Should Adopted Children Be Involved with Their Birth Families?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Getty Images: Joe Raedle
Adoption has transformed dramatically over the past century. Whereas adoptions used to forbid contact between birth and adoptive families, most of today’s adoptions are open. This means they include some level of contact between families – ranging from yearly emails to shared holidays. With the majority of America’s adoptions being conducted with some level of contact with birth families, open adoption is certainly in vogue. But it is as beneficial for children as its advocates claim?
Below, we’ll look at three reasons why open adoption is the most suitable approach, and three reasons why adoptive parents shouldn’t feel obliged to have contact with their child’s birth family.


Open the Door


Knowledge is power.

Open adoption allows access to genetic and family medical history that is unavailable in closed adoptions. For adoptive families, knowledge of any medical or developmental problems among the birth family can help them to prepare and give better care to their child. This is especially the case if the birth mother engaged in an activity that may have adversely (or positively!) affected her baby’s health. Without accurate family medical history, adoptees risk making crucial decisions about their health blindly, or could end up paying for expensive diagnostic procedures or genetic testing in order to gain information that could be easily ascertained from biological family.


Open adoptions help adoptees become well adjusted.

Before the advent of open adoption, adoptive families often worried that contact with a placed child’s birth family would hinder the development of relationships with their adoptive family. Decades-long studies have shown that this fear was unfounded. Adopted children who interact with their birth families feel integrated into their adoptive families and regard their adoptive parents as their mother and father. Whereas closed adoptions have been shown to promote birth-family fantasies in children and adolescents, an adoptee’s interaction with biological family helps the placed child develop a realistic idea of their birth family, and thereby form a more authentic and positive self-identity as an adopted person.


Stress reduction.

Contact between adoptive families and birth families has been shown to relieve stress for parents, birth and adoptive alike. Open adoption allows for the burning questions that so often accompany adoption to find real answers – Did the child I placed go to a good home? Is our child’s biological mother happy with her decision? Two-time adoptive mother Courtney Zimbelman describes the stress-reducing benefits for all:

“[My daughter] will never have to wonder where she came from or what her birth family is like… it’s [also] beneficial for her birth family. They did not place a child for adoption and have that child just disappear from their lives. They get to see her grow and, I hope, that gives them comfort knowing that the adoption decision they made was the right one.”

To be sure, the confidence supplied to all parents through open adoption creates a positive environment for adoptees.


Close the Door


Show me the science.

Ninety-five percent of American adoption agencies offer some form of open adoption, and advocates and bloggers are quick to tout its benefits. However, there is little science to prove that children in open adoption scenarios are better off emotionally than adoptees with no connection to their birth families. A longitudinal study of adoptees at UMass Amherst revealed that there was no notable difference in self-esteem between children in closed and open adoptions. Additionally, an adoptees’ degree of preoccupation with their adoption had no correlation to the level of openness in their adoption.


Risk of rejection.

Simply put, birth parents of children put up for adoption have not signed on to be parents. As such, there is no guarantee that even if they desire some contact with the child they placed, that they will commit to the relationship (or be a source of emotional comfort to the child) in the long-term. Birth parents withdraw from open adoption relationships with much more frequency than adoptive parents. When a birth parent is only sporadically involved or disappears altogether, the emotional consequences for children can be devastating. As one adoption advocate puts it, “A child whose biological parent disappears experiences a double whammy. He wonders why he was placed to begin with, then feels rejected again because a birth mother no longer visits.”


There is no silver bullet.

Open adoption is not a panacea for all emotional issues surrounding adoption. While open adoption does answer important questions of origin for adoptees, it does not necessarily abate a person’s grief about having been placed. It also does not make one immune to emotional complications that can arise from the adoptees’ relationship with his or her birth family. One adoptee recalls the anger and confusion she felt when her birth mother informed her that she would raise her biological sister.  Another expressed fears of alienation and abandonment despite her positive views of being raised in an open adoption. When it comes to mitigating the emotional consequences of adoption, there simply is no silver bullet.


Bottom line: The outcomes of open adoption are as varied as the families involved. Where do you stand? Is it right that open adoption be the accepted standard, or is better for the door to swing both ways?

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