Open or Closed Adoption – What is the Difference?
Families must make a number of decisions in the adoption process. Foremost among them, in Washington State, is the decision of whether or not to pursue an “open” or a “closed” adoption. Washington is one of a few states that allows adoptive parents, birth parents, and if appropriate, the child, to enter into a legally binding agreement with each other regarding the terms of future communication or contact between the families after the adoption is completed. These agreements are commonly called “open adoption” or “communication” agreements. In an open adoption agreement, all parties must agree to and sign the written agreement and the Court must find that it is in the best interest of the child.
There is no legal requirement that an open adoption agreement be entered into between the families in an adoption. Some birth families and adoptive families do not wish to have any contact or communication at all. In this post, I will discuss the difference between these options, some of the pros and cons of each, and some further considerations for families making this decision.
What is an “Open” Adoption?
Simply put, an open adoption is one where the adoptive family and one or both birth parents agree to share identifying information and maintain contact with each other during and after the adoption process. The specific terms of any open adoption are highly variable, based on the mutual desires of the adoptive family and birth parent(s). Each birth parent may have a different expectation for future communication and contact – in some cases, they will each have their own unique “open adoption” agreement with the adoptive family.
Post-adoption contact varies on a case-by-case basis. Adoptive parents and birth parents must agree on what this contact looks like. Some elect for limited contact such as sharing pictures, progress reports, letters, videos on a set schedule or when requested. Others may pursue greater post-adoption interaction such as ongoing access to a shared, online photo account, telephone/zoom contact, or in-person visits. In many open adoptions, both families agree to keep each other informed of future medical information that may be common between the birth parent(s) and the child. Importantly, the Court must find that the particulars of the open adoption agreement are in the best interest of the child.
Possible Benefits of Open Adoption
Some of the possible benefits of open adoption agreement include:
- The families will have continuing access to updated medical information to assist them in raising and caring for their children. Similarly, if the adopted child receives a diagnosis which may be an inherited trait or abnormality, this information can be shared with the birth parent(s) so they can better care for themselves and their family. This post-adoption contact is tremendously important for the adoptive parents, the child, and the birth parents to remain informed regarding hereditary ailments and predispositions.
- With an open adoption, the families can develop a deeper relationship, allowing the birth parent to feel more at ease with their decision for voluntary placement of their child. Ongoing updates and photos can help provide peace of mind that a birth parent made the right decision.
- An open adoption may lead to opportunities for the child to know more about their background, further develop their sense of identity, and maintain an ongoing connection to their birth family and heritage.
What is a “Closed” Adoption?
There is no legal requirement for an open adoption in Washington State. In some cases, a “closed adoption” may meet the mutual needs and expectations of the families. A closed adoption is one where the adoptive family and birth parents decide to remain relatively anonymous, meaning there will be limited sharing of personally identifying information and likely no post-adoption contact after the voluntary placement of the child.
Some families choose a closed adoption because they do not want to have an ongoing relationship and feel a closed adoption provides a clear sense of closure for all parties involved as nothing is left uncertain.
A closed adoption isn’t perfect for everyone. One drawback is the limited ability to acquire health information if a new medical condition arises in either family.
It is also important to note that even in a closed adoption, it is imperative that the adoptive family have as much information during the adoption process as possible for the best interests of the child. The adoptive family and the child’s doctor will need to have a complete family health history so that they can provide the child with the best medical care. The more they know about the birth family, the better they can help over the years with the child’s needs and interests.
When advising families on their open or closed adoption decision, my answer is always, “it depends.” All things being equal, an open adoption is often more advantageous—at a minimum, to maintain the ability to exchange updated medical information regarding hereditary ailments or medical conditions.