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What is Open Adoption?

10 Feb, 2023

What is Open Adoption?

For many people who have not been directly touched by adoption, this article may seem like a foreign concept filled with words borrowed from a language you did not know existed. Adoption, after all, is something we usually observe from a distance or on television, with limited understanding of what someone who has lived out an adoption story may experience.

If you are someone that falls into this category, I appreciate your willingness to dip your toe into the waters of learning some adoption terms and concepts.

Honestly, we are all constantly learning about adoption: Whether we are adoption professionals, triad members,* or the people who love them. See below for a definition of an adoption triad.

To understand the world of adoption one must first recognize that adoption stories are unique; they are contrastingly beautiful and painful, wholesome and gut-wrenching. Most adoption stories are all of these things at once.

But the best we can do is to learn what information we can from a posture of humility.

As professionals, we commit to making discerning choices about adoption policy and procedures according to the most recent research available. And, we listen: to adoptees, adoptive families, and birth families. We learn from the past and we seek to use integrity in our work with each client of adoption.

So whatever brought you to this page to learn a little about open adoption, I hope that you keep these ideas at top of your mind and join us in the pursuit of learning about adoption as a whole.


A quick definition of open adoption:

Open adoption, also known as modern adoption, is currently the most widely accepted type of adoption in the United States. It refers to an adoption in which a birth mother or birth parents have specifically chosen the family that will be adopting the child and have an opportunity for communication and relationship with the adoptive family and adoptee throughout the course of his or her life.

As of 2012, approximately 95% of adoptions that occur were considered “open” [6]. It can be assumed that this percentage is even higher today, a full decade after this study was completed.

Yet, this wide acceptance of open adoption was not always the case. Closed adoption, as described below, was the norm for most of the 20th century. But a shift began to occur in the social work and adoption field as many professionals began to question the previously-standard procedures of keeping legal lock and key on adoptees’ birth and medical histories. By the mid-1990’s these professional practices became commonplace, and open adoption took its place as the new standard of adoption care.

Open adoption vs. Closed adoption

Closed adoptions do not allow for any future communication. No information is exchanged between parties. Records are sealed, and even the adoptees themselves are barred from viewing their own records without going through a court of law. The birth family most likely did not have any choice in deciding the family with whom their child would be placed.

Open adoption, on the other hand, begins with an expectant mother being empowered to choose the family with whom she will place her child for adoption. She is encouraged to meet with them, ask questions, and be an active participant in the adoption process.

Open adoption allows for future contact and building of relationships between birth and adoptive families.

Openness allows for agency support throughout the lifetime.

Open adoption allows adoptees to have a direct connection to their birth, family, and medical histories.

Note: AdoptionWorks only facilitates OPEN adoptions. Even if a birth mother chooses to currently have no interaction with her child or the adoptive parents, her disclosure of medical history and her ability to choose the family for her child deems the adoption “open.” Also, in an open adoption, she can seek communication or receive updates from the family in the future if she decides she would like to pursue a relationship with them.

Open adoption is on a continuum.

For some, the idea of an open adoption can be scary. But it is important to remember that openness is on a continuum! Just like with any other relationship, it can develop and change over time. Not only are boundaries acceptable, but they are greatly encouraged.

Adoption professionals encourage birth parents and adoptive parents alike to have honest conversations about their comfortability with levels of openness. Some families choose to begin the relationship completely mediated by the agency, sending photos and updates through case workers. Some families communicate independently of the agency, see each other multiple times a year, and are invited to family events.

Each adoption triad has unique dynamics, and each member of that triad has unique needs within that dynamic that informs levels of openness.

Levels of openness can change over time. We expect openness to look differently at 3 months than it does at 3 years or 33 years. Changes in levels of openness can occur throughout different seasons of life and stages of development. This is normal and expected. A good adoption agency will be present to help you navigate these changes as you go.

Most importantly, open adoption relationships are built on mutual trust and respect. When an adoption takes place, the birth family and adoptive family often create an open adoption agreement, which is simply a summary of the agreed-upon expectations for communication and relationship-building moving forward. The open adoption agreement is not a legally binding agreement, but a document that can remind both parties of the importance of maintaining a connection to each other to the best of one another’s abilities.

Open adoption is an opportunity for empowerment across the entire triad:

Research on this topic overwhelmingly suggests that openness benefits the entire triad [2, 3, 4, 5].

