I have been parenting adopted kids for 28 years now. I’ve had the chance to raise 12 children (8 adopted) to adulthood. In addition, I’m connected with dozens of my former foster kids who were reunified with their birth parents. My experiences, especially those of my adult children and their birth families, have led me to consider the concept of openness in adoption in a totally different way than I imagined years ago.
Learning about the Importance of Birth Family
Adoptive families are very different than traditional, biological families. The decision to add members to your family through a court process is similar to the decision to make a permanent commitment to your spouse through marriage. It’s making a choice to be family.
For a long time, I believed termination of parental rights was just a court process. Maybe I needed to feel more secure about my role as an adoptive parent. Maybe I had a limited understanding of the depth of the genetic connection between biological parents and their children. Somehow I felt that a termination meant that “those” people were no longer “my” kids’ parents.
About six years into foster/adoptive parenting, however, I met a young woman who had been adopted by another family. She confided in me about her conflicted loyalty between the love for her adoptive parents and her need to reconnect to members of her birth family. She wasn’t rejecting her adoptive family; she was expressing sadness about having to pick a family. She felt it wasn’t okay to belong in both. What hurt her most was her adoptive mother’s inability to help her navigate those feelings without taking it as a rejection. She was a sensitive, caring young woman, in large part because of the love and compassion she had learned in her adoptive family. But she had to hide part of who she was from the people she loved and needed the most.
From that experience, I learned it was my job to help my kids navigate their feelings about their birth families, without making the journey about me. I needed to be secure enough as their mother that I could listen, understand, and support whatever degree of reconnection they decided to have.
Evolution of Thinking
Still I had further to go in my journey toward openness. I was pretty sure there should be some disconnect between birth families and children at termination of parental rights. The act of terminating rights resulted from some failure on the birth parents’ part to rectify the circumstances that caused them to abuse or neglect my children. Surely my kids needed time to heal from that trauma in the trauma-free environment of my home.
In our early days, I thought we were parenting experts. We’d mastered the skills to meet the needs of children with significant medical and mental health issues. We could parent teenagers with whom we had not shared the early formative years. But with the addition of each new child with significant issues, our trauma-free environment quickly became less peaceful. It eventually became clear we were not exactly offering a trauma-free environment.
Instead, we were hanging on for dear life and hoping that if we hung on long enough, the roller coaster would slow down. The working theory that I’d hung my hat on for so many years was out the door—there was no way to keep the trauma out. It was part and parcel of these kids no matter where they laid their heads at night.
The thing that tipped me right over the openness in adoption edge was the dawn of social networking. With My Space, Facebook, and constant internet access, it finally clicked that there was no such thing as closed adoption anymore. Twenty years ago it might have been hard for my kids’ birth parents to track us down. But even then it wasn’t hard for many of our foster and adoptive kids to find their birth parents when they made the choice to do so, particularly if they were older than toddlers when they came into care. Now, it’s not even a contest. We can find anyone we want to find by clicking a few buttons on the computer—and our kids can find them faster than we parents can.
Helping Your Children Learn Their Identity
So it’s no longer a matter of if, it’s when. It’s no longer a matter of will they have contact, it’s how will that contact look? As I’ve taken time to let that realization gel in my brain, it’s finally occurred to me that it’s really okay.
The biggest issue facing all adopted people is achieving a sense of identity that requires some connection to their biological parents. Understanding where you came from—all of who you are—helps you to be whole.
We’ve all recognized the need for medical information for adopted youth. They have a right to know what to expect as health issues arise. What we may not have recognized is that they also have a right to know and understand the people from whom they come, whose genes have helped shape their appearance, their sense of humor, their way of processing the challenges they face, and more. While we may think we are protecting our children from hard-to-hear information, we may be robbing them of what makes them who they are.
I still believe that there are valid reasons why some parents should not have custody of their children. I still believe that, for the safety and protection of children, adoptive parents must join with the children and form a new kind of family. But I no longer feel it is my job to protect my children from their birth parents. Now, I feel it’s my job to help my children navigate their relationship with their birth parents in a way that makes sense for each of them at their pace and their ability level. It’s my job to partner with birth parents to make the best decisions to support our mutual children. Rather than cutting off the biological family from their lives, it’s my job to bring the biological family into my family and to walk willingly with my child into their family as well.
