Study highlights importance of communication in open adoption relationships

For most of the 20th century, adoptions were largely "closed," meaning birth parents placed their child with an adoption agency and had no further contact unless the child sought them out later in life. However, statistics show that a shift occurred in the 1990s when adoption practitioners started to recognize the benefits of "open" adoptions, or adoptions in which adoptive families have ongoing interactions with the birth family. Now, University of Missouri communication researchers are studying the benefits and challenges of open adoptions. Their recent study shows that open adoption relationships in which communication is encouraged, can benefit the child and their adoptive parents.

"In the past, closed adoptions severely cut off any communication between biological parents and the children they placed for adoption," said Haley Horstman, assistant professor of interpersonal and family communication in the Department of Communication in the MU College of Arts and Science. "Biological parents in open adoption relationships often feel more secure knowing more about the parents who adopted their children. We found that the best outcome for an adopted child is for adoptive parents and birth parents to jointly tell the story of adoption, when appropriate. This open communication between birth parents and adoptive parents has changed the nature of adoptions; birth parents have appreciated this new movement toward openness."

Two years ago, Colleen Colaner, who also is an assistant professor of communication at MU, traveled throughout Missouri making connections with adoption agencies and building a network of adoptive parents interested in participating in research on open adoption. The list became crucial to Colaner and Horstman's research into adoption entrance narratives, or the stories adoptive parents tell their adopted children about who they are and how they fit into their new families.

Horstman said analyzing the adoption entrance narratives of 165 adoptive parents (mostly mothers) revealed themes that help shape the ways in which adoptive and biological parents communicate with their children.

"It's important to get a sense of what the adoptive parents are saying to birth parents and what they are saying to the adopted child about their biological parents," Colaner said. "These conversations are really shaping what open adoption relationships look like."

"The themes we discovered are about the process of storytelling," Horstman said. "As we analyzed the process of communication, we found that adoptive parents are the 'gatekeepers' to the relationships their adoptive kids have with their birth parents. Adoptive parents and birth parents don't have to be the best of friends, but they can try to have a good relationship, even though it can be challenging."


  1. Mirah Riben Mirah Riben United States says:

    Both the article and the study are lacking in many important facts.

    TRULY OPEN adoption involves the child having a relationship with his or her family of origins.  Contact between both sets of parents, as described herein, is actually defined as semi-open adoption.

    Crucial to the success of open or semi-open adoption is a very clear understanding beforehand of these definitions. Some semi-open adoptions involve exchange of photos and updates on how the child is doing, but no visits - even between parents. The regularity of such updates and/or photos need to be specified and agreed to. Annual? Mostly? Weekly?

    Details of the agreement of post-adoption contact must be documented in a legally binding written contract and even then, birth parents need to know that most states do not enforce such agreements. Every adoption - open or closed - begins with the child's mother and father relinquishing ALL of their parental rights, or having them terminated by the state. They are thus NOT non-custodial parents who maintain parental rights. It is very important that birth parents fully understand this.

    Also lacking is the large number of open adoptions that have failed to remain open leaving mothers feeling duped, deceived and regretting they ever agreed to let their child be adopted.

    Mirah Riben, author, THE STORK MARKET: America's Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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