Open Adoption History

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Open Adoption History

Open adoption is becoming the norm in the US for infant adoptions. The closed procedures that dominated adoption in the past required that there be no exchange of information or contact of any kind between the adopting and biological parents and that all decisions about who adopted which baby were to be made solely by agency personnel. Most of us have grown up accepting closed adoption as the norm but those procedures were anything but normal. First, Americans are very suspicious of any type of government secrecy. Second, we do not respond very well to the government (agencies) making crucial decisions for people rather than letting them decide for themselves. And what could be a more important and more of an individual decision than who adopts what child.

The first Board meeting was held in June of 1982 and the formal Articles of Incorporation and non-profit status were filed in October of 1982. At the time, I was the Administrative Director of the Infertility Clinic at Planned Parenthood in San Francisco. I was struck by how few options were available if fertility treatments did not work (and they rarely did). There were adoption agencies, but their requirements were often unfair (under age 40, a certain religion only) or arbitrary, and the wait for a newborn was 3–5 years or more. These long waits were the result of a major increase in infertility (20% of couples of child bearing age) and the simultaneous collapse of adoption as an alternative for unwed mothers (a drop from perhaps 60% of young unwed mothers to under 4%) as single parenting became widely acceptable. The agencies had reigned supreme because they long ago decided who got which baby and so they were free to impose these unnecessary restrictions.

Open Adoption

Open adoption is becoming the norm in the US for infant adoptions. The closed procedures that dominated adoption in the past required that there be no exchange of information or contact of any kind between the adopting and biological parents and that all decisions about who adopted which baby were to be made solely by agency personnel. Most of us have grown up accepting closed adoption as the norm but those procedures were anything but normal. First, Americans are very suspicious of any type of government secrecy. Second, we do not respond very well to the government (agencies) making crucial decisions for people rather than letting them decide for themselves. And what could be a more important and more of an individual decision than who adopts what child.

Open adoption is not even that new. Until the late nineteenth century in this country—and still today in much of the world—almost all adoptions were handled informally and unofficially. There was no involvement with agencies, counselors, doctors, or private attorneys. If a young woman was pregnant out-of-wedlock, the baby’s adoption was typically arranged by her parents with the help of the head of her extended family. Some family member or close friend became the parents of the child. No legal papers were filed. Perhaps the child called their adopting parents Aunt and Uncle, but everyone knew they were the child’s adoptive parents. Today, open adoption brings us back full circle to this type of healthy continuity for our children.

Closed adoption procedures were born in the late nineteenth century. The founders of the first adoption agencies felt compassion for the plight of unwed mothers, but still considered them social outcasts whose ‘illegitimacy’ had to be kept secret. Such young women (the men were invisible) certainly could not be trusted with deciding who adopted their child. The adopting parents, ‘barren’ as they were called in those days, were under suspicion as well. The agencies met little resistance establishing almost total power over the adoption process by the early 1900’s. Making adoption legally secret ran into more resistance. Actually, most such laws were not passed until the l940's and 50’s.

Pressure for change mounted in the l970’s and increased in the l980’s and l990’s. When adoption was the sole alternative to a lifetime of shame, a birthmother had little choice but to accept such treatment. However, as the social mores against unwed motherhood disappeared, so did young people’s tolerance of these attitudes. Soon few women were choosing adoption for their child (by 1980, less than 3% of non-married women under 25 years of age). Adults who were adopted as children started demanding the right to know their personal histories. Birthmothers from past years began clamoring for change. Just as other non-traditional alternatives emerged in those decades—from the civil rights movement to alternative schools—so, too, did open adoption.

Evidence of the destructive impact of closed procedures mounted. In American society, secrecy is associated with dark and shameful and the hushed quality of closed adoption left many children feeling that there was something terribly wrong with their own biological heritage. Knowing nothing about their birthparents, many adopted children believed that they were just thrown away or given away solely because they were ‘bad’ or not pretty enough. Much of what people believe are the ‘mortal wounds’ of being adopted are probably not from the process itself at all. They are the result of adopted children picking up on society’s negative, secretive attitude towards how these children came into their own families.

Contrary to popular opinion, closed adoption has been more, not less, prone to failure than open adoption. People get the opposite impression only because the failures of closed adoption are hidden from public view by the very secrecy of the process. Tellingly, the most common source of closed adoption failures has been the absence of any connection between the adopting parents and birthparents. When a birthmother experiences the sense of loss and grief that can accompany choosing adoption for her baby, she has little to counterbalance that pain. She has no idea of where her child is going, nor can she experience firsthand the new parents’ excitement and gratitude for her gift to them. Ironically, the very separation that was supposed to protect the adopting parents from the birthparents' changing their minds, has often resulted in the parents having no child to adopt at all.

Surprisingly, much of the original impetus for openness came from private attorneys. Since they were not social workers, they had neither the long history of closed adoption nor the indoctrination that was common in the social work profession about closed adoption. With many agencies refusing to change, by the late 1980’s, private attorneys began to dominate infant adoption. But few attorneys could handle the emotional issues so common to adoption and the failure rate shot up, reaching, for instance, 25% or more in California. Fortunately, there was growing pressure on adoption agencies to offer what the attorney’s could not: careful screening of prospective parents and comprehensive counseling, but now in the context of open not closed procedures.

