Connections Matter: Relationships with Birth Families are Important for Foster, Adopted Children

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When we were adopting our children more than 25 years ago, open adoption in domestic voluntary agencies and private adoptions was certainly not the norm. Today, that has reversed, with the trend toward some degree of openness. (Read more on openness in adoption from the Donaldson Adoption Institute.) Even adoptions from foster care increasingly include mediated post-adoption contact agreements. Why has this been the trend? How do parents and the professionals who assist families navigate these important relationships?

Reasons for Continued Contact

At Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.), we consistently see young adoptees struggling to figure out who they are — many with conflicted memories of birth families and others without knowledge of where they came from, who brought them into the world. Children in foster care and those adopted are challenged by a loss that is unique from other losses due to the ambiguity of the loss. Children may spend a great deal of time wondering about their birth parents, “Are they OK? Do they ever think of me? Will they forget me?” Many children spend a great amount of time fantasizing about seeing their birth family again.

As reflected in this excerpt from our newly published book, “Beneath the Mask: For Teen Adoptees,” some adoptees may spend a great deal of energy with this emotional preoccupation to the detriment of their emotional and intellectual growth. Anna, adopted at age 8 from Russia, writes, “During the adoption process, I did not have much knowledge of what that entailed. I never imagined I would never see my mom again. If I had understood, I would have remembered her eyes and hair color, what she liked to do, her smile, the sound of her voice, the way it felt to hug her and everything else about her. I wonder if she thinks about me or misses me. I wonder if she still remembers me and our moments together, or even if she’s still alive … When I went to C.A.S.E. for counseling at age 13, I was really struggling … I would cry all night long.”

While there are many factors involved in the movement toward continued contact, experts in the field emphasize the many benefits for children. There is substantial research confirming the importance of birth parents to children in adoptive families and the impact of open adoption, including The Minnesota Texas Adoption Research Project.

Continued contact provides children with ongoing knowledge of their origins, family history and important information to help chart the course of one’s identity formation. As children grow developmentally, new information and understanding helps them to process who they are at different developmental stages. Continued contact can foster self-esteem by mitigating feelings of loss, rejection, self-blame and abandonment commonly experienced by youth in closed adoptions. Knowledge of birth parents offsets some children’s tendency to worry about their birth parents’ well-being. In addition, siblings separated by adoption can maintain relationships in open adoptions. It can take work, but by maintaining contact, adoptive and birth families can work together to address children’s many questions about their story.

Teens forming identity benefit from having access to both of sets of parents. In another excerpt from “Beneath the Mask: For Teen Adoptees,” Cheyenne, whose open adoption from foster care was finalized at age 9, writes, “Fortunately, I also know several positive characteristics about my birth family: they are intelligent, musically talented, and have a great sense of humor. When I look at my own positive traits, I know I am honest, hardworking, have a great sense of humor and am musically talented, too … and my adoptive family keeps my sense of humor going because they are funny, too.”

When adoptive parents agree to contact, a powerful message is sent by adoptive parents: “Your birth parents are important to you and a part of who you are. We recognize their importance to you.” Continued relationships may help children with loyalty conflicts, as both birth and adoptive parents affirm their place in the child’s life. As opposed to interfering with attachment, open adoption can actually promote or deepen the attachment between children and adoptive parents.

Making Decisions Regarding Continued Contact

In adoptions through the foster care system, mediated agreements can consist of a continuum for visitation from monthly to several times a year. Adopting parents must consider the individual needs of their children both at the current time of placement and future needs. Given the complexities of these decisions, guidance from professionals to determine what level of contact is in their children’s best interests and parents’ ability to manage these relationships is highly recommended. Unfortunately, decisions regarding continued contact are often made on understandable but misguided parental fears and concerns.

Well-meaning adoptive parents have a strong desire to protect their children. Children who come into care have histories of trauma, abuse and neglect, which may be complicated by birth parent substance abuse, mental illness and violence. Adopting parents may harbor anger toward the birth family whose earlier behavior and choices have hurt their children. They may see little reason why birth parents have the right to continued contact with their children who were removed to protect them from harm. They may also fear that the children’s loyalty to the birth family will interfere with the ability to attach to the adoptive parents. Adopting parents often worry that continued contact with the birth family will only exacerbate their children’s feelings of loss and grief, and difficulty with attachment.

