The Psychological Consequences of Closed Adoption
- Couples will not adopt children unless they can be guaranteed anonymity and secrecy. Such guarantees, we now know, were never ironclad. The adoptees' reform movement spawned a nationwide network of search groups that often successfully located birthparents and nullified guarantees of secrecy and anonymity given by adoption agencies to these parents. Furthermore, experience in adoption during the past decade, when fewer newborns were available, has clearly demonstrated that couples, eager to parent children, are willing to adopt under a variety of circumstances. Although once only healthy babies were considered adoptable, now children with disabilities, from mixed racial backgrounds, and in sibling groups are being welcomed by families. (See the article by Rosenthal in this journal issue.) It was our belief that couples would accept open placement if adoption agencies made it standard practice. At present open adoption is accepted by many adoptive parents, and this practice appears to be increasing, particularly in independent adoptions.
- Birthmothers want and need anonymity to move forward in their lives and put the experience of pregnancy and relinquishment behind them. This misconception was fostered by maternity homes and adoption agencies. It was sustained, in part, because some adoption social workers found it difficult to deal with the continuing pathos and misery of the birthmothers in the post-relinquishment period. Our studies of birthmothers in the 1970s indicated that, when they contacted agencies regarding their relinquished children, they often were made to feel emotionally unstable and at fault for carrying this experience with them. Apparently few caseworkers took the time or made an effort to question birthmothers about their inner feelings although many birthmothers were eager to be interviewed and to have their feelings heard.6 These observations were contrary to the belief that birthmothers had emotionally resolved giving up a child, recovered from the trauma, and wished to remain hidden. These birthmothers had not been advised or counseled about the possibility that they might have lifelong anxiety and distress. Even those birthmothers who had not revealed their past to husband and children indicated that, if it were possible to protect themselves, they would want to know and meet their offspring. Not to know whether their children were alive or dead was a continuing source of sadness for some.
- Adoptees will be confused by contact with their birthparents and may become emotionally disturbed as a result of being aware of and dealing with two mothers during their developmental years. Our experience has led us to conclude that closed adoptions did not protect adoptees from emotional disturbances. On the contrary, it is our belief, based on years of work with adoptees of all ages, that some of them are particularly vulnerable because of feelings of loss and abandonment, exacerbated by the secrecy and anonymity of closed adoptions.5 However, because open adoption placement is still comparatively new, we cannot state conclusively what effects it has on adoptees. Long-term studies on the adjustment of adoptees to open adoption are few in number and vary in quality. (See the article by Berry in this journal issue.) At present it must be stated that the results are inconclusive, and it is evident that much additional research on this important aspect of open adoption remains to be done. Berry states, however, that "professionals generally agree that the child is least confused about loyalties to either parent when the open relationship between the adoptive and biological parents is clear and positive."