My adopted children have two mothers, two fathers, and sometimes more. The best thing I can do for them is to help them be who they are, not who I want them to be. And isn’t that truly what we want for all of our children?
Helping Other Parents Connect with Birth Family
This approach to openness takes hard work and practice. It’s full of messy emotions for everyone. At MFCAA, we have been approached by adoptive parents who are pretty upset. Their child has found and reconnected with biological parents, adult siblings, or other family members—usually via social media. They don’t know what to do about this intrusion and are desperately afraid the birth family influence will lead their child to harm. This stance has often led to an increasingly strained relationship between the adoptive parents and their child.
In a handful of cases where teens had already connected with their birth parents, our staff have encouraged adoptive parents to engage the birth family in a partnership, with a mutual goal of helping the child make good choices, communicate honestly, etc. In every situation we’ve seen, the birth parents love the child. There has been no doubt that the adoptive parents love the child. And when the two sets of parents come together with that mutual concern, they are able to mediate an agreement for contact that allows them to work together to support the child in a healthy way.
Helping adoptive parents is usually just a matter of a couple of meetings. First, an MFCAA staff member, who is a licensed clinician and an adoptive parent, facilitates separate conversations with the adoptive parents and birth parents. In these separate meetings, each set of parents identifies old hurts, concerns, and hopes for the child, and goals for a reconnected relationship. We also help them see each other as real, but flawed human beings who care for the same child. Then, the staff member brings the two sets of parents together for one or more meetings.
While together, the two sets of parents discuss old hurts, talk about their common interest in what is best for the child, discuss what kinds of ground rules for contact will allow them to partner together for the benefit of the child, rather than being triangulated by the child for what he or she perceives to be a benefit. The meetings predict future conflict and establish a plan for how to manage that conflict. Mostly, what the meetings do is create a mutually respectful relationship between adults, with boundaries in place, that can help them begin to share the role of parenting through the rest of that child’s life.
After the adults have established their agreements, the child is involved by first meeting with the adoptive parents, then with both sets of parents. During these facilitated sessions, the adoptive parents re-introduce the child to the birth parents, and together the parents explain the boundaries and rules for the new relationship. Both parents demonstrate mutual respect and support, and let the child know that they will be in contact with each other regularly.
In all the cases where MFCAA has provided this service, the goal was to help adoptive parents establish safe boundaries after a teen already reached out to birth family. In a dangerous situation, we would not move forward with the process and would likely recommend counseling and other services to keep the child safe.
One Family’s Story
Several years ago, nine-year-old Allie was adopted with three younger siblings by George and Margaret*. Once Allie became a teen, she started to have behavioral problems, including running away. Margaret had remained in distant contact with the birth parents, although she had not allowed Allie direct contact. On one run, Allie reached out to her birth mother and an older sibling. Allie’s birth mom let Margaret know she’d heard from Allie, and eventually let her know where she was so that she could pick Allie up.
At that point, Margaret asked for our help in mediating the relationship with Allie’s biological mom so that she could ensure the contact was healthy. Margaret struggled with the rejection she felt when Allie contacted her birth mother, but was able to focus on the reality that her daughter was going to have contact with her birth mother, and it was her job to make that contact as safe as possible.
MFCAA’s Joe Beck then arranged a series of meetings (like those described earlier) during which he helped the two families establish better communication, guidelines for contact, and a plan for how to resolve future conflict. Over the course of the next year, the birth mother was able to go with Margaret to visit Allie in treatment. After treatment, Allie transitioned back to her home with Margaret and George, while keeping ongoing contact with her birth family.
While this was going on, the other siblings saw their two sets of parents interact positively for the benefit of their sister. They then felt comfortable to bring thoughts and questions about their birth parents to George and Margaret. As a result of having all of the information they needed about their birth parents, these three kids have a more secure sense of their own identity. They know and understand their birth parents, and feel solidly connected to their adoptive family where they belong.
The good news is that this process has worked for others as it did for Allie and her siblings. It’s strengthening children’s relationships with adoptive parents and birth parents. It’s providing them with a sense of security in the knowledge that all of the adults they love can and will work together to do what is best for them. It’s preventing triangulation and heartache. And it’s allowing adopted youth to feel whole without fear.
*names have been changed