Adoption has been around, in one form or another, for a very long time; to get a sense of how long, please see the Bible. As a result of its stigmatized, secretive history during much of the 20th Century, however (so stigmatized and secretive, in fact, that parents often didn't tell their own children that they were adopted), there is a lack of understanding to this day about the parties to adoption and the nature of their relationships. And the repercussions of this lingering lack of knowledge are considerable -- from inaccurate, corrosive stereotypes about the women who place their children for adoption; to uninformed, undermining attitudes about adoptive families; to obsolete laws and policies that treat adopted individuals as second-class citizens; to genuine surprise among most people when they learn about adoption's current realities.
I hear that surprise regularly in the voices of the teachers, doctors, mental health professionals, journalists and others with whom I routinely interact as head of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national research and policy organization. "Are you sure birthmothers don't want to just forget about the baby they put up for adoption and move on?" Yes, very sure. "I'm sorry that you, as an adoptive parent, couldn't have any real children." You should see my kids sometime; they look real. And: "It can't be true that most states' laws impede adult adoptees from getting their own medical information, can it?" Shocking maybe, but true as true can be.
All of which brings me to a just-published report from the Adoption Institute, the core of which is a new survey of adoption agencies nationwide and which is entitled "Openness in Adoption: From Secrecy and Stigma to Knowledge and Connections." It shows just how far we have progressed -- and how profoundly families have changed -- since the stigmatized, shame-filled, clandestine days when it was considered good practice to keep nearly all adoptions of infants in this country "closed," meaning the children's new families and their families of origin knew virtually nothing about each other and never had communication of any kind.
Leaping forward to today's very-different world, here are some highlights of the Institute's report:
• Only 5% of agency infant adoptions start out as "closed" and most (55%) are "open," which means the birth and adoptive families know each other and usually plan ongoing contact. (The remaining 40% are in the middle, with information exchanged through intermediaries.)
• Equally telling is the finding that 95% of agencies now offer open adoptions; remember, not very long ago in our history, that number was zero.
• In the vast majority of cases, the expectant mother considering adoption for her baby meets the prospective adoptive parents and chooses her child's new family.
• Adoptive parents, like most participants in open adoptions, report positive experiences; more openness is also associated with greater satisfaction with the adoption process.
• Women who have placed their infants for adoption - and then have continuing contact with their children - report less grief, regret and worry, as well as more peace of mind.
• The primary beneficiaries of openness are the adopted persons, as children and later in life, because of access to birth relatives, as well as to their own family and medical histories.
So, what does it all mean?
At the ground level, for the adults and children directly involved, it means we're moving into an era in which the definition of "extended family" is being expanded to something along the lines of an in-law model -- except it's the children, rather than the spouses, who bring their relatives into the new family.
It also means the practitioners who place babies for adoption need to better understand the sometimes-challenging road ahead so they can impart their knowledge to the involved parties, who themselves need to learn how best to navigate their complex new relationships. (The Adoption Institute is creating a curriculum for professionals and parents to help them do just that.)
Not all adoptions are "open," of course, and most contemporary adoptions are not of infants; the majority are of older children from foster care in the U.S. and some involve boys and girls from orphanages abroad. One size does not fit all; no single type of family formation -- by adoption or biology or step-parenting or guardianship or fostering -- is right for everybody; and, while adoption has improved markedly in many ways in the last several decades, we've still got lots of work to do.
Even so, the knowledge we now have tells us that modern infant adoption increasingly involves informed consent, mutual respect and the genuine best interests of children to a degree that simply hadn't existed before. And it tells us -- in the really big picture -- that adoption as a social institution continues to do what it has done for a very long time: open our minds and alter our collective views about what constitutes a family, and that's very good news for the growing gamut of family constellations in our country today.
The woman celebrating Thanksgiving with your next-door neighbors is the mother who brought her son to this earth -- and then placed him with his new parents. Don't be surprised, be delighted.