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Openness in Adoption: A Fact Sheet for Families

What is open adoption?

Open, or fully disclosed, adoptions allow adoptive parents, and often the adopted child, to interact directly with birth parents. Family members interact in ways that feel most comfortable to them. Communication may include letters, e-mails, telephone calls, or visits. The frequency of contact is negotiated and can range from every few years to several times a month or more. Contact often changes as a child grows and has more questions about his or her adoption or as families' needs change. It is important to note that even in an open adoption, the legal relationship between a birth parent and child is severed. The adoptive parents are the legal parents of an adopted child.

The goals of open adoption are:

  • To minimize the child's loss of relationships.
  • To maintain and celebrate the adopted child's connections with all the important people in his or her life.
  • To allow the child to resolve losses with truth, rather than the fantasy adopted children often create when no information or contact with their birth family is available.

Is open adoption right for our family?

Open adoption is just one of several openness options available to families, ranging from confidential, to semi-open (or mediated), to fully open adoption. In semi-open or mediated adoptions, contact between birth and adoptive families is made through a mediator (e.g., an agency caseworker or attorney) rather than directly. In confidential adoptions no contact takes place and no identifying information is exchanged.

Making an open adoption work requires flexibility and a commitment to ongoing relationships, despite their ups and downs. While this type of adoption is not right for every family, open adoption can work well if everyone wants it and if there is good communication, flexibility, commitment to the process, respect for all parties involved, and commitment to the child's needs above all.

There are many resources available to help you determine what level of openness might be best for your family. The chart included with this fact sheet may help you consider some pros and cons of open adoptions. You can also:

EXPLORE THE INTERNET. Several Web sites provide research and issues to consider in open adoption:

  • American Association of Open Adoption Agencies helps families find agencies practicing open adoption. Adoptees on their mailing list respond to the question, "What do you wish your adoptive parents had known?"

  • Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project provides information on a longitudinal study of openness in adoption since 1985. The most recent wave included a total of 720 individuals: both parents in 190 adoptive families, at least one adopted child in 171 of the families, and 169 birth mothers. This study was the source of much of the research for this fact sheet and the bulletin for professionals.

  • National Adoption Information Clearinghouse—Cooperative (Open) Adoption Laws1 provides laws for each State on open (sometimes called "cooperative") adoption, compiled by the Clearinghouse.

  • Insight: Open Adoption Resources and Support offers open adoption resources for professionals and support for adoptive and birth parents considering open adoption.

READ. Several recent books about open adoption may be helpful:

  • Children of Open Adoption by Patricia Martinez Dorner and Kathleen Silber (1997, Independent Adoption Press). The topics in this book include the essential "ingredients" for successful open adoption and communication tips for talking about open adoption with children of all ages.

  • How to Open an Adoption by Patricia Martinez Dorner (1998, R-Squared Press). This book gives guidance to adoptive parents, birth parents, and adoption professionals in how to navigate more inclusive relationships.

  • Lifegivers: Framing the Birth Parent Experience in Open Adoption by James L. Gritter (2000, CWLA Press). This book examines the ways birth parents are marginalized. The author makes the point that adopted children are best served when birth parents and adoptive parents work together to ensure that birth parents remain in children's lives.

  • The Open Adoption Experience by Lois Ruskai Melina and Sharon Kaplan Roszia (1993, HarperPerennial). This complete guide for adoptive and birth parents touches on almost every aspect of open adoption.

  • The Spirit of Open Adoption by Jim Gritter (1997, CWLA Press). This book gives a realistic look at the joys and pains of open adoption for birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive parents.

  • What is Open Adoption? by Brenda Romanchik (1999, R-Squared Press). Written from the perspective of a birth mother in an open adoption, this pocket guide provides concise information and resources.

TALK WITH A COUNSELOR OR THERAPIST WITH KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERIENCE IN OPEN ADOPTION. The National Adoption Information Clearinghouse has a tip sheet on selecting an adoption therapist who is informed about issues of adoption. This fact sheet describes the types of mental health professionals available and provides guidelines for choosing the best resource for your family.

TALK WITH OTHER PARENTS. The National Adoption Directory has lists of foster and adoptive parent support groups in each State. Because each parent group will have its own focus, you might want to ask how many families attending the group are in open adoptions.

What questions should our family consider in open adoption?

In open adoptions, families need to consider when and how much to tell a child about his or her birth family, and then if and how to involve him or her in that relationship. An adoption professional can help you address some of these issues. Some of the questions you may want to consider include:

  • At what age should a child be included in contact with his or her birth family?
  • What happens if one party decides to break off all contact?
  • What will the birth parents' role be in the child's life?
  • How will your child explain his or her relationship with birth relatives to his or her peers?
  • How will you handle other adopted siblings who have different levels of openness in their adoptions?


No one level of openness in adoption is best for everyone, and each adoption changes over time. Adoptees from all kinds of adoptions, from confidential to fully open, can be emotionally healthy. Using the resources listed on this fact sheet, as well as the following tables, you can decide what level of openness is best for your family.

Table of pros of each type of adoption for the involved parties
Table of cons of each type of adoption for the involved parties

1 "Cooperative adoption" or "adoption with contact" refer to arrangements that allow some kind of contact between adoptive families and members of the adopted child's birth family after the adoption has been finalized. back

This material may be reproduced and distributed without permission, however, appropriate citation must be given to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse.

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