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The new normal in adoption: Birth parent no longer secret

A new survey shows that more than 55 percent of adoption cases are fully open -- and 95 percent involve at least some relationships between birth parent and adoptive family.

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"For adoptive families, they need to make sure they live up to their commitments, and not try to go back on their initial agreement," he said. "On the birthparent side, they need to remember that this isn't co-parenting – part of their role has to be blessing the new home that their child has."

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One common pattern, according to adoption agency officials, is that the birth parent initially wants more frequent contact with the child than the adoptive family prefers, followed by a gradual shift.

"When the children get older, it's often the adoptive families wanting more contact, and the birthparents may have moved on in their lives and at that point are interested in less," said David Nish, director of adoption programs for New York-based Spence-Chapin Adoption Services.

Mr. Nish said Spence-Chapin espouses the principle of self-determination in working with birth mothers on their hopes for post-adoption arrangements. But he said the agency won't work with adoptive parents who insist on having no contact with the birth mother.

"We try to educate them," he said. "If they're really set on it being closed, we tell them we don't do closed adoptions."

For Dawne Era, a psychotherapist from Warwick, R.I., the decision to embrace an open adoption evolved step by step 23 years ago when she and her husband decided to adopt after unsuccessful attempts to conceive on their own.

They made contact with a pregnant 18-year-old from Nebraska who'd decided to place her baby up for adoption, then got to know her as the young woman spent her pregnancy in nearby Boston.

After the birth and adoption of a baby boy named Grady, the birth mother and the adoptive parents agreed to remain in contact. It was an informal pact, yet it led to a mutually satisfying relationship that has continued throughout Grady's life – occasional phone conversations, a handful of face-to-face visits and, more recently, ongoing contact via Facebook between Grady and his birth mother and his younger half-sister.

For Ms. Era, there was a stressful moment when she and her husband got divorced while Grady was a toddler, and she had to inform the birth mother.

"That was very difficult," Era said. "We had promised to take Grady in and raise him in a two-parent family. I thought she would be very disappointed in me, but she took it well."

Overall, said Era, the open adoption "has been very positive for all of us."

Mr. Pertman of the Donaldson Institute has a daughter adopted 14 years ago. He said challenges can sometimes arise even after adoptive parents and birth parents grow comfortable with the rhythms of an open adoption.

He recalled how many members of his daughter's birth family – including her birth mother, grandparents, a brother and an uncle – came to her bat mitzvah.

"For us and them it was normal, but not for everybody else in the room," Pertman said. "They got some looks, like 'What's this all about?' "

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