Open Adoption a Popular Way to Build a Family

By Dana Thompson


For most couples struggling with infertility, the dream of bearing a child is a hard one to let go. Susan Dobkins and Erik Nicholson were no exception. After four unsuccessful years of trying to conceive, and facing the emotional rollercoaster of increasingly invasive fertility treatments, the Tacoma couple came to realize it was more important to parent a child than to bear one.


After still another year of adjusting to their changed perspective, the couple was ready to adopt.


“We looked at international adoption but we weren’t comfortable with taking a child completely out of his/her (cultural) environment,” says Dobkins, who is the peace and justice coordinator at First United Methodist Church of Tacoma. “And we weren’t comfortable with closed adoption in what it meant for the child.”


The couple, who were living in Oregon at the time, found out about open adoption through a newspaper article.


“Open adoption seemed a much healthier option for the birth parents,” says Dobkins. “It made a lot more sense.”


Open adoption is just that – a transparent process in which contact with the birth parents is built into the adoption agreement. Parental rights are legally transferred to the adoptive parents. However, both the birth and adoptive parents create a legally enforceable, individualized plan detailing the amount of interaction that best supports the child, the birth parents and the adoptive parents.


For some, that contact may be visits once a year with letters and pictures on a quarterly or monthly basis. For others, contact may be four times a year and telephone calls and photos every month.


“What we hope is that what (the clients) work out on paper becomes unnecessary,” says Shari Levine, executive director of Open Adoption & Family Services Inc. (OA&FS), with offices in Washington and Oregon. “We hope they create a very natural, comfortable friendship, seeing each other as often as they see other important people in their lives.”


Dobkins and Nicholson, the regional director of the United Farm Worker’s Union, see the birth mother of their daughter Clara, now 4, approximately four times a year, usually around the holidays and Clara’s birthday. They also exchange letters and photographs regularly.


“We want to keep the lines of communication open for Clara’s sake,” says Dobkins, “and to establish a good relationship with her birth family now so that when she does have questions later, she’ll know where to go to ask them.”


In addition to placing her daughter with a family more able to care for her than she could, Clara’s birth mother, who lives in the Seattle area, compiled a scrapbook for her daughter explaining their family tree and even wrote a letter for Clara to read when she is older.


“It was the best gift we got,” says Dobkins. “I can’t imagine what she went through … (placing Clara) for adoption was such an act of love.”


OA&FS released a survey in 2001, taken by couples who have adopted through the agency from 1985 to 2001. They found that families that have regular contact, including visits, letters, e-mails and phone calls with the birth parents, report a higher level of satisfaction with their overall adoption experience and with the birth family than those who do not.


The survey also shows that children who are beneficiaries of an open adoption generally report faring better emotionally – showing a higher degree of emotional intelligence – than their counterparts from closed adoptions, and surprisingly, better even than those raised in a biological family.


Levine, whose agency has placed more than 900 children in adoptive families throughout the United States and abroad, speculates that these kids know that they are loved, not only by their adoptive parents, but also by their birth parents and their birth parent’s families. They never have to grow up being haunted by the idea that their birth parents rejected them because one or both birth parents remain an integral part of their lives. Like all kids, adopted or otherwise, they search for identity – but in their case they’ve got multiple adults who care for them and are open about their own identities.


“Kids need to have a natural connection to their past,” says Levine. “They need to have the facts.”


“We advocate for open adoption (whenever appropriate) because we believe it’s in the best interest for the child to have these ongoing connections to their birth family and their roots,” says Alyssa Farber, development director for Amara Parenting and Adoption Services in Seattle (formerly Medina Children’s Services). The agency provides counseling and services to women in crisis and specializes in adoptions from the foster care system in Western Washington.


Advantages and Challenges of Open Adoption


The trend toward open adoption is steadily increasing since the concept of non-family open adoptions surfaced 20 years ago. Reliable national statistics have not been compiled, but a 1998 study found that 69 percent of adoptions in the 1990s had some degree  of openness, in that the birth mother had at least met the adoptive parents, and two-thirds of adoption agencies offered some form of open adoption.


10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Open adoption can occur in any state, but 20 states, including Washington, have statutes authorizing legally enforceable contracts between birth and adoptive families. OA&FS – the only agency in Washington and Oregon that focuses exclusively on open adoptions – facilitates 40 to 60 adoptions a year, up from 20 to 25 when the agency opened in 1985.

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10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Levine believes open adoption more fully meets the needs of all parties.

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10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">“Closed adoptions tended to create an environment of shame,” says Levine, herself the mother of two adopted children. “Adoptive parents couldn’t conceive, (adopted) kids felt abandoned (by their birth parents), and the birth parents felt shamed because they couldn’t raise a child. Open adoption tears down these walls.”

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10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">There are obvious benefits to the birth parents, especially the birth mother, when they are able to retain contact with their child after placing her with an adoptive family. Historically, nearly one-third of birth mothers who participated in closed adoptions during the 1960s never went on to have more children or get married, and healing from the loss of their child and its unknown circumstances was difficult.

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10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">“It’s the openness we offer that makes this a viable option for the birth mom,” says Levine. “She feels like she has some control and retains some power over the process. She gets to choose the adoptive family, form a relationship with them, and have a legally enforceable contract with the family. You’re able to let go if you know your child’s in good hands.”

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N: 0in 0in 0pt">Another important advantage arising from open adoptions is the access to medical information and genetic history.

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N: 0in 0in 0pt">“If something (serious) came up in the future, we’d know where to go and we have the relationship to get her (medical and genetic) information,” Dobkins notes.