Agencies that refused to change simply did fewer adoptions than open programs. After all, for most prospective birthparents, deciding between open vs. closed adoption is a “slam dunk.” Would they choose a system that treated them as pathological, gave them no choice about who got their baby, and told them to pretend their child was dead, or would they choose open adoption where they were respected, even appreciated, had a say in who adopted their child, and could know how their child fared over the years? For adoptive parents, working with closed adoption program could easily mean seven to ten years waits for a child.

Some pioneering agencies led the movement for change. They included Lutheran Social services in Texas under Kathleen Silber, a program by Jim Gritter’s Catholic based agency in the Midwest, and the nation-wide Independent Adoption Center. And change came. In the early 1990’s, annual meetings of the National Federation for Open Adoptions were still debating the merits of openness. By the late 1990’s, that question was no longer relevant; the issues at hand were how to best carry through open adoption, not whether it was correct or not.

Today, there are probably few domestic adoption agencies left that do solely closed adoptions. New open adoption families now take for granted the ‘normalcy’ of open adoption. As an example, few of our (the Independent Adoption Center’s) nearly 4,000 families can even imagine adopting any other way. In actual practice, the amount of contact between birthparents and child varies a great deal. Sometimes there is considerable contact between adopted child and birthparents. In other cases, perhaps for the mundane reason that everyone lives far apart, the contact is minimal. But, always, the basic principle stays the same: caring contact between adopted children and birthparents is like any other normal, healthy relationship in our society, not something about which to be ashamed.

Today, people still talk about open and closed adoption. Within a few years, those terms will have lost their meaning. Openness will be the rule (with a few exceptions, of course) and what we now call open adoption will just be called “adoption.”

Bruce M. Rappaport, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of the Independent Adoption Center, a nationwide licensed adoption agency, and National Federation for Open Adoption Education. Bruce is a well known expert in infertility and adoption and the author of The Open Adoption Book: A Guide to Making Adoption Work for You ( Macmillan, 1998), He can be reached through the IAC web site,

The first Board meeting was held in June of 1982 and the formal Articles of Incorporation and non-profit status were filed October of 1982. At the time, I was the Administrative Director of the Infertility Clinic at Planned Parenthood in San Francisco. I was struck by how few options were available if fertility treatments did not work (and they rarely did). There were adoption agencies, but their requirements were often unfair (under age 40, a certain religion only) or arbitrary, and the wait for a newborn was 3–5 years or more. These long waits were the result of a major increase in infertility (20% of couples of child bearing age) and the simultaneous collapse of adoption as an alternative for unwed mothers (a drop from perhaps 60% of young unwed mothers to under 4%) as single parenting became widely acceptable. The agencies had reigned supreme because they long ago decided who got which baby and so they were free to impose these unnecessary restrictions.

I knew there was another alternative; attorney or so-called independent adoptions, but from my professional and personal experience I knew attorneys were not the right people to do adoptions. I thought my connections to Planned Parenthood would help in creating a new alternative and an adoptee/adoptive parent offered to raise funds to start the new organization.

My initial impulse was for independent and counseling based adoptions but as I worked I realized that openness was really the key. It was the right direction both morally/politically (closed adoption with its secrecy and shame had to go) and I was convinced, having worked with young people, that young women would much prefer openness (i.e. respect instead of humiliation). As time went by, the openness became crucial and I found myself in a very uphill battle against the adoption status quo (and public opinion in general) in advocating that birthparents should choose the adoptive parents (out of the question at an agency) and that the whole process could be treated as normal. In fact, I called it normalized adoption, not open adoption, initially, because it pointed to adoption as a healthy normal process where secrecy did not belong any more than it did in any other part of American life. Openness, on the other hand, implied things like open marriage and Berkeley communes. Eventually, we gave into the media’s label of openness.

The center was a nonprofit counseling and educational organization but not a licensed agency since I knew that would restrict us too much (i.e. we could not do open adoptions).

After the first year, I talked my way onto a panel on adoption at UC Extension but was cancelled out when the agency people would not appear on the same stage with an open adoption advocate. Somehow, whenever I would attend a meeting of adoption professionals, they always seemed to lose my address and not notify me of the next meeting.

We started out by sharing a small office in Lafayette. I charged $40 for a two-hour session to get people started with the process and we did a dozen adoptions in 6 months. We got a big break with a front-page story in the Contra Costa Times on New Year’s Day and business picked up. I got a small grant to do some outreach and to work with senior volunteers. By the end of the first year, we had done an unheard of (for an agency) 60 adoption matches.

But the work increased and could no longer be done in that small office (birthmothers complained they could not even fit into the bathroom) so we moved to a place in Pleasant Hill that seemed suitable. Charges were up to $650 and had a staff of 4. More adoption, more staff and higher fees (now $1200) happened in the next few years.