Professional assistance can help parents overcome their fears and provide reassurance that open adoption will not undermine their role as parents or be harmful to their children. Parents need to always feel in control of decisions that impact their family. They can determine what type and frequency of contact to have. Agreements often state that visits will not take place under certain circumstances such as if birth parents are deemed not sober. And of course, all agreements state that the terms around visitation/contact may be changed if they are deemed not to be in the children’s best interests.

Contact with the birth family can take many forms besides actual physical visits. Parents can determine if and when to exchange photos, and communicate via email, phone calls and video chat. Even incarcerated birth parents can have phone contact with the children. Parents can also engage other birth family members who may be in a more stable, healthier place to have a relationship with the adoptee and adoptive family.

Seeing the benefits of openness, many informed adoptive families seen at C.A.S.E desire continued contact with birth families. They are often disappointed when it is the birth parent who is unavailable or does not wish to continue contact. This can happen for many reasons, including: 1) fearing that adoptive parents don’t want them in their lives, 2) feeling that they have no right to a continued relationship, 3) shame/guilt/anger at having their children taken away, 4) loss and grief; continued contact is too painful for them and for the children, 5) not understanding their continued significance to their children. With respect to this misguided belief, it is vitally important that professionals working with birth parents support and guide them as to the continued significance to their children. They need to know how their continued presence in their children’s lives can contribute to their child’s well-being and adoption adjustment.

Making These Relationships Work

While no important relationship is without its challenges, relationships between adoptive and birth families can seem daunting, scary and overwhelming. However, with support and guidance we have seen both parties move to a more accepting and collaborative place both respecting and valuing their role in the child’s life. “Adoptive and birth relatives who engage in contact need flexibility, strong interpersonal skills, and commitment to the relationship. These skills can be learned, and they can be supported by others, through informal, psychoeducational, and therapeutic means,” states the Contact Between Adoptive and Birth Families: Perspectives from the Minnesota Texas Adoption Research Project.

All relationships thrive when there is trust, and developing trusting relationships usually unfolds over time. Adoptive parents must feel confident that birth parents respect their role as parents – that continued relationship is not similar to shared parenthood or joint custody. They must be prepared to set boundaries, manage conflict or differences (problem-solve) if necessary and have good communication skills that convey respect and kindness. They may be managing more than one “open adoption” relationship and must consider their time and energy, etc. and not make commitments they cannot meet or will resent having made.

In addition, even if it is determined that contact is in the children’s best interests, that does not preclude the possibility of children having emotional reactions that are expressed through challenging behavior. Even in open adoption, children may struggle with loss and grief, continuing loyalty issues, and the complexities of sibling relationships. Parents may need and want professional assistance to help children process their complex feelings. And finally, adoptive parents’ support system of family members, friends and others may question these open adoption relationships out of a lack of knowledge and understanding. Parents may need to help educate them so that they can provide the support that is so vital to their family’s well-being.

In open adoption, birth parents need support too, but may not receive it. They will continue to manage painful feelings of loss and grief, shame and guilt. They have to manage their feelings related to the differences between themselves and the adoptive family like ethnicity or race, religion, socio-economic or when they do not agree with adoptive parents’ parenting decisions. If they are raising children, they must manage those children’s feelings around being separated from their siblings. They may navigate pressure from their family members around their relationships with their birth children.

Thus, birth parents, too, need to use good communication and problem-solving skills. If their challenges are impacting their relationship with the adoptive parents, and if birth parents do not have access to the supports they need, we encourage adoptive parents to consider offering to invite birth parents to participate with them in counseling. Whatever the reasons for conflict, we emphasize the importance of seeking professional help before things unravel to the point where either party is considering severing the relationship — either temporarily or permanently. At C.A.S.E., we have had much success with resolving misunderstandings, hurt feelings and problem-solving for stronger and healthier relationships.

It is important to emphasize that relationships with the birth family are not static. Children will grow and change, and their needs may change over time. They may desire more or different types of contact with birth family. Birth parents may resolve some of their serious challenges and go on to healthier, more stable lives.

Continued contact is not a panacea or a solution to all adoption-related challenges, but as one adoptee we worked with said, it can offer peace of mind for everyone. Sharon Roszia, author of The Open Adoption Experience, reminds parents: “The question to ask is not ‘Who does this child belong to?’ but ’Who belongs to this child?’”

Debbie B. Riley is the CEO and co-founder of the Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.). Ellen Singer is the senior adoption-competent therapist at C.A.S.E..

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