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are you prickly in your open adoption relationships

Boundaries: Our Adoption Agency Warns About Extortion

Question: My son came to me 9 months ago from a Caribbean island. He’s now 3 ½ years old and adjusting quite well.

When I went to get him, I met his birth family — his birth mom, half-sister, and paternal aunt. They love my son and wish him the best and I really liked them too during our meeting. They asked about keeping in touch, but I deferred to our coordinator and said I’d let them know. The paternal aunt is raising his half sister and would like to Skype. I would like my son to know all of his island family and I know it will mean a lot more as he gets a little older.

However, my agency says to be careful of extortion*, because the birth mother has little means. She says it can start off with, “oh can you send me so-and-so because we don’t have it here” and then it could lead to requests for money.

My agency said that I could send pics and letters to the agency every 6 months and they will include them with their courier packages to the island.

What do you think about writing letters to aunt and birth mom and including pictures? What do you think about Skyping with aunt? Is there a way to protect my info using email? I want to keep in touch but I just want to control it as much as possible to prevent those issues from arising.  — Paula


Extortion is a misnomer your agency used for the situation you describe. What you’re describing is not extortion in the legal sense — “obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats” — but could be annoying to deal with, as messy boundaries often are.

Whom Does Your Adoption Agency Serve?

Dear Paula,

It’s great that you want to provide your son a connection to his birth family. I’m also encouraged that when you met the birth family, your own intuition cleared the way for you to like them. This gives you a strong starting point as we begin to disentangle many threads running through your questions.

boundaries in open adoption are you prickly?

The first one I’ll take on is that agencies don’t always know how to “do” openness. With YOU as their paying customer, they often are invested in making things easier for YOU, helping YOU avoid complications.

However, YOU are not the only one involved in this adoption — there are others in this relationship. Further, relationships are complicated. If you’re going to offer your son access to his birth family and birth culture (which will help him integrate all his parts), then you have to be ready for complications.

Also, right or wrong, your agency is not invested in this particular relationship to the degree you are. Your own experience with birth family members should be your primary guide. How about continuing to get to know them?

In this day and age, privacy is hard to maintain. It seems like having contact without giving away any of your information will take a lot of work on your part, and not feel like much of a relationship.

I’m thinking that emailing and Skyping will be appropriate ways to continue getting to know your son’s birth family. I may be missing something, but it seems unlikely that these people would come after you if they know your name and are even able to get your address (I could, of course, be wrong on that).

I’m curious what you see as the worst-case scenario. What if they eventually did ask you for money? Could you handle that? How might you handle that?

How Do We Set Boundaries And Still Be Open?

What we’re really talking about is having healthy boundaries. It’s not something that your agency will be around to help you do over the coming years. It’s easier for the agency to advise you to put up a wall rather than a screen door. True, it’s easier to keep everything out than make a lot of decisions.

But a wall may not serve your son well. Nor may any other type of off-putting boundary between your family and his. The key with boundaries in all human relationships is to set the mesh so that it lets the good parts in and keeps the undesirable parts out.

Now, I’m not saying with this image that you’re prickly. In fact, by even asking your questions, I’m pretty sure you are not prickly.

But when we think of boundaries, we may think of many things — the Great Wall of China to keep out invaders. A line on a map to define what’s yours and what’s mine. A barbed-wire fence to keep creatures where they belong. A screen door to let in a breeze but keep out the flies.

I love that you’re wanting to provide a connection for your son to his birth family. That attunement with his needs will serve both of you well as he grows up and processes his adoption.You may also want to use this attunement skill as you implement healthy boundaries with his birth family on the island. Meet reasonable needs, like letters, pictures and Skyping (which aren’t just their needs but also your son’s) — and don’t meet unreasonable needs. Your attunement to the situation will help you make this discernment.

Please see this excerpt from my book that covers establishing and patrolling boundaries in open adoption. It explains how to figure out what your boundaries will be with your son’s birth family, as well as how you might craft your responses if your lines are crossed. The key is to take out the adoption charge by figuring out what you’d do if the request were not coming from your son’s birth parents but from some other family member or friend.

