Open Hearts, Open Arms: Adoptions Blend Birth and Home Families

By Dana Thompson


For LoriAnn and Mike Thomas, loving a child – any child – is second nature. Both come from large families, and LoriAnn Thomas, one of eight children with 20 first cousins, was accustomed to a constant influx of family members while she was growing up. Caring for a family member’s daughter as a foster child during their four-year struggle to conceive further taught the Magnolia couple that they would be able to embrace a child whether or not he was their own biological child.


LoriAnn Thomas, who has an undergraduate degree in psychology, determined open adoption was the best option for them and for their children. The couple now has two adopted children, Jamie, 5, and Betsy, 18 months, both adopted through an open arrangement.


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.”


The Thomases are in contact with the birth mothers of both their children, exchanging pictures and letters regularly. Jamie’s mother lives in Michigan, too far away for regular visits, but the Thomases have visited with Betsy’s birth mother, Destiny Johnson, eight times since Betsy’s birth, which is more than the four times stipulated in the original contract. Johnson lives in Portland, Ore.


“We talk on the phone and see each other even more than we do our own families,” says Thomas. “And every time we say goodbye after a visit, the birth grandparents tell us ‘Thank you for being Betsy’s parents … we’re so proud you’re in our family.’”


Betsy’s birth grandparents have fully embraced both the Thomas children as their own.


More Open Adoptions

The trend toward open adoption is steadily increasing since the concept of non-family open adoption began 20 years ago. Reliable national statistics have not been consistently compiled, but a 1998 study estimates 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.


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.


Levine believes open adoption more fully meets the needs of all parties.


“Closed adoptions (in which no contact is maintained between birth and adoptive parents) 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.”


There are obvious benefits to the birth parents, especially the birth mother, when they are able to retain contact with their child. 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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AMILY: 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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AMILY: Verdana">For Johnson, Betsy’s 23-year-old single birth mother, open adoption was the best way to show her daughter how much she loved her.

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AMILY: Verdana">“I could give Betsy all the love I wanted, but I wasn’t going to be able to raise her and give her what she needed financially or as a family,” says Johnson, who is not together with Betsy’s birth father. “I wanted her to have a mom and dad from the beginning and not to have to see her (birth) parents separately … but I didn’t want to give her up and never see her again.”

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AMILY: Verdana">Johnson, who struggled for the first week after Betsy’s birth deciding whether to keep her or place her for adoption, said it finally came down to what was best for Betsy. She now is fully at peace with her decision.

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AMILY: Verdana">“I did a good thing – I’m able to call the Thomases and know how she’s doing,” says Johnson.

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AMILY: Verdana">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.

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“We make sure that the families are on board in terms of openness,” 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 adoption of children from the foster care system in Western Washington “We want to make sure that it’s a match that makes sense and will really benefit the child,” she says.


Adopting a child through open adoption isn’t without stress, however. The idea of having to share your adopted child with his or her birth family can seem scary, according to LoriAnn Thomas. And there’s also the fear that you won’t get chosen in the first place. The average wait for a prospective adoptive couple is, ironically, nine months, and the waiting period can be rough. She reminds prospective couples to trust that “there is always a family for you and a child for you.”


Finding a Match

Trusting that the right family was out there was important for Tamar and Joe Bryant.  After experiencing an unplanned pregnancy within a few months of giving birth to their son, Skyyler, now 2, they decided that they couldn’t emotionally or financially raise a second baby that soon. The Bend, Ore. couple knew open adoption was the best choice for them.


After searching through approximately 45 parental profiles provided by OA&FS, the couple finally found Megan and Greg Evans of Auburn, Wash., and immediately knew these were the people who could take care of their child.


“It’s not about the parents, it’s about the child, and giving the child every opportunity possible,” says Joe Bryant, who is himself adopted. “We couldn’t give Zoë what she needed and (Megan and Greg Evans) could and we’re happy with that.”


The Evans and Bryants are strong Christians, and that was the most important element for the Bryants in choosing adoptive parents for Zoë.


According to Tamar Bryant, the decision to give up Zoë was absolutely the right thing for them to do, but there was still an emotional impact. Bryant, who suffered from post-partum depression immediately after Zoë’s birth, finds that ongoing counseling has been important. She shares her experience by volunteering with women in crisis and helping them to know their various options.


OA&FS also recognizes counseling as an essential element of successful open adoption. Part of the agency’s $19,000 Washington state adoption fee provides accessible counseling to the birth parents, the adoptive parents and the child at any time throughout their lives.


“We’re so lucky to live in this time,” says Tamar Bryant. “I can’t imagine living in any other time when this type of adoption wasn’t available. In fact, we’ve even talked about having another baby for (the Evans) … that’s how well it’s worked out and how much we love these people.”


For the Evans, adopting Zoë was an answer to prayer after almost seven years of infertility. Megan Evans, a fund-raiser with Evergreen Community College, decided that rather than continuing to spend money on expensive fertility treatments with no guarantee of success, the couple should change directions and consider adoption. After finding OA&FS’s Web site, she became convinced that open adoption was the best option, and subsequently convinced her husband.


“I’d never heard of open adoption before I saw their Web site,” says Megan Evans, “but I put myself in the birth mom’s position. I couldn’t imagine having a baby and placing her in someone else’s arms and never seeing her again.”


Although initially resistant to the idea, after a positive introductory meeting with the adoption agency, Greg Evans, too, became excited. Between getting together their paperwork and home studies and waiting for a baby, the process took about as long as a normal pregnancy. “We always held ourselves a little bit in reserve,” says Greg Evans. “We had the same type of trepidation as any expectant couple would. It wasn’t done until we were holding him or her in our hands.”


The Bryants and the Evans have become close, spending the last two Christmases together. They talk on the phone and exchange photos about twice a month. “Zoë’s (birth) parents are fantastic people and basically as close to us as any members of our own family,” says Megan Evans. “We’ve been really fortunate in this whole thing.”  


Benefits of Open Adoption

OA&FS released a survey in 2001, taken by couples that have adopted through the agency from 1985 to 2001. They found that families who 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, 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 Farber.


Another important advantage to open adoption is the access to medical information and genetic history. For instance, the Thomas’ daughter Betsy inherited a manageable neurological condition from her mother, and it has been helpful to the Thomases to talk to both Johnson and her mother about the condition. In the past, adoptive parents and adopted children were often in a vacuum when it came to finding out about their medical histories.


Open adoption is also increasingly appealing to same sex couples, precisely for its transparency. Unlike international 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.


Since so much depends upon the adoptive parents’ profile letter, it’s essential to be honest.


“It’s always important to be truthful,” says Megan Evans. “We were honest to the point of embarrassment – including how much we liked TV!”


MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">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 lack of legitimacy that once the child is old enough to choose, he or she will choose his/her birth parents. And for the child, too, there’s the sense of being somehow rejected or unwanted by their birth parents.

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MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">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.”

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MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Adoption Resources

MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">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

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MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Resources for adoption and support in the Puget Sound area:


yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">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.”


yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">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.


yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">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.


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.


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.


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 for pregnant women considering adoption and for prospective parents considering open, domestic, international or foster adoption; section on the pros and cons of open adoption; profiles of waiting children; legal information.