Openness in international adoptions


Andrea Chatwin
Focus on Adoption magazine

Openness in international adoptions is just as critical for emotional and psychological health as it is for domestic adoptions.

What does an international open adoption look like? Certainly openness in adoption is different when an adoptive family is faced with barriers of language, culture and distance. I’ve spoken with adoptive parents who express relief when their international adoption is complete. The assumption is that given the physical and cultural distance that there is no  expectation for openness with birth family or home country. Families settle into cultural appreciation as the alternative to openness.

We know from years of research that openness in domestic adoptions benefits adoptees psychologically, emotionally and developmentally. Likewise, openness in international adoption is invaluable to the adoptees’ development and self-understanding; however, it is not without its unique complications. Similar to domestic open adoptions, relationships are formed over time, trust is built through experiences and boundaries must be negotiated. The difference is this must all be accomplished between people who are separated by not only distance but also by language, culture and experiences.

I wondered when I first met my daughter’s birth mother, in a tiny sitting area of the orphanage that was used for this profound meeting of two worlds, what she hoped and dreamed of for her child. I wondered whether she had ever entertained the idea of an “open” relationship with her birth child’s adoptive mother. I assured this young woman who had just given me the greatest joy of my life that I would return to Haiti so that she could see her child again. At the time, it seemed to offer little reassurance as I don’t remember seeing any visible relief on her face. She later admitted that she did not believe I would keep this promise.

When a child lives without the knowledge and experience of birth family, country of origin and information about their early experiences, they carry those missing pieces of themselves into adolescence and early adulthood. With an open adoption, adoptive parents assume the responsibility for establishing historical information and maintaining connections with birth family and country. They maintain that it is important for the entire family, not just the adoptee. If an international adoptee enters his early adulthood already knowing and understanding his history, culture, and personal story, he is able to focus his emotional and psychological energy on other pursuits whether family, career or other relationships.

Exploring your child’s birth country sends a strong message that where she was born is very important to your family. The visit offers your child a first-hand experience of where she came from that she can share with her peers and the important adults in her world.

Participation in one’s culture of origin allows for a very different level of integration of self than any second-hand  experiences we can offer. Historically, adoptive parents have waited until their child is a teenager or adult to visit the birth country. The child lives with unanswered questions and the mystery that surrounds his past and his racial identity through the most formative years of his life. The most impactful ages for children to visit their birth country are the early elementary years: ages five to ten.

Home to Haiti Tours is a project founded by A Child’s Song and supported locally by Walls International  Guesthouse. The concept of Home to Haiti Tours is based on research that concludes adoptees need to  understand their histories and have a connection between the past and the present. It is also based on my  personal experiences with my own adopted child. After returning to Haiti with my six-year-old daughter, I was  struck by the profound impact her experiences with her birth family and cultural integration had on her  understanding of herself and where she had come from.

The tours are designed to encourage families to explore a more “open” adoption experience for their internationally  adopted children. Travelling to Haiti, particularly with children, and making the necessary arrangements to visit birth  families, can be a daunting task for foreigners. With the support of an experienced adoptive parent and a local  organization providing all necessary arrangements once you arrive in Haiti, you can focus your attention on supporting your child with this important experience. Parents can also receive consultation with a clinical therapist, both prior to and during the tour, who can discuss with them how to prepare their child for the trip and how to support the child through
the various experiences.

This is one small effort to encourage openness in international adoptions in one part of the world. Our internationally adopted children need to see how important this is to us as adoptive parents, and to our adoption community, so they are validated in their experience of wanting to understand themselves in a deeper way.

Andrea Chatwin, MA, CCC, is a consultant, educator and therapist with extensive experience as an early childhood clinician. She is a proud adoptive parent of a beautiful Haitian-Canadian child and is passionate about helping adoptive families develop strong parent-child connections through specific parenting strategies that take into account the child’s experiences prior to being placed with his or her adoptive family. For more information see