The Benefits and Challenges of Open Adoptions
For most of the 20th century, domestic and international adoptions were closed. Birth parents typically placed their child with an adoption agency or a religious organization and never heard from the child again, unless the child sought them out years later. But MU Assistant Professor of Communication Haley Horstman says there was a big shift in the 1990s when adoption practitioners started to recognize the benefits of open adoptions, in which adoptive families have ongoing interactions with the birth family. Horstman says birth parents often welcome open adoption relationships because they can get to know their biological child and the adoptive parents.
“They felt a little more secure in the fact that, ‘Hey, I know who these parents are,’ so that changed the nature of adoptions because birth parents appreciated this new movement toward openness,” Horstman says. But because this is a relatively new phenomenon, she says researchers in communication or other social sciences haven’t studied the process or the outcomes of communicating in these open adoptive relationships.
A couple of years ago, Horstman says a colleague, Assistant Professor of Communication Colleen Colaner, went around the state making connections with adoption agencies to build a listserv of adoptive parents interested in participating in research on open adoption.
“It’s important to get a sense of what the adoptive parents are saying to the birth parents and what they are saying to the adopted child about the birth parents,” Colaner says. “These conversations are really shaping what that open adoption relationship looks like.” That electronic mailing list became crucial to her and Horstman’s research into adoption entrance narratives—the stories adoptive parents tell their adopted children about who they are and how they fit into the family unit. Horstman says analyzing the adoption entrance narratives of 165 adoptive parents (mostly mothers) revealed six themes: birth parents as family, chosen parents, forever, rescue, fate, and adoption makes us family.
“These themes are all about the process of storytelling,” Horstman says, “but with the process, we saw that the adoptive parents are the gatekeepers to the relationship with the birth parent.” She says that because the adoptive parents are the primary caregivers for the child, the birth parent–child relationship is contingent upon the relationship between the birth and adoptive parents.
Horstman says a good outcome for an adopted child is for the adoptive parents and the birth parents to jointly tell the story of adoption, although she says she would not prescribe joint storytelling because there are situations wherein that would not work well.
“We see there is an indirect path between that joint communication and relational closeness, so that helps us understand that if the adoptive parents can have a relationship with the birth family, that really does drive the relationship with the child,” Horstman says. “Adoptive parents and birth parents don’t have to be the best of friends, but they should try to have a good relationship, even though it can be challenging.”
Horstman says she and her colleagues have two papers from this same open adoption dataset that they are going to present at the National Communication Association conference in November.