Open Adoption Agreements: To Codify or Not to Codify

Open adoption bloggers are meeting for the 36th time at the roundtable. This go-round we are discussing  open adoption agreements.

Is there one in your open adoption? What effect does it have on your relationships? If you could go back in time, would you approach the agreement differently?

  • No.
  • N/A.
  • No.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen! Tune in next time for more deep thoughts.


Psyche. You knew I’d have something to say.

Roger and I entered into an open adoption agreement with Crystal more than 11 years ago, before OA information and communities were readily available on the Internet (or at least before I was tuned into them). The only influences we had back then in forming our open adoption relationship were the agency we both used and ourselves.

At our 3-day Adoption School, the agency’s social workers  clued us into what open adoption was, counseled us why it was beneficial to the baby we hoped to soon parent, and demythologized what thought we knew about birth parents. They did not address the formalization or legalization of an OA agreement; they gave us some insight and tools to build a relationship but said they would not build it for us. We were the ones to live with it, so we would be the ones to create the open adoption relationship we wanted to live in.

I didn’t think much of it again.

My husband and I are somewhat spontaneous (code for “too lazy to plan”). For our honeymoon we backpacked for 3 weeks through Greece and Turkey, planning each day as it came and not knowing each morning where we’d be spending the night — just knowing that all would be well, or at least adventurous. So it never occurred to us to microplan what our OA relationship would look like. We were content to let it unfold and see what happened.

I thought we really couldn’t begin to envision how our OA relationship might look until we’d met the person we’d be in an open adoption with. To do otherwise would be like setting up the terms of a marriage before you’d even met your beloved. Sure, you have some hopes and maybe even dealbreakers in mind, but nothing would be set in concrete until you were both present to co-create the relationship.

When I first heard that Crystal had picked us, I desperately wanted to like her and to have her like me. Not just tolerate each other, but actually LIKE each other. I felt guilty and shallow at the time because Liking was so important to me. In hindsight, I realize it was merely a wish for an easier and more pleasant road ahead.

I’ve written how Crystal and I built trust on the day after Tessa’s birth, both before we left the hospital and on the detour we took home. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was when and how we sent the ground rules for our open adoption agreement:

  • we would look at things from the other’s perspective
  • we would do what was right in the moment and also keep the long-term focus on Tessa
  • and most of all, we would — and could — trust each other.

With less contact but no less commitment to trust and openness, we have built the same informal OA agreements with Joe, Tessa’s birth father, and Michele and AJ (Reed’s birth parents).


I found out years later that Colorado does not enforce adoption agreements. I have mixed feelings about that.

On one hand, an adoption agreement offers clarity of each party’s expectations, and provides a course of action, with teeth, should either side break the agreement.

On the other hand, legally codifying the relationship can emphasize the letter of the relationship rather than spirit of the relationship and may actually cost a measure of intimacy. In addition, what, realistically, can be done if a first parent closes the adoption? How far would the court go to force him/her to remain in contact?

For that matter, what, realistically, can be done if the adoptive parents close the adoption? I’ve read many first parents say they can’t imagine actually taking their child’s parent to court because (a) of the expense, and (b) of the risk of further damaging the relationship. Still, I’ve heard it’s many birth parents’ worst fear to continually face the specter of being shut out, to be made powerless and voiceless.


Lastly, no, I would not approach anything differently. While I wish we did have more physical proximity to three of our children’s birth parents, I cannot say that I wish Roger and I had done anything differently. So far.

But the road is a long one….check back periodically.


Click over to Open Adoption Bloggers to see what others have to say. And if you’re in an open adoption, feel free to contribute your own viewpoint.

10 thoughts on “Open Adoption Agreements: To Codify or Not to Codify”

  1. I think you have been extremely lucky in your relationships. Not to discount the work you’ve put into them, but if you hadn’t had reasonable partners to work with, you might have a different view on more rigid legal agreements.

    Open adoption is an interesting combination of maze and minefield, I’m thinking. 🙂

  2. I shouldn’t laugh but we never had an agreement either focussing on talking it out and working on the relationship. It’s changed SO much, and agreement would never have been able to kee pace! We have lots of work to do but it’s work of the heart not work of the paper. That said, I can see how an agreement might be in the best interests of the birthparents, and I do understand why they might want one.

  3. I really love this point: “To do otherwise would be like setting up the terms of a marriage before you’d even met your beloved.” It is interesting to consider — how many times we define what we want before we’re even in the space to see things playing out.

  4. I love this line: “…legally codifying the relationship can emphasize the letter of the relationship rather than spirit of the relationship and may actually cost a measure of intimacy.” so true.

    we have one but honestly I’ve never even looked at it since it was filed. we’re just living it, trying to remain true to the spirit of our commitment to each other. that is FAR more important, I think, than the power (if not the resources) to enforce a piece of paper in court.

    you raise another interesting point about whether a judge could force the birth parent to remain in contact. I hadn’t thought of it that way. In fact if I went back to do it again I might have wanted to include provisions about birth parent contact, since it seems so one-sided. and as we all know, relationships are a two-way street.

  5. I would never have pegged you as not knowing where you’d sleep each night on your honeymoon. Roger, yes. Not you. Which is a testament to how good you are at being planful in other contexts.

    It seems like the level of openness that you share with Crystal is far beyond what any agreement would ever specify. That the agreements are more about ensuring that closing doesn’t happen, rather than ensuring wide openness. It is impossible to imagine some of the ways that Crystal is involved in your lives could make their way in to a legal document. “Birth mother will attend family gatherings of adoptive family, and vice versa.” “Birth mother and her children will pose for formal portraits with the child and the adoptive mother.” “Birth mother will collaborate professionally with adoptive mother.” “Birth mother and adoptive mother will become true friends.”

    I am curious whether, Crystal aside, you think that if a legal agreement had been in place, Joe, Michele, or AJ might have been more present in your lives. I suspect that you wouldn’t have done anything differently, but might they have?

  6. It’s an interesting consideration. I tend to think that in a lot of cases, if there were a legal agreement, it might be more of a hinderance to the openness, but in some cases, it might help things. Maybe an answer might be in more training for both parties beforehand or in some type of support offered afterwards (such as a mediator if the openness begins to break down). I’m glad to hear that you have been able to navigate through this and do what is ultimately best for your kids.

    Thanks for joining A Real Adoption Blog Hop!

  7. I have saved this post in my email since it was written because I wanted to chime in…

    I have to admit that I’m glad that we don’t have a legal agreement for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I’m thankful that the government didn’t have another excuse to complicate our lives (hello, paperwork and delays!). I also think it might have made it tougher to build our relationship with our daughter’s birth mom and brother, who we love dearly and see and interact with a lot. She was so shy at first about making contact, as were we (we met two weeks after our daughter came home with us), that I’m afraid that we wouldn’t have been as open as we are. As is, we can give her space when she feels she needs it, or meet up more often when she’s missing our little one.

    On the flip side of things, it makes me sad that our daughter’s birth father doesn’t seem to want to be involved, despite what he told the agency initially. We send photos, but he’s never even called them to ask about her. Of course, we don’t know what his motives are for that, and it would be awful in my mind to haul him into court because he wasn’t keeping up his end of the agreement. I can’t imagine what message that would send to an adoptee–my birth father is only in my life because he has to be legally, or my birth father still isn’t in my life, even after a court order….

    Anyway, I agree with Harriet that these relationships are works of the heart, and not paper. Goodness knows we see enough paper in the world of adoption–it’s kind of nice to be able to feel something out as we go! 🙂

    Great post, as usual!

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