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openness in foster adoption

Trying to Wrap My Head Around This

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

openness in foster adoption

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.

open foster adoption

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

I hosted a guest post recently by Addison Cooper, who is a LCSW with a foster agency in California. He addresses your concerns exactly in his post.

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.

See also:

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 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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10 Responses

  1. There’s a natural instinct to cut off contact completely when adoptees have been removed from their biological parents due to issues of violence and abuse. So I was glad to see your grid distinguishing between openness and contact. And also the emphasis that situations can change over time. It is likely that there won’t be much contact with the biological parents, but the fact that the adoptive parents are willing to cultivate a relationship with the parental grandmother and are interested in having contact with the sibling is a great step towards openness. Similarly is sharing the child’s adoption story with them in an age-appropriate manner. As time goes on to provide information and answer questions.

    Wishing these parents all the best with the road ahead.

  2. Lori,

    Thank you for your grid! Our situation is different and there are obstacles we cannot control. I’m thankful to be open even when there cannot be contact. I really think your grid is going to give clarity to some conversations in our house.

  3. I am an adult adoptee from a closed adoption now in reunion. My situation is nothing like the children in the LW’s question, but reunion has taught me a lot about openness. My adoptive parents did a good job paying lip service to “openness” (it wasn’t called that) by telling me that I could talk to them about anything. But I learned very young that while we could say “adoption” without causing pain, we couldn’t really talk about it.

    To this day, my adoptive mother cannot talk about her infertility — literally cannot. She’s blocked it. It never happened. She “solved” the problem through adoption, so it didn’t happen. This means that she can’t deal with any of my feelings about adoption without taking them personally, and that while she actually really likes my first mother, as a person, my reunion was really hard for her.

    Because she always talked as though openness were okay, and because she said she was fine, I thought we were okay to talk about reunion openly. And we aren’t. Not because I’ve met my natural family, but because it seems to hurt her to know that I share my particular weird sarcasm with an uncle, that my cousins and I are comfortable with one another, that I see myself in these people. I don’t like hurting my mother, so we don’t talk about it. And this leaves her out of a very big part of my life.

    ” Find and dismantle your own triggers about adoption and what brought you to it. ” This seems so so so important.

    1. This is such a great point, Yan, and thanks for making it from your viewpoint. Openness is something deep and ongoing. It’s not something you can invoke and say, “Check! Done! I’m open now and forever.”

      There is no shortcut for doing grief work. The only way through is through. And not going through can be costly, as you say, as your mother has missed out on a lot.

  4. As I was reading her question, I was thinking, “Wait, Lori always says contact isn’t the same as openness.” I’m glad I can predict the answer AND that the answer is sound. While contact may not always be the right decision depending upon the situation, openness can always be done.

  5. This is such great information. I’m saving the articles to go back and read. I can identify so much with this post. We do not have any contact with our children’s birth parents for safety concerns. And frankly we don’t know what state they are I. Since it changes frequently.

    Thank you for such great advice and resources for those if us not in a “traditional” adoption situation.

    However, we have a very open relationship with their maternal grandparents and their Aunt. I am so grateful for that. It has blossomed so much over the past two years. We have had to work in trust issues on both sides, but we now consider each other and call each other family with no labels.

  6. Well, from my experience working in child welfare for 20+ years I would say that if face to face visits are unsafe or if they would be too unstable (no follow through etc) could you explore any extended family – aunts, cousins, uncles etc?

    Sometimes you can be facebook friends (make a separate account for this purpose) where you can share pics and updates or email. Perhaps you can request a one time, face to face, with birth parents at the child welfare office. Parents can meet you and you them (without kids). At least you could get a sense of these people and they would know a little about where their kids are living too. I have found this could be a very healing tool for both sides. Then you can pass on your impressions to the children, in an age appropriate way.

    I am surprised that having supervised, or semi-supervised visits couldn’t be arranged at a neutral location.

    Also I wonder what your kids want. Sometimes with parents who are still active in their challenges kids will need to be away from it altogether. The kids’ needs/wants may determine how hard you fight for this.

    At the very least you can try to find pictures of parents – facebook, online, newpapers. Try to get as much of the birth family story – good and bad – as possible. Even things like, hair colours, hobbies, interests, talents, hopes/dreams for themselves and their family and include as many questions about extended family too.

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