What is Open Adoption?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An open adoption is an adoption in which there is a possibility of contact between the birth parents and the adoptive family and child. This is in contrast to a closed adoption, an adoption in which the child does not interact with his or her birth parents. The degrees of contact in open adoptions vary quite widely, with most parents preferring to set out expectations in a contract before the adoption is finalized. Advocates of open adoption argue that it is the healthiest adoption option for all involved, and researchers in the field have supported this claim through several long-term studies.

Doctor with a baby
Doctor with a baby

Definitions of “open adoption” vary widely. For example, some adoption agencies consider adoptions to be open when birth parents have some say in the decision about who receives the child, although the birth parents may not be allowed to contact the child after it is placed. Others believe in mediated contact, with the families exchanging letters and perhaps participating in supervised visits. In other cases, the birth parents in an open adoption take an active role in the child's life, although they are not considered co-parents; they are more like trusted family friends.

Many people are surprised to learn that open adoption was the norm in many places well through the early part of the 20th century. People chose to adopt out their children because they could not support them and they wanted to give them a better chance in life, but they still wanted to take roles in the lives of their children. Around the 1930s, cultural norms began to shift, and the idea of closed adoption arose, creating an idealized vision of the family. When open adoption experienced a resurgence, some children from closed adoptions welcomed the idea, citing the distress and strain they experienced.

One of the obvious advantages to open adoption is that it gives the child a connection with his or her birth parent and history, although generally the adoptive parents are viewed as the child's “real parents.” This can be especially important when the birth parent has a medical history which could be a concern later in the child's life, such as a family history of cancer. For adoptive children who come from a different racial or cultural background than their parents, contact with a birth parent can also be very beneficial. For the child, an open adoption can also be used to enforce the idea that the child is loved, and that the child's birth parent simply felt unable to offer the care that the child needed, not unwilling.

Negotiating an open adoption contract can be tricky, because a lot of emotions swirl around adoption for many people. Advocates of open adoption say that it can help to talk to friends and colleagues who have gone through the process, to get an idea of what to expect. At a minimum, the contract should spell out the level of contact expected by both sides, with clear minimums and maximums established to set clear boundaries. Some people also like to leave open adoption open to renegotiation to deal with new events which may arise in the lives of those involved.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Really interesting, thanks for sharing. My sister is looking into adoption and I just wanted to know more about it. I totally support her and think it's a really awesome thing.


Many years ago my aunt and uncle were told they couldn't adopt because they were too old...they were 35 (my aunt) and 45 (my uncle). My family was shocked back then that they weren't allowed to adopt a child. Other family members were still giving birth at 38, 40 and 42 years of age!

Fast forward to the 1990s when a friend of mine wanted to adopt but couldn't because she was gay. Life is full of hardship, but loving parents should never be turned away because of their age or who they love.


A family member gave up her child because she was too young to support it and did not want to lay it at her parent's door, asking for a lifetime of help.

She found an adoption service (online) that helped her find good parents for her child who were willing for the child to know both the adoptive and birth parents.

This seems to be a very open, healthy way to raise an adopted child. No secrets, no hidden agendas, just a real concern for all involved. I'm quite impressed with this adoption story.

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