What Is Open Adoption?

Dawn Smith-Pliner Talks to Carolyn Berger

Carolyn: Can you give me a definition of "open adoption"? It seems to mean different things to different people.

Dawn: Open adoption is an adoption in which there is a relationship between the biological and adoptive family that includes the child.

Carolyn: How you create an open adoption so that the child is a part of it from the very beginning?

Dawn: My favorite way of doing this is to encourage the adoptive family to continue adding to the profile they used when they were looking to adopt. They can add chapters as their child grows, highlighting important events of their family life in each chapter. The first chapter of the book would be the profile the family used to adopt. Chapter 2 would include, with permission, pictures of the birth family and then chronicle the birth and placement of the child. Chapter 3 would be the first year of the child's life and subsequent chapters would go forward annually. If visits are a part of your adoption then pictures would be included.

When each book is complete, add it to your child's library and send a copy to your child's birth family. Do this once a year and keep adding the books to your child's library. Many folks have told us how much their kids love these books.

Interestingly, some kids share the books with their friends and some have even taken them to "Show and Tell" at school. Other kids keep them private. Either way, these books give the children permission to talk about their adoption at their own pace. Doing this also shows the kids the respect their birth parents have for the birth families whether or not there are actual visits.

If a child does not speak of his/her adoption it might indicate it's time to read the book as a bedtime story. Kids take cues from the adults around them and we want our kids to know that it is okay to talk about adoption.

Carolyn: How do you know your child won't be confused about who his parents are?

Dawn: From my experience it is the adults not the children who sometimes get tangled in the emotions of their connection with their child's bio family. Kids are able to differentiate between their everyday family-the adults that tuck them into bed every night, the ones that make them brush their teeth every morning, and the ones that tell them how excited they are with the upcoming adoption picnic where they will be visiting their birth family.

How the everyday family presents the bio family to their child is how the child will weave his bio family into his life. Our kids are not confused when they are told the truth with love and respect.

Carolyn: Can you describe the evolution of one couple's journey through open adoption from the birth to the adulthood of the child?

Dawn: This is a true story, the story of my godchild, Lizzy:

A man found his wife on an Internet dating sight. They later found that if they wished to have a family they would need to adopt. They opened their hearts and their daughter, Lizzy, arrived home. They met her birth family and stayed in sporadic touch over the years. Lizzy thrived, then hit the challenging teen years, taking a few detours along the way. Her parents got divorced and she ended up going back and forth among many families. She engaged with her birth family. She met and married the man of her dreams, settling down comfortably in another country. She had two incredible children and maintained contact with all of her families via Facebook.

Dawn: Here is a postscript from Lizzy herself:

I think the only thing I can add is that through the process of growing up as an adopted child (eventually a divorced adopted family) within an open adoption, I was able to "adopt" other people, too. They were people I needed in order to survive and grow up-such as Dennis, who was my step-dad for a short time. He is, to this day, a huge part of my life and my kids' lives. He is content with his girlfriend of 10+ years, who has happily "adopted" me as a step-daughter without question, and is "Nana" to my kids. My children have many grandparents, not defined by genetic connections but by the genuineness of their love. Our roots run deep.

Dawn: In closing, adoption is just love that makes families connect. It is surprising how many people will love you if you just reach out and love them, too.

Dawn Smith-Pliner is Founder and Executive Director of Friends-in-Adoption, an adoption agency in Vermont that promotes open adoption.

Carolyn Berger, LCSW, is Founding Board Chair of Path2Parenthood and Chair of the Path2Parenthood Adoption Advisory Council. She has a private practice in Manhattan and Westchester specializing in Fertility, All Forms of Family Building and Adoption.

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