.

    I wish I could hug you!

    Thank you, thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  23. *hearts*

    We are box 4, but certainly not at the high end of #4 if you know what I mean. I think the overarching truth is that we all care about the same kid and we all try to do what’s best for him.

    That said, I would like to stress that having an open heart with regard to openness (when you don’t actually have contact) is not the same as having contact. Real life is quite different from the an imaginary one.

    Still, I acknowledge that for international adopters or people in “closed” adoption, honoring your children’s roots is a HUGE leap from just Living as if life starts here and now.

  24. This is really cool. Good for you for creating something so concrete and helpful out of ideas that can be hard to grasp for many. A worthy contribution to the Creme!

  25. We have a family member who’s attempting to adopt internationally, so they will most likely be in grid #1. It’s interesting to think (and hear from other comments) about some of what that will mean for our ENTIRE family, including us.

  26. I am exploring adoption (and have really, really enjoyed my interactions so far with Adoption STAR) after years of infertility treatments. I am not as well researched on adoption as I am on the many medical treatments I have undergone for infertility (so far unsuccessfully), and your post is so helpful! I know there is that sliding scale of openness, and the grid makes it more visually understandable. I especially liked your phrase “clan of biology and clan of biography” — what a great way to think of “birth family” and “adoptive family.” Thank you for sharing and congratulations on your honor!

  27. So interesting! We adopted internationally so these open wasn’t an option. I’ve always wished I knew more. Great post! Thanks for linking up with #AdoptionTalk!

    1. But that’s the point of this framework, Jill. You can have openness even if you don’t’ have contact. Many in foster and international adoptions find themselves in Box 3 — being open with their children when they have questions about their adoptedness, even in the absence of contact or identifying information.

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