Family struggles with openness gone wrong


Joanne Thalken
Focus on Adoption magazine

Carey Elliot* has a close relationship with her four adult children, a long and happy marriage, and a successful career. She also has two grandchildren: a two-year-old boy, and a six-year-old girl. The little girl was placed for adoption at birth.

When Carey's daughter Danika became pregnant at 25, she told her mom that she was considering an adoption plan for her baby. Though other members of the family found this idea hard to accept, Carey was supportive: the birth father was not involved, and Danika very much wanted her child to have siblings and a two-parent family.

After much soul-searching, Danika approached a Calgary adoption agency. From the beginning she and her family wanted an open adoption. When it came time to look at homestudies, they deliberately chose a family that clearly stated that they also wanted a fully open adoption. Danika requested monthly visits and, if possible, Carey and her husband wanted to have a grandparent role.

The family they finally chose seemed ideal. They shared the same faith, lived in an area where it would be easy for Danika and her family to visit, and they also had another child. As the prospective adoptive parents only had one grandparent in their family, it also seemed to Danika's family that there would be room for a loving and supportive extended family.

At first, the prospective adoptive family seemed open and friendly. They invited Carey into their home when she dropped by and appeared genuine in wanting to develop a relationship. Danika felt confident that this was the right family. This feeling didn't last long.

After placement, things changed abruptly. The adoptive mother was cold and uncooperative and, although there was an openness agreement in place, it became more and more difficult for the birth family to organize visits. Though the adoptive father seemed more receptive, the mother made it clear that she was only allowing contact out of a sense of obligation; she drew very sharp and unexpected boundaries around visits and gift giving, only allowing presents at Christmas and birthdays. Carey believes that the adoptive mother is incredibly threatened and insecure and that she has difficulty moving beyond those feelings.

Danika and her family had extensive counselling prior to the placement, and counselling has also helped them deal with the current difficulties. Carey is concerned though that the adoptive parents didn't receive sufficient counselling regarding openness before the adoption and, she suspects, they have not sought counselling since. She is also concerned that during the homestudy process the real level of openness that the adoptive parents were comfortable with was not properly determined.

The goals of open adoption

  • To minimize the child's loss of relationship.
  • To maintain and celebrate the adopted child's connections with all the important people in his or her life.
  • To allow the child to resolve losses with truth, rather than the fantasy adopted children often create when no information or contact with their birth family is available.

I asked Shelley Brownell, an adoption social worker with Family Services of Greater Vancouver, for her perspective on this situation and what she feels could have been done to help. "Adoptive parents are not purposefully dishonest, and they do intend to follow through with an openness agreement," explains Shelley. However, when a newborn baby is placed with a family, it can be a very emotional time, and adoptive parents are often confused about the role of the birth family. When the birth family requests a fully disclosed adoption with regular visits, this can sometimes feel to the adoptive parents as though the birth family wants to take on a co-parenting role. The adoptive family may also not be sure of what the birth family should be called in such a relationship. This can create fear and anxiety for them.

Shelley recommends that families spend a good deal of time talking about openness with their social worker, an connect with other families during the homestudy process so that they can really see what living with an open adoption means. She states, "Families need to ask question such as 'What are the goals of openness--is it to give information to the child? Who is it for and is it in the best interests of the child?'"

Shelley also explains that birth family and adoptive parents sometimes have different interpretations of their openness agreement and that it is really important that the wording in such agreements is clear. She explains that the best open-adoption relationships are developed over time, and that "families grow into a relationship with respectful boundaries."

And as this story illustrates, families may also have to prepare for the fact that openness might not work out the way they had hoped. Had Shelley been working with Danika and her daughter's adoptive parents, she would have arranged meetings between them to discuss the situation. The agency would then have mediated with both families to reach a reasonable agreement, with the primary focus being the best interest of the child.

Shelley explains that during the homestudy process families sometimes feel they have to state a level of openness that they are not really comfortable with. It is also difficult for families to articulate a plan around openness with birth parents when they have not yet met. Families are also referred to other supports such as waiting parent groups and AFABC where they can learn more about openness and how other families manage their open adoptions.

In the case of Carey's granddaughter, it is only possible to guess what the motivations of the adoptive family were: perhaps they just wanted a child so badly that they were willing to stretch the trust, or perhaps they were unaware of how threatening it could be to have a strong birth family close by. Maybe they were truly unprepared for the complexity of emotion they would feel once they brought a child home. Whatever the reason, they have caused the birth mother and the rest of the birth family great pain.

Carey and her family have been counselled to make the best of the situation and to continue to be friendly and open, despite what they feel has been a betrayal of good faith. If they don't take this path, they face the prospect of being cut out of their birth granddaughter's life forever. As the openness agreement isn't legally binding, even if it were desirable, there is no legal remedy to this situation.

Birthmom Danika has found this situation very hard emotionally and has chosen to move away from the area. The birth family that remains in the are find the adoptive mother's hostility too uncomfortable, and no longer try to visit.

Carey find it very hard that there is no spontaneity in this relationship. To arrange a visit, she has to call far in advance. Though there is little joy in their contact with the adoptive family, they continue to try. Carey still feels a great sense of loss over this situation and feels her grandchild and her little brother have been denied relationships with "birth uncles" that could have been valuable for them.

This birth family knew that going ahead with the adoption plan wasn't going to be the same as if their daughter had parented the child, but they thought the child was going to know them as 'extended family' rather than as infrequent and unwelcome visitors.

The clarity will come when the child is older and puts this story together for herself. As generations of adoptees have told us, children want to grow up knowing who they are and that there was a plan for them made with no secrets, and made in good faith by everyone who loves them.

*Names have been changed.

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