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N: 0in 0in 0pt">In the past, adoptive parents and adopted children were often in a vacuum when it came to finding out about their medical histories.

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N: 0in 0in 0pt">Open adoption is also increasingly appealing to same sex couples, precisely for its transparency. Unlike international adoptions and many closed adoptions, a gay couple doesn’t need to hide who they are when applying to adopt a child. In an open adoption, each prospective adoptive couple provides a letter of introduction, telling about themselves and why they want to adopt. These letters form a parent pool from which the birth parents can choose. For a gay couple, or for any couple, there is the freedom to be fully honest and to know that when they are chosen as the adoptive parents, it is with no secrets.

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N: 0in 0in 0pt">Adopting a child isn’t without stress, however, according to Dobkins.

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N: 0in 0in 0pt">“When (you’ve dealt) with infertility for so long, it’s hard to believe you’re ever going to have a baby,” she says. “Adopting is an emotional thing as well.”

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Once the couple selected an agency and completed their paperwork, it took approximately five months before they held their new daughter in their arms.


During this time, the couple took full advantage of OA&FS’s counseling services, something the agency recognizes as an essential element to successful open adoption. Part of the agency’s $19,000 Washington state adoption fee goes toward providing accessible counseling to the birth parents, the adoptive parents and the child at any time throughout their lives.


“Both my husband and I feel this is how things were meant to be,” says Dobkins, “and that Clara was meant be our daughter.”


Sometimes the expectations and the intimacy of an open adoption can be stressful too. Relative strangers – adoptive parents and birth parent(s) and often birth grandparents – are expected to act and be instant “family.”


“There aren’t any social norms for these types of relationships,” says Dobkins. “We’re sort of pioneers … and it’s not always comfortable. But if you keep the child you love in the forefront, you get through the awkwardness.”


The couple welcomes opportunities to document their experiences, as well as other adoptive and birth parent’s experiences, so that open adoption relationships become more the norm.


One of the most important roles of an adoption agency is to ensure that the expectations between the birth family and the adoptive family coincide.


“We make sure that the families are on board in terms of openness,” says Farber. “We want to make sure that it’s a match that makes sense and will really benefit the child.”


Dobkins and Nicholson are now also raising their 16-year-old godson, something that became a possibility partly because of their experience with open adoption.


“Having gone through an adoption really opened us up to the emotional possibility of taking care of Joel when the need presented itself,” says Dobkins.


Parenting, by its nature, is always a big unknown. Parents wonder, Will I be a good parent? Will my kids turn out okay? Will they be healthy? For people participating in an adoption, these hopes and worries are compounded by new questions. For the birth parents, there’s the question, Is my child okay? Did I do the right thing? For the adoptive parents, there’s the ongoing fear of future rejection – a fear that once the child is old enough to choose, he or she will choose his orher birth parents. And for the child, too, there’s the sense of being somehow rejected – unwanted – by their birth parents.


Open adoption, more than any other adoptive process, attempts to address these concerns from the beginning and to create a joyful, healing relationship for all parties involved.


“It’s the unknown in an adoption that makes an adopted child feel adopted,” says Levine. “In an open adoption, the adults do the work and create a strong relationship with the birth family so that the child doesn’t have to later.”


Adoption Resources


Adoptions can be arranged publicly, through the state of Washington, through a private adoption agency or through an independent, court-approved individual. Most offer open and closed adoptions, usually dependent on the needs of the birth parents. Fees vary from nothing to several thousand dollars, depending on whether the agency receives funds to offset the costs of adoption. For a list of adoption agencies in the state, check the Yellow Pages or visit the Web site of the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, provided by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families, at


Resources for adoption and support in the Puget Sound area:


Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, Division of Children and Family Services: Arranges adoptions of children in the care of the state. 1-800-649-4103. – click on “Adoptions.”


0in 0in 0pt">Open Adoption & Family Services Inc.: Provides counseling, mediation and adoption services for birth and adoptive parents in Washington and Oregon; open adoption only. Local offices are located in Seattle (206-782-0442) and Olympia (360-352-3063). Outside those areas call 1-800-772-1115.

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0in 0in 0pt">Amara Parenting and Adoption Services (formerly Medina Children’s Services): Provides ongoing parent education for parents of adoptive children and foster families, counsels women in crisis, facilitates open and closed infant and foster child adoptions and provides search and reunion services. 206-260-1700.

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0in 0in 0pt">Children’s Home Society of Washington: Facilitates adoption and foster-to-adopt opportunities, provides home studies and post-placement services; Adoption Resource Center provides a wide range of support services, but not placement. 206-695-3233 in Seattle; 253-472-3355 in Tacoma.

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0in 0in 0pt">Adoption Connections: Operates a licensed nonprofit child-placing agency for in-country infant adoptions, specializing in birth parent and adoptive parent counseling. 206-842-2810.

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0in 0in 0pt">Adoptive Friends and Families of Greater Seattle: Offers support groups to families through all phases of the adoptive process. 206-903-9664.


Friends-in-Adoption: Provides support to families waiting to adopt and support and education to adoptive parents; monthly meetings September through June. 206-264-5136.


Great Starts Birth & Family Education (Formerly CEAS, Childbirth Education Association of Seattle): Offers two-part adoptive family education series: “Newborn Care for the Adopting Family” and “Growth and Development of the Adoptive Family.” $30 per/class, $50 for both. 206-789-0883.


National Center for Adoption Law and Policy: Provides information on adoption laws and procedures throughout the country. Exhaustive Web site with information for birth parents considering adoption and prospective parents considering open, domestic, international or foster care adoptions; section on the pros and cons of open adoption; profiles of waiting children; legal information.