To wit: you probably are already practiced at not allowing people to take advantage of you. Sure, I’ll help you move next weekend, but no, I’m not in a position to rent you a U-Haul with my credit card. Or: I’m sorry to hear your XYZ needs to be replaced. No, it’s not feasible for me to help with that.

Simply apply your already honed boundary-patrolling skills to what may or may not happen with your son’s birth family.

What Does Adoption Mean, Culturally?

I want to address one other point, a question you have not asked.

Though about a different set of islands, this article by Kathryn Joyce reveals how “adoption” can mean different things in different cultures. As part of your getting-to-know-each-other, you may wish to find out what, exactly, is the understanding your son’s birth family has of this arrangement. If you find a wide gap between what they perceive and what you do, you will need to address that gap.


Let your heart and intuition guide you, Paula. Not the pat advice from your adoption agency.

See also:

Dear Readers, what say you?


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.

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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14 Responses

  1. Lori, you really nailed this one!! Excellent, beautiful, child centered guidance with validation that tough stuff can and does happen. I love screen door imagery. ?

  2. Lori wrote:
    Let your heart and intuition guide you, Paula. Not the pat advice from your adoption agency.

    I would second Lori and add “research” to the guideposts.

    The more you know about your son’s culture and its concept of adoption, the more you get to know his family, their circumstances, and their ways of communicating, the more accurate your heart and intuition will be. Your son’s original family is no doubt trying to figure out where you are coming from just as you are trying to understand them. And with all of your, culture, personality and individual circumstances all come into play as you work out your relationship.

    Our adoptions were domestic, but cross-racial and cross-cultural. The African-American community has a long tradition of informal adoption that differs from the WASPy norms I grew up with. Our adoption agency–25-plus years ago now–advised us after a few years of correspondence not to contact birthfamily members directly but to continue handling correspondence through the agency. However, the agency had not informed us that our letters were not getting delivered because our birthfamily contact had moved. We decided we wanted the freedom and assurance of direct contact and by then we had enough information to locate them ourselves. The family was willing to communicate directly and it has worked out fine, leading to our current extended-family open relationship.

    On the other hand, when my heart told me to make additional efforts to open up contact with my children’s birthmother, her mother and grandmother advised against it. They said she would, given the chance, undermine our family however she could. By then I knew and trusted them to be consistently on the side of our children’s best interest, so we waited. Time, and some research into her circumstance, proved them right. By now we have all met and individually worked out the boundaries that allow some contact with a volatile and troubled person, and I think our girls feel their questions have been answered. Sooner would have been too soon.

    And this is maybe off-topic, but I think it serves as a reminder that our time of controlling how our children relate with the world is limited. I remember agonizing over decisions about contact, openness, shared information. What if I got it wrong? The feedback we got from friends about our open relationship tended to range from “brave” (meaning crazy) to “crazy.” It was a stressful time and I felt the weight of making choices whose effect on others I couldn’t foresee.

    Fast-forward to last week. I’m hanging out with my grand-daughter, who starts telling me about having the best French fries ever with her cousin. It turns out her aunt and cousin from her birthfamily, plus some friends, had come through our town on a day trip and called my daughter for a spur-of-the-moment meet-up. This is what I had dreamed about all those years ago–that my kids, and their kids, could keep building their connections on their own as I toddle off into the sunset.

    1. Great added points:

      * Research and time, along with intuition.
      * “our time of controlling how our children relate with the world is limited.”

      I’m smiling broadly at your last paragraph.

  3. When I read this adoptive mother’s question and your great answer, I wondered “why must we always think the worst about everything?” It made me want to know what does the adoption agencies have to gain or possibly lose by stressing these fears/mindsets in adoptive parents. IMO, it can already be making a statement about a sense of superiority with the adoptive family over the birth family.

