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A heart big enough for two: Navigating an open adoption

Susan Varner says open adoption has strengthened her family. "We have learned together that we cannot be selfish."
Susan Varner says open adoption has strengthened her family. "We have learned together that we cannot be selfish."
Nita Smith

Four-year-old Ella Varner sits between two women in a busy park in central Pennsylvania. On her left is her birth mother; on her right is her adoptive mother. The two women talk of cartwheels and preschool as they watch Ella with her sticky fingers and her face painted, one half a cheetah and the other half a tiger.

Ella has known both her birth mother and her adoptive mother since the day she became part of her adoptive family. As she grows into adulthood, her mother, Susan Varner, hopes to continue this level of openness, which as it turns out, is a rapidly growing trend, according to research published recently by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

"The era of truly closed adoptions is probably coming to a quick end," said Adam Pertman, the institute's executive director.

Ninety-five percent of all domestic adoptions are open in some form. The Donaldson survey of 100 infant adoption programs found that 55 percent of American adoptions were fully disclosed — meaning there is direct and ongoing contact between the birth and adoptive families — and 40 percent were mediated — meaning all contact is exchanged through an intermediary. Confidential adoptions constituted a mere 5 percent of placements by the surveyed programs over the past two years. As parents participate in this growing trend, being informed is crucial in navigating an open adoption.

The trend

Past studies show that adoptions have decreased since the 1970s. More than 8 percent of all premarital births were placed for adoption between 1952 and 1972. That percentage dropped to 2 percent between 1982 and 1988. It then dropped to less than 1 percent between 1989 and 1995, according to the National Survey of Family Growth.

As the number of adoptions has dwindled, the number of open adoptions has exploded. The Donaldson report found that 29 percent of adoption agencies don't offer confidential adoptions at all, a surprise to Susan Livingston Smith, one of the study's lead authors. "Honesty within and about adoptive families has grown enormously over the last several decades, even as the composition of those families has changed — and continues to change — significantly."

With this alteration comes a paradigm shift, Pertman writes in his book, "Adoption Nation." When hundreds of thousands of people embrace openness in adoption so "comfortably" and "extensively," they are "collectively rewriting the American definition of the term 'extended family.' "

"It's another blazing neon sign proclaiming that the old order is being overthrown and a new future is being created." Open adoptions, he said, are being reshaped to fit a mold that incorporates multiple adult role models integral to a child's upbringing. While this line of thinking may seem like an attack on the traditional family, it probably isn't.

Another bout of statistics, however, suggests that there may be other elements at play here. The number of international adoptions into the U.S. has tripled — from 7,093 in 1990 to 22,884 in 2004, Smith wrote to the Deseret News in an email. So, have foreign adoptions been climbing because parents in the U.S. want to avoid open adoption?

The reasons some adoptive parents choose international adoption are "complex and varied," Smith said. Some adoptive parents fear that the birth family in an open adoption will try to reclaim the child and overturn the adoption. "Though this is extremely rare."

Another reason for the rise of international adoptions is the falling supply of adoptable children in the U.S., the Population Reference Bureau suggested. Experts say the drop is due to multiple factors that may include the availability of legal abortion, increased access to contraception, decreases in the teen birth rate and reduced social stigma surrounding unmarried parenting.

The number of international adoptions, however, recently experienced a sharp decline, to 12,753 in 2009. An increased desire for openness in adoption may be a key cause, but the steep drop may also be the result of many "sending" countries closing down adoption programs, Smith said.

Myths, misconceptions

This new trend toward openness in adoption brings with it challenges. Professionals interviewed for the study said parents come to them with fears and concerns, grounded in assumptions.

"There are still widespread myths and misconceptions about open adoption," Pertman wrote. "We have a lot of work to do in educating the public, professionals, the media and the families themselves so that we can continue making progress for the millions of people involved."

When Phylis Speedlin and her husband adopted their first daughter, Stacy, in San Antonio, Texas, their knowledge of what an open adoption entailed was "ill-defined," she wrote in a book she co-authored with Kathleen Silber after starting an agency that facilitates contact between birth and adoptive families, beginning with letter writing.

"Our fantasies about these people ranged from the birth mother being a fertile but uncaring woman to the birth father being an irresponsible cad. Our most frightening vision was that they both were indecisive about their decision to place Stacy. Could they become villainous kidnappers who would one day reappear to claim their own?"

The adoption remained closed until it became obvious to the Speedlins that an open adoption was necessary. On Stacy's 8th birthday, they found her before the bathroom mirror in tears: "My birth mother gave me away because she is blond and I am not." They wondered why the information they had given her had not absolved her concerns.

They searched and were eventually able to find Stacy's birth father. After an initial meeting without Stacy, and some visits with the therapist, Stacy met her father. He was, since then, a natural part of their lives. Stacy would see her father at her home several times a year — on birthdays, holidays or special occasions — and keep in contact over the phone.

Speedlin went on to help many other families embrace an open adoption. Through her work, she saw similar reactions and fears from other adoptive parents. Many worried that the birth mother didn't care about her child and that maintaining secrecy would protect all parties in the adoption process. Others feared that the birth parents would forget their child. Many assumed the adoptee would not search for his birth parents if he really loved his adoptive family.

Once these fears were faced, families were able to recognize that they were unfounded, Speedlin told the Deseret News. "There is no stigma about the fact that you can't know who this person is, or can't have any kind of a relationship, because you might hurt adoptive mother."

Open adoption has strengthened the Varner family in many ways. "We have learned together that we cannot be selfish with our gifts. There came a conscience choice after placement of our daughter as to whether or not we could 'share' her with her birth family," Varner wrote to the Deseret News. "We now have a whole new side of us: a Black family. They have welcomed us with open arms just like we have always been there. I love that we are able to have that cultural experience not only for our daughter, but for our other children."

Varner talks to her other four children — Elizabeth, Christian, Catherine and Maxwell — about their sister's adoption and they join Ella on visits with her birth family. They have come to feel a sense of camaraderie with one another. Varner laments the fact her other adoptive child, Maxwell, 1, won't have the chance to grow up with contact with his own birth family, due to different circumstances.


There are many outlets for support, education, counseling and training that can best guide parents in navigating an open adoption. The Adoption Institute is one of several organizations that has developed a curriculum that offers training for birth and adoptive parents. Here, parents learn to develop a shared understanding between the birth and adoptive parents about expectations regarding the open adoption. This involves mutual respect, honesty, empathy, trust and commitment to maintaining the connection through a collaborative form of communication.

Varner found her adoption agency, Adoptions From The Heart, to be pivotal in facilitating a positive relationship with her daughter's birth family. Pictures and accounts of the child's life can be shared with the birth parent through such an intermediary, and events are held on an annual basis for families to meet.

Support groups can be the best means of helping parents navigating an open adoption, Smith said. Nonprofit organizations such as the Kinship Center in California offer an ongoing support group to help openness. "There's no replacement for support from others who have walked the walk — who understand what it is and can provide support from time to time."

The grief or loss embedded in the experience of adoption cannot be erased by putting an end to secrecy in adoption, the study authors concluded. Openness does, however, provide individuals with information and access that allows them to deal with facts instead of fantasies; it is empowering.

The Varners hope that by eliminating the need for their daughter to search for her birth family for answers, they are laying a groundwork for their child to maintain a relationship with her birth family as she grows.

"Much like everything intertwined in adoption, open or closed," Varner wrote on her blog, "there is a story. A story that will rise above, fall below, and meet the mark in the same breath. A story that starts with a love greater than I will ever understand and filled with love that I could have never imagined nor live without."