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Adoption With an Open Door for Birth Parents

Steve Daggett and Diana Gilpatrick have their share of adoption "war" stories.

There were the long road trips to Altoona, N.Y., and central Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, to meet prospective young birth mothers. There was the emotional roller coaster of having a young birth mother who agreed to let Steve and Diana adopt her baby change her mind at the last minute. And there were months of fruitless negotiations with a native American tribe in Oklahoma as they sought to adopt an child who was 1/32nd Chickasaw.

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But Steve and Diana never gave up. Ultimately, they chose to enter one of the most trusting relationships between adoptive and birth parents: open adoption.

In fact, Steve and Diana believe that maintaining an open relationship with their now two-year-old son's birth parents will help him avoid some of the emotional problems that can beset adopted children.

"A lot of kids go through this identity crisis, where they feel very abandoned by their birth parents," says Diana, in the tidy living room that her son, Thomas, is now busy decorating with his toys. By visiting with Thomas's birth parents, and even grandparents, she adds, "we feel like we are giving him a greater sense of security, so that he can see [his birth parents] did it out of love."

For all its unfamiliarity, open adoption is one of the fastest growing trends in domestic adoption. A major driving force behind openness is a nationwide shortage of healthy adoptable babies, compared with the growing number of prospective adoptive parents. This shortage, combined with stronger legal rights, gives birth parents more say in who adopts their children and how much contact - from direct visits to regular letters exchanged through a third party - they can have with that child in the future.

"Originally, in the American adoption system, there was never an assumption that the child wouldn't know who the [birth] parents were," says Peter Gibbs, director of the National Center for Adoption Research and Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester. While parents usually told the child of the adoption, they tended to keep it a secret from the community to protect the child from derision. Eventually, that secrecy evolved into something that removed birth parents from the decision process.

But since the civil rights movement of the 1960s and '70s, adoption laws have gradually shifted power back into the hands of birth parents. "Today, birth parents have a greater say in the [adoption] process," adds Dr. Gibbs, and many are now demanding openness as a condition for adoption.

Getting the call

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In the adoption of Thomas, Steve and Diana made the first move in the early 1990s, distributing hundreds of full-color fliers in Unitarian churches and community centers around the country, telling about their desire to adopt.

In September 1995, they received a call from a birth mother named "Kerry" (her name has been changed on her request), and learned that they were among three other couples vying for her baby. Five months later, Kerry selected Steve and Diana, and from that point on, the relationship between Steve, Diana, and Kerry became very much like a family.

"Steve and Diana came to my birthing classes, and Steve drove me from my apartment to the birthing center when I went into labor," says Kerry, who notes that as soon as she found out she was pregnant, she knew she wanted her child to be adopted. Having an open adoption was Steve and Diana's idea. However, it was a notion that Kerry quickly warmed up to.

"As soon as he was born, they put him on my knee, and I had this strange reaction. I felt the need to let Steve and Diana be the first to hold him. He's more their child than mine."

Today, that closeness continues, and Kerry and her now-estranged boyfriend go to Steve and Diana's house separately four or five times a year to play with Thomas, or spend an afternoon at the local zoo. On occasion, Kerry will take time off from her college studies at Rutgers University to baby-sit Thomas. She says Thomas treats her like "a close relative."

For her part, Kerry has no second thoughts about letting Thomas be adopted, particularly by Steve and Diana. "I'm really glad that I had him, and I'm really glad that Steve and Diana are his parents, she says. "He's got a wonderful home."

Steve, a Congressional Research Service expert, recognizes that some adoptive parents would feel threatened by such an open relationship, but he adds that the boundaries are clearly drawn. "It's very clear we are his parents," he says.

"One of the reasons I felt comfortable with being in an open adoption setting is the people we're dealing with," he says, as Thomas scampers across the living room floor from Mom to toys, to Dad, to toys, to a guest on the sofa. "It's a matter of how well you get along with the birth parents. It might be more difficult for me in a different situation."

Rewards and risks

While experts agree that children benefit from the early knowledge that they are adopted, the long-term effects of open adoption have yet to be studied. "If both parties are mature, it can work," says Mara Duffy, director of professional practices at the National Council for Adoption in Washington. "But it could cause conflict if you have two parties not sure of how this all works."

From a legal standpoint, open adoption is no more risky than any adoption, since the termination of the birth parents' rights is the final, and in most cases irrevocable condition of any adoption.

Even so, some legal experts say that adoption laws must continue to give priority to the rights of adoptive parents, at least until the adopted child becomes an adult.

"I would like to see the decision [to have an open adoption] in the adoptive parents' hands," says Elizabeth Bartholet, a law professor who specializes in adoption issues at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Efforts to give birth parents more legal rights in open adoptions, as seen in Oregon's legislature, may put some children at risk, if the birth parents have a history of abuse or drug addiction, she adds.

For her part, Diana, a civil rights lawyer, says that an open adoption arrangement is the best of all possible worlds. And she can't understand why people would feel threatened by open adoption.

"People who have not adopted children sometimes think that when a child grows up, he will bond more with the birth parents," she says. "They can't understand that a child can bond to you."


Thirteen states specifically provide for open adoption or post-adoption contact with the birth parents.


New Mexico




West Virginia

South Dakota


New York





Note: Other states acknowledge that open adoption can exist, but don't prescribe how it can take place.

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