Kathleen Silber (now Associate Executive Director), who already had a great reputation as an open adoption advocate, asked to work at the Independent Adoption Center since her attempts to get Children’s Home Society of California to do open adoptions went no where (they have since closed down their adoption program in CA altogether).

Open adoption was getting some recognition but was definitely seen as aberrant. On the other hand, that did mean a great deal of publicity: virtually every major network, regional and local TV, radio, newspapers and magazines in 2–4 years. The Kuralt show was done in this period as well as an article in People Magazine. I, along with Kathleen, became even more convinced that openness and, importantly, empowering both birthparents (they chose the new parents) and the adoptive parents (no arbitrary restrictions) was central to the whole process.

The staff grew to about 10 and then we started placing ads in US News and World Report and we were flooded with calls. We were overwhelmed and the small staff could not handle it. At a critical board meeting that year, the Board decided to double the fee (even though some of them would be paying the new fees) to $1500 so we could add more staff.

The LA office just made sense, though it took years to actually get it going. The Indiana office was a fluke based on the local Planned Parenthood inviting us to Muncie, Indiana. We out grew that office and one of our main CA staff wanted to move to Indiana and so that branch started to grow (maybe 12–14 years ago). The Georgia office was made possible by an alumni and attorney who moved to GA (she had been brought up there) and wanted to start an open adoption. We had lots of support in North Carolina so that seemed the logical next step and Raleigh made sense as an up and coming city. The NC state people fought us tooth and nail for years about openness and often threatened to close us down. By 2002, though, we had helped get state legislation that made openness legal as long as all parties agreed.

About 12 years ago, I had the nerve to call for a national open adoption conference and to my, and most people’s surprise; people came from around the country. But most of the people attending were actually opposed to open adoption though they did want to know more about it. We kept the conference gong every year and then every other year. Initially, the Independent Adoption Center staff did 90+% of the workshops but as openness spread, more agencies could provide training and leadership. During this time, we were contracted to bring open adoption to the leading (and old line) agency in Texas and then Minnesota. By pure chutzpa, I established the “open adoption practitioner” certification program. Though there was no legal basis (nothing against it) we asked people to attend the full conference, have additional training and take a test and then they were “Certified Open Adoption Practitioners.” Over the years, many people loved having that title on their stationary and the training continues to this day (though very little has been needed in the last few years).

The State of California was still deeply anti-openness so we saw little hope of becoming a licensed agency, but that changed about 10 years ago and the state permitted identified adoption, i.e. the birthmother relinquished her child not to the agency, which was then free to give the child to the people of the agency’s choice, but to a particular couple. This empowered the birthmother and meant openness in adoption could be legal. We became a licensed agency, the first in California and then eventually in the other states where we have offices. This required a major increase in staffing to deal with the bureaucratic requirements and it took us a year or two to make the change from independent to licensed agency adoptions. We have special status in New York and Connecticut as well as our main states but actually can do adoptions in almost any state.

The staff had grown to 35–40, our commitment to openness was complete and we were getting some acceptance (although, not much).

By 1997, the California State Director of Adoptions gave the opening welcome at our national convention signaling a fairly wide acceptance of openness to CA. Media coverage got more and more sparse as we had lost our unique claim to fame (openness) even though we were still the oldest and largest fully open adoption agency (which we still are).

By 2002, open adoption was formally recognized as the only proper form of adoption in CA and in Texas and, in general, openness became far less controversial and far more widespread. Today, most infant adoptions are open in some form (though often not fully) though this is not at all the case with foster care and international adoptions. Fortunately though, the move for openness is so strong and widespread now that it has pressured more and more foster care and even international adoption programs to move to some type of openness.

Adoption: Yesterday and Today

Today, one in five couples of childbearing age face serious problems in trying to conceive a baby. For these people, what most of us take for granted—being able to have the joy of being a parent—becomes a increasingly elusive goal. Often years of expensive, frustrating, and even humiliating medical testing, leaves people thinking they are on a "medical treadmill."

Why isn’t adopting a child the answer? Unfortunately, as infertility skyrocketed, the number of babies available for adoption plummeted. Until a few generations ago, an “unwed” mother had few alternatives but adoption. Today abortion is legal and, more important, single parenting is not only acceptable but widely approved (think of how many so-called family shows have a single parent). While 60-70% of unmarried women had their child adopted years ago, today, one out of three have abortions and a staggering 96% of the rest choose to become single parents. Not only is this hard on their kids and our society, but this would seem to dash the hopes of infertile couples hoping to find a child to adopt.

But there are major changes happening in adoption. One of the main reasons that women shun adoption has been that the whole process was secretive and humiliating and the birthmothers were told to just pretend that their child had died. Adopted children have often suffered from a lack of the basic information that all of their friends take for granted, like knowing your own family history. With all the hush-hush, it has been all too easy for an adopted child to wonder if there is something wrong with their own biological heritage.

Fortunately, with OPEN ADOPTION, all of this is changing. The procedure is more normal—no hiding—and appeals to many more young people. Instead of long waits or arbitrary agency restrictions around age or divorce, most people can become parents often within six to eighteen months, to what greater joy than having a child to love.

Copyright© 2003 by The Independent Adoption Center.

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