Open Adoption and
DEBORAH H. SIEGEL
Open adoptions, those in which birth family and adoptive family members have contact with each other, reflect evolving ideas about what constitutes a “family.” This chapter explains what open adoption is, why open adoption is now considered “best practice,” reviews research on the effects open adoption has on its participants, identifies questions about open adoption yet to be answered through research, and explores how openness in adoption is expanding and challenging traditional concepts of family boundaries in America.
Before the 1940s, law did not require sealed adoption records, and typically adoptive and birth families knew each other’s identities.1 In colonial times, laws allowed parish and town officials to remove children from poor families and place them as apprentices with masters who would maintain them and teach them a trade, often with their birth parents’ consent; thus, “boundaries between consanguine and nonconsanguine families” were “fluid.”2 Rigid boundaries separating birth and adoptive families arose with closed, confidential adoptions in which records were sealed in perpetuity by law. These confidential adoptions began to appear in the early twentieth century, took root in the United States after World War II and eventually characterized virtually all adoptions.3
By the 1970s, however, discontent with secrecy and cutoffs in adoption spawned a movement to end the practices of permanently sealing adoption records, preventing adoptive and birth family members from knowing each other’s identities or having a relationship with one another, and denying adoptees access to full information about their origins.4 Today, some form of openness in adoption is the norm.5 While child welfare professionals and people whose lives are touched by adoption disagree about how much and what kinds of openness are desirable, there is considerable consensus that total secrecy in adoption must end.