The concept of ‘openness’ in adoption has often been associated with the private adoption of infants. Although the bulk of research on openness has largely focused on this type of adoption, increasingly today researchers and practitioners are considering how openness can be a part of all types of adoptions. It also bears considering how openness can be a part of the fostering experience regardless of the case planning goal.
We know foster families need as much support as possible in order to best serve and nurture the children in their care. When all options have been exhausted and original families can’t stay together, it’s time to start thinking outside the box about how maintaining connections and building relationships between birth, adoptive and foster families can keep everyone strong, especially the child.
Open adoption has been a more challenging concept in the child welfare system, both for practitioners as well as the families caring temporarily or permanently for children. Abuse and/or neglect that precede a placement in foster care or a termination of parental rights can lead to understandable safety concerns for the children and their foster or adoptive family.
Although a biological parent may never be able to rectify their personal difficulties in such a way that they can safely care for their child, it is rare when all connections must be severed and/or other biological family members can’t be a resource for the child and their foster parents. This is the first way professionals and parents can start thinking more broadly; although biological family members may not be able to care for the child, this does not necessarily mean they don’t care about the child.
Building these bridges can serve families in a variety of ways. Families of origin may be able to provide useful information to the foster family to aid in understanding the child’s nuances which can help in providing distinct care. Additionally, when a child observes their foster parents engaging genuinely with members of their biological family they may feel less as though the families are in competition with one another and instead as though there are many adults working in tandem to ensure the child’s well being. Most importantly, these genuine relationships can show children and young people that they need not choose one family over another, and much more openly explore and maintain important relationships with extended biological family members.
Shifting perceptions about foster care and the families who come into contact with the child welfare system may also go a long way in helping families develop connections with their foster child’s family of origin. Families struggle, and sometimes when we feel we can’t relate to certain struggles we may judge. At the same time, it can be difficult to generate understanding when we know a family has struggled in such a way that a child has been harmed or placed at risk of harm.
It’s important to suspend judgment in these situations because it’s hard enough for a child to process their experiences that led them to foster care; they need to count on their current care takers to be there for them, not to have to defend their family of origin from the judgment of others.
At the same time, although some family members may not be safe to stay in contact with the child and foster family, there may be others that are. When we generalize the mistakes of a few to everyone, we miss opportunities to increase supports for foster families and the children in their care. Families should explore these possibilities with the child’s caseworker, and professionals should be open to exploring the idea of approving family members who are not a risk to the child to stay in contact.
In many ways, families and professionals alike should remember that at the core of openness is the idea of building strong relationships. And just like other relationships in our lives, this can be hard. But with the right supports and education in place, families can learn to establish a foundation that helps healthy, authentic and open relationships endure.
The reality is that many youth in foster care already are finding ways to maintain contact, even via online or social media sources, with members of their families of origin. Instead of ignoring this basic reality, it may be more prudent to find ways to bring these relationships out into the open and find ways to use these relationships to promote the best interest of the child.
In some places, child welfare agencies are developing innovative educational programs to encourage openness in adoptions from child welfare. New York City recently launched its Open Adoption Initiative that included a half-day forum followed by training seminars that will take place at various agencies throughout the state that provide foster care adoption services. Diverse groups of professionals including attorneys, family court judges and agency professionals will be trained in the benefits of openness for children and families and the importance of maintaining biological connections that are safe and appropriate for children.
When we move away from practices that pit families against each other and choose instead to bring people together, we can better meet the needs of a child in a holistic manner. Whether adopted or in foster care, these children have two families – some connected to them through birth and others through experience.
Children can best value themselves if we value all members of the family that make them who they are.
Although these initiatives are often employed when a child’s goal is adoption or for a child who has already been adopted, there is value in exploring openness as a resource for foster parents. There are often more children in need of care than there are homes available; for children in foster care we still see professionals struggle to locate and maintain safe, appropriate and caring foster homes.
This requires us to open new doors to find supports and resources. Applying this village model may ease concerns of new foster parent applicants and also serve to inspire others to consider becoming a foster family. At the same time, we all know there is no such thing as too much support in ensuring a stable post-placement environment.
When foster parents can be assured that they won’t be going the path alone, this may go a long way in expanding opportunities for children waiting for care while also ensuring needed sustenance to maintain quality foster placements.
April Dinwoodie is chief executive of the Donaldson Adoption Institute. She is also a co-founder and vice president of the board of Fostering Change for Children, a progressive nonprofit that helps drive innovation in the child welfare system.