  4. Can you bypass the agency entirely and just maintain a connection with the other family? I had a somewhat similar situation with my daughter’s orphanage trying to prevent me from tracking down my daughter’s foster family or getting their address. I got their address anyway and now the orphanage is out of the picture and we are free to communicate with each other.

    It just seems like there are too many stories of agencies and administrators setting themselves up as experts or mediators between families when the truth of the matter is, they are not “living” your adoption and do not know what the parties actually need. In the past, agencies have even taken it upon themselves to block the sincere efforts of communication between birth and adoptive families but, in reality, they have no right to do so.

    I’ve also been on a couple of lists where adoptive parents have disclosed that first parents asked them for money. It isn’t an uncommon thing in places where people struggle to stay afloat. There are lots of ways of dealing with these requests, and most aps I’ve come across seem to feel they should be honored if they are reasonable. Some people send a fixed amount of money on holidays or once a year. Some people pay for things the family needs. Whatever the response, something to keep in mind is that thinking of your child’s original parents as extortionists–which this agency is urging you to do–could only have a negative effect on your child. Better to get to know them and find out who they really are and make your decision based on the facts, not the fear. Good luck!

    1. Thanks so much for bringing this up, Other Jess:

      “Whatever the response, something to keep in mind is that thinking of your child’s original parents as extortionists–which this agency is urging you to do–could only have a negative effect on your child. Better to get to know them and find out who they really are and make your decision based on the facts, not the fear. “

  5. Great column and responses. It’s so encouraging for me as a mother who relinquished in the dark old days of closed adoption to read your blog and the responses. From what I’m aware of–I do hear about the bad stories of open adoptions that slam shut and they are numerous–agencies are not concerned about keeping adoptions open, and the more the two parents can connect on their own, the better.

    For agencies acting as the coordinator, communication between the principal parents simply means more work/staff for them.

  6. I have only ever found adoption professionals to be part of the problem rather than helping with a solution. They have their own goals, judgemental frameworks perceptions about ethics that are definitely not closely matched to those adopted, adopting, or relinquishing.

  7. When i hear questions like this i always think, why adoption at all?

    Is this adoption for the benefit of this child? If the relatives are raising one child, what’s the barrier to them raising another? If it’s money, is it ethical to remove a child from his culture?

    I am an adopted adult, in an adoption that was not necessary. This adoption does not seem necessary either.

    If adoptive parents truly loved the child they adopt, wouldn’t they move heaven and earth to keep a child with his family?

    I think I’m missing something. Why not support this struggling family?

  8. I love the screen door metaphor for boundary-setting, so much. And having the perspective of requests coming from a close friend or in-law.

  9. I think the question of why adoption is one with a complicated answer. I will share that a friend of mine did an international adoption and when she got to the country to meet her child that she believed to be an orphan needing a family, she met the child’s mother. Mortified, the potential-adoptive mom offered to help financially to keep the family together and the agency refused. The mother had already signed the paperwork and the child would not be kept with the family – so either my friend adopted the child and worked to keep connection with the parent in her home country (which she has) or the child would “just go to the next family on the list”. It. was. awful. I am encouraged by so many of the programs I am seeing overseas that working to keep kids with their parents and in their home country —now we need to do our best to empower parents to avoid “unnecessary adoptions” here, as well! Great Article, Lori….thanks for all the visuals to define this complicated dynamic!

  10. I am adopted. What leaped out at me was the statement “my son came to me” I met his BF-his birthmother…half sister…paturnal aunt. This was his mother…his sister….his auntie…he has lived with them for almost 3 years. She is soooo much more tha his birthmother.

    “They love MY Son and with him the best”
    How could they not. What trauma have they gone through to get to this point…Poverty?…You son has 2.mothers you are the one who gets to raise him. Please be mindful that while he is ajusting well currently that may not be the case for all of his life.
    I only discovered at 60 that I have been carrying the trauma of 5 families…3 names…1 failed adoption. I at 63 now have just begun trauma therapy.

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