Question: Lori, I am trying to wrap my head around this. How do we live out Both/And from a foster care adoption perspective? Our kids were taken from their birth parents for good reason. We have all the info, the original birth certificates, case files, all of that. But no contact with birth parents. And we have been advised not to for safety reasons (the caseworker made a point of me seeing one of the parents via a one way mirror so I would know if I ever ran into him to run the other way).
I want to give our kids this wholeness. The best we have been able to do is some contact with a paternal grandmother for one child. And we know the adoptive parents of the other child’s older siblings, but we have no control over contact. So far the other adoptive parents shy away from it because it is so upsetting for their kids. No matter what we do these folks will not be a part of their lives in the every day.
How can we have openness in our situation and not split our babies? —Jenny
How to Have Openness in Adoption Even When You Can’t Have Contact with First Parents
This is a great question, Jenny. Too often I hear, “well, birth parents aren’t safe so we need to have a closed adoption.” Open-and-shut case is easy; it takes effort to think things through and discern.
Contact ≠ Openness
Here are four ideas that may help you examine your ideas about openness and reframe things. First, let’s challenge conventional wisdom and say that contact is not the same as openness. Historically we’ve used the terms interchangeably — it’s a common perception that if we have contact, it’s an open adoption; if we don’t, it’s a closed adoption.
But I believe that even without contact, parents can parent with openness. Contact is what happens between the sets of parents; openness is what happens between parent and child.
This framework makes openness accessible to:
- families via international adoption, when contact is often not possible;
- those formed by foster adoption, when contact is sometimes not wise;
- in infant adoption situations in which birth parents are absent for their own reasons;
- and those in anonymous donor sperm/egg/embryo situations where donor identity is unknown.
There are lots of things you can do to foster openness with your children. Find and dismantle your own triggers about adoption and what brought you to it. This would include things like the word real (“you’re not my real mom!”) and any vestigial grief from, say, infertility. Neutralize your own and your children’s stories in your mind to the point that your kids can talk with you about anything without fearing that you’ll be triggered. Deal with your own stuff so that they can focus only on theirs as they do the hard work of growing up and building their identities. Attune to yourself and your children and let them know you are there for them, sans your own baggage.
When it Comes to Contact, Discern.
It’s great that you are open to facilitating contact with a grandparent. Regarding such decisions, there must be space for discernment. Having no contact with birth parents may be the appropriate decision at one point in time, but the policy should be revisited on occasion, allowing for people to change and grow and make better choices for themselves. Rachel Hoyt, MSW with a social service agency in Chicago and mom via foster adoption, discusses this issue further in my book (Chapter 8: Openness in Foster, International and Donor Situations).
On the other hand, having contact with, say, older siblings — just for the sake of being open — may not be the best strategy, especially if doing so puts a kiddo on either side in distress. It really is a time to tune in and try to intuit what is going on for the child and make your best assessment in the moment.
If those other adoptive parents were to ask me, I would advise working with an adoption-competent therapist to see if the older kids are getting upset from something that needs to be addressed or from something that needs to be avoided. Attunement, discernment, and guidance can help parents deal with all this complexity.
Openness in Foster Adoption
Closedness Divides a Family
Lastly, this news article came across my radar the same week you wrote. Take a look at the various nuances of openness and contact, and what closing down to biological family completely may do to the child.
I hope you’ve found some helpful tools here, Jenny. It’s clear you want to do all you can for your kids, and it’s great that you’re open to a little mind expansion and head wrapping.
- The Open Adoption Grid: How contact and openness are two different measures.
- The Chronicle of Social Change: “Closed Adoption Divides CA Teen from Family”
- Addison Cooper on How to Have Openness in a Foster Adoption
- Chapter 8 in The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole
Dear Readers, what say you?
About this Open Adoption Advice Column
- I 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. 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 teen son and a young adult daughter, writes 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. Catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.
Lori was honored as an Angel in Adoption® in 2018 by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.