Open adoption is a positive idea but may only partially fit UK culture

The Open Adoption study

Both children and adults can benefit from a more open model of adoption, according to a new academic study.

Adoptions generally focus on moving the child from the biological parents to the new adoptive parents. Open adoption considers extending the family’s boundary so as to include a child’s birth relatives.

The study, undertaken by Professor Grotevant, Rudd Family Foundation Chair in Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, US, advocates an “adoptive kinship network”. The number and complexity of familial relationships is increased, but is believed to offer greater reward for all involved — including the children, crucially.

In many cases, the research appears to disprove common concerns of maintaining contact with a birth family: unsettled children, grief of the birth mother, and adoptive parents’ fear of losing the child back to the biological family.

It’s based on collected observation from the Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project which has been running since the 1980s.

Open adoption has a very wide interpretation but can include a number of practical ideas including:

  • allowing the birth family to be involved in the selection of the adopters;
  • maintaining birth family’s ongoing contact with children through various media and in person;
  • greater post-adoption support by professionals.

Would it work in the UK?

As I mulled over this research I realised that to some extent it fit with my own preconceptions, based on limited and anecdotal research and hearsay, of the vast differences between the US and British adoption system and culture.

Thankfully, the report does touch upon the need to take care with introducing a more open approach to adoption, being aware of the adoption culture already in place, and the reasons adoption is needed.

In the US, many adoptions are voluntarily initiated by the birth mother (although in a closed system she may still have to legally waive any parental rights).

By contrast in the UK, children are removed — often but not always against the will of the birth family — due to serious neglect, abuse, or parental incapacity.

During the UK adoption process, when removed children are placed in foster care, limited but regular contact is often maintained with the birth parents. At this stage, birth parents and the local authority (social services) legally have a joint parental responsibility, although the birth family’s rights are limited.

By nature of the reasons for removal, no information about a child’s prospective adoptive parents or their location is given to the birth family.

Having said that, the UK adoption process encourages and builds into an adoption plan the need for anonymised contact between birth and adoption families. This ‘letterbox contact’ usually takes the form of annual/biannual update letters from and to each family, and allowing birth family to send birthday cards.

Additionally, where sibling groups may have been separated, arrangements can be made for ongoing face-to-face contact.

One difference which immediately jumped out at me was the level of professional support given post-adoption. The research report suggests this is extremely limited in the US, whereas in Britain it is a legal requisite that adoptive families receive regular, ongoing support at and after the child’s placement, through the process of applying for the Adoption Order (which makes the whole adoption legal), and even beyond this.

Although I don’t know exactly why this is, my hunch is there are two reasons.

Firstly, as I’ve already mentioned, many US adoptions are voluntary. Perhaps there is some notion that these placements don’t need the same level of aftercare.

Secondly, US adoptions are generally handled by private agencies rather than the government. Post-adoption support is a long-term concept, requires professionals with an alternative (if overlapping) skill set to those involved in the matching process, and is unlikely to be financially profitable.

On the flip side, adoptions in the UK are handled by social services (even if private adoption agencies piggyback onto them) and, although finances are obviously still an issue, there is a legal duty of care built into the system.

More so, post-adoption support and care in the UK is set to increase as after-placement teams within social services are given more funding and prominence.

Kinship Care

An area where the UK is advancing is that of kinship care, special guardianship and private fostering.

This would seem to reflect many of the ideals of open adoption as raised in the research report.

This type of care may be undertaken by relatives of the child, or friends within the parents’ existing social network. It may be informally agreed or legally set up. As stated on the BAAF web site, it may be initiated as:

  • Private arrangement: an informal arrangement where a child is looked after by individuals other than the parent, such as a grandparent or a close relative. No legal agreements have been undertaken.
  • Private fostering: when a child under the age of 16 (under 18 if disabled) is cared for by someone who is not their parent or a ‘close relative’. This is a private arrangement made between a parent and a carer, for 28 days or more. Close relatives are defined as step-parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles or aunts (whether of full blood, half blood or marriage/affinity)
  • Kinship Fostering: an arrangement whereby the local authority has legal responsibility for a child and places them with a family member or friend who is a foster carer for that child.
  • Special Guardianship: a formal court order that was introduced on 30 December 2005 which allows parental control over a child by individuals other than the parent. This could be a grandparent, close relative or even a family friend.

The benefits to the child include stable care without legal separation from the parent, firm foundation for a permanent relationship, and the opportunity to remain within the extended family network.

The child drives it

This should be the primary deciding factor in determining whether an open adoption should be considered:

Will it benefit the child?

I quite understand the desire to see more positive outcomes for the birth family, but this must not be a primary or even equal consideration.

If a child has left its mother voluntarily, or due to parental incapacity where there is no risk to the child in a managed environment, I would certainly do more to consider the birth parents’ needs and wishes, but never to the detriment of the child, and rarely when harm has been done.

This research talks about reduced levels of long-term grief in birth families when open adoption occurs. That’s a great outcome but it shouldn’t be a major factor in deciding to go the open route.

Children are naturally curious about their family and where they’ve come from. The majority, who were not removed at or soon after birth, already have some understanding of the changes they’ve gone through.

Pre- and post-adoption support allows professionals and adoptive parents alike to work through their “life story”, helping them to understand both their biological and forever family at an appropriate level. This is an ongoing process which is revisited whenever a child wants to know more about their family.

With access to professional help, adoptive parents can be more confident that if their child is expressing genuine, ongoing interest in making direct contact with their birth family, this can be handled in a way that respects the child, maintains their safety, and has official support.

Prospective adopters in the UK attend a significant amount of training. Part of this looks not only at contact arrangements, but also at how to keep an open dialogue with children about their familial history.

So-called “closed” adoptions, as practiced in the UK, are generally not a negative experience for the child, even when viewed against more open practices.

The research is certainly well worth considering, and UK adoption practice is sure to evolve based on such studies. We need to be aware of the many differences between US and UK adoptions.

Original article on this research from The Child and Family Blog.