This does not mean that experiences are emotionally pain-free or perfect in nature. Adoption, after all, begins with the experience of loss when a child and mother are separated.

But it does mean that professionals and researchers have largely determined that a choice to pursue openness brings more benefits than not.

For the birth family: In open adoption, A birth mother is empowered to make active decisions in the adoption process, including choosing the family with whom she would like to place her child. Ashley Mitchell, birth mother and advocate for birth mothers worldwide is a good resource to learn more about the birth family perspective. You can find her @bigtoughgirl on Instagram or at https://lifetimehealingfoundation.org/

For adoptees: An adoptee is able to have connection with his or her history and birth story in an open adoption. He or she always knows the truth about who they are and how much they were loved by the people who brought them into the world. There are many adoptee accounts to follow, but a favorite of ours at AdoptionWorks is @throughadoptedeyes

For adoptive parents: In an open adoption, adoptive parents are able to have access to their child’s medical and family history, be able to help their child with difficult questions that come with being an adoptee, and create lasting relationships with their child’s biological family.

Open adoption is not co-parenting.

Once a mother has relinquished her rights to parent her child, she does not have the capability to determine the details of how that child is parented. The adoptive parents are the legal parents of the child once the adoption has been finalized. This is why we find it so important that an expectant mother is fully aware of her decision to make an adoption plan prior to relinquishment! This is a serious and irrevocable choice that we pray she does not take lightly.

Open adoption allows for beautiful opportunities for relationship but does not encroach on the legal parental rights of adoptive parents.

*Definitions to know:
  • Adoption Triad: the triangular representation of an adoptee’s relationship to his or her birth and adoptive family, with the adoptee at the top and the birth and adoptive families as the bottom foundational corners. Together, all three parties make up a triad.

  • Birth Mother: A mother who has placed a child for adoption and relinquished legal rights to parent that child.
  • Expectant Mother: A woman who is pregnant. Even if she is currently making an adoption plan, she is never called a birth mother until she has relinquished her parental rights. This distinction is made to honor a mother’s agency to choose to parent her child at any point prior to signing relinquishment.
  • Birth Family: Other biological family members of an adoptee
  • Adoptive Family: A couple or family who has legally adopted a child.

1. 10 things that scientific research says about open adoption. American Adoptions Blog. (2017, August 4). Retrieved January 21, 2023, from https://www.americanadoptions.com/blog/10-things-that-scientific-research-says-about-open-adoption/

2. Berry, M., Dylla, D. J. C., Barth, R. P., & Needell, B. (1998). The role of open adoption in the adjustment of adopted children and their families. Children and Youth Services Review, 20(1-2), 151–171. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0190-7409(97)00071-6

3. Editor. (2021, December 9). Open adoption: Advantages and benefits. American Pregnancy Association. Retrieved January 20, 2023, from https://americanpregnancy.org/child-adoption/open-adoption-advantages/#:~:text=for%20an%20adopted%20child%2c%20some%20possible%20advantages%20of,the%20adopted%20child%e2%80%99s%20sense%20of%20abandonment.%20more%20items

4. Ge, X., Natsuaki, M. N., Martin, D. M., Leve, L. D., Neiderhiser, J. M., Shaw, D. S., Villareal, G., Scaramella, L., Reid, J. B., & Reiss, D. (2008, August). Bridging the divide: Openness in adoption and postadoption psychosocial adjustment among birth and adoptive parents. Journal of family psychology: JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43). Retrieved January 21, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2638763/

5. Grotevant, H. D. (2019). Open adoption: Rethinking family. Open Adoption: Rethinking Family. Retrieved January 21, 2023, from https://www.umass.edu/ruddchair/sites/default/files/rudd.grotevant.pdf

6. Siegel, D. H., & Smith, S. L. (2012, March). Openness in adoption. Openness in Adoption From Secrecy and Stigma to Knowledge and Connections. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.adoptioninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/2012_03_OpennessInAdoption.pdf

7. Study shows rise in ‘open’ infant adoptions, with only 5% now completely ‘closed’ new report cites benefits of – and need for more knowledge about – these extended families. The Donaldson Adoption Institute. (2012, March 21). Retrieved January 21, 2023, from https://www.adoptioninstitute.org/dai-press/study-shows-rise-in-open-infant-adoptions-with-only-5-now-completely-closed-new-report-cites-benefits-of-and-need-for-more-knowledge-about-these-extended-families/

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