Literature Review of the Impact of Open Adoption on the Adoptee
This is a literature review of the empirical research on the impact of openness in adoption on adoptees placed in voluntary infant adoption. The review covers the research from 1990 to 2009, and concludes the empirical evidence shows that adoptees in open adoptions have better psychosocial outcomes than adoptees in semi-open and closed adoptions.
Keywords: open adoption, adoption, adoptees, infant adoption
A Literature Review of the Empirical Research on the
Impact of Openness in Adoption on Adoptees
This is a critical literature review of the empirical research about the impact of openness in adoption on adoptees placed in voluntary adoptions as infants. The most recent comprehensive literature review on this topic completed in 2001, covered research from 1990 to 1999 (Haugaard, Moed & West). Since then there are new findings from ongoing longitudinal research as well as a cross sectional study that add significantly to the knowledge base on this topic, and clarify some of the tentative findings in earlier research. This literature review covers the research from 1990 to 2009.
Secrecy in adoption is a relatively recent practice in the United States. Until the early 1900s, there was both informal adoption and legal adoption, but all of the records were public. At the turn of the century, however, there were many indigent children in need of homes and few willing adoptive parents. Potential adoptive parents feared the children would inherit criminal behavior or sexual promiscuity or a proclivity for poverty from their birth parents. To encourage adoption social workers launched a concerted effort to seal birth records including legislation to enforce this secrecy. By the 1950s, this was the law in almost every state in the country (Silber & Speedlin, 1998).
This began to change in the late 1970s and early 1980s as advocates for open adoption, including both social workers, adoptees, birthparents and adoptive parents, claimed secrecy was detrimental to all members of the adoption triad. In regards to the impact of secrecy on adoptees open adoption advocates argued that adoptees had a basic human right to know their biological origins, and furthermore that withholding this information negatively affected identity formation, and did not negatively influence bonding with adoptive parents (Silber & Martinez Dorner, 1990).
By the early 1980s, some adoption agencies were facilitating open adoptions. Nevertheless, it remained controversial. In 1989, the National Council on Adoption (NCOA) took a position opposing open adoption because there was little empirical evidence to support it (Grotevant & McRoy, 1997). Today the NCOA states that it supports the trend toward greater openness in adoption (“Mutual Consent,” 2009).
Definition of Terms
There is considerable debate in the literature about the definition of open adoption, and about the words used to signify different levels of openness in an adoption. For example, open adoption and fully disclosed adoption are synonyms as is semi-open adoption and mediated adoption. Closed adoption and confidential adoption are also equivalent terms. This literature review will use the terms open, semi-open and closed adoption.
The definition of open adoption includes situations as varied as face-to-face meetings between an adoptive family and birth family to exchanges of letters and phone calls as long as the contact is not mediated by a third party. Grotevant and McRoy (1998) conceptualized “openness as a spectrum involving different degrees and modes of contact and communication between adoptive family members and a child’s birth mother” and “subject to change over time” (p. 2). This definition also includes the possibility of contact even if it has not occurred. Siegel (2003) feels this definition is both too flexible and not flexible enough. She explains that contact should not be limited to just the birthmother and that contact with other birth relatives qualifies as an open adoption. On the other hand, she states that actual contact must have occurred to qualify as an open adoption. Although most researchers agree that openness falls on a continuum as defined by Grotevant & McRoy (1998), they also limit their definition of open adoption to Siegel’s (2003) definition as adoptions in which there has been direct contact whether in person, via mail, phone, or email between the adoptive and birth families. This literature review will also use open adoption to mean any sort of direct contact between adoptive and birth families, but is not inclusive of families where direct contact is possible but had not occurred.
There is no controversy regarding the definitions for semi-open and closed adoption. Semi-open adoption refers to situations in which in which a third party, usually an adoption agency, mediates contact between the adoptive and birth family, and there is no direct contact between the parties. In closed adoption there is no direct or indirect contact between adoptive and birth families (Grotevant & McRoy, 1998; Siegel, 1993; Crea & Barth, 2009).
An initial search on Academic Premier for “open adoption” resulted in 69 journal articles. A search on Social Services Abstracts for “open adoption” resulted in 65 peer reviewed journal articles. There was substantial overlap of the results from both databases. After eliminating all the articles relating to international adoptions, non-U.S. based adoptions and foster care there were 40 articles remaining. From this group 19 articles also met the following criteria: (1) had conclusions relating to outcomes for adopted children even if these outcomes were from the perspective of the adoptive parents; and (2) included outcomes for children placed in open, voluntary, infant adoptions. The vast majority of these articles are in peer-reviewed journals. In addition, there are two classic books on the subject written by open adoption advocates and practitioners, Kathleen Silber and her co-authors Phyllis Speedlin and Patricia Martinez Dorner.
The literature is quite diverse with both longitudinal and exploratory cross sectional studies. The research is also rich in both quantitative and qualitative studies, allowing for an in depth examination of the experience of open adoption.
Much of the research examines open adoption’s impact on all members of the adoption triad: birthparents, adoptive parents, and adoptee. This literature review focuses only on that part of each study that examines outcomes for adoptees.
Early Exploratory Studies
There are two important early cross-sectional studies by Gross (1993) and Etter (1993). Both studies used mixed methods with small samples and developed conclusions that were later replicated in large-scale longitudinal studies. Gross (1993) found that adoptive parents in open adoptions had a positive view of it and believed it was good for their child. Etter (1993) found that adoptive parents had high levels of satisfaction with open adoption and did not find the contact disruptive for themselves or their child.
There are three longitudinal studies on openness in adoption. One is a small qualitative study and the other two are large sample research projects. All of the studies started data collection in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The findings of the three studies are strikingly similar. Surprisingly, however, the researchers draw disparate conclusions from almost identical results. Therefore, this literature review will primarily focus on the results of these studies in order to evaluate the conclusions the researchers reached.
Siegel research. This longitudinal qualitative study is limited to the perceptions of outcomes for adoptees as seen by the 21 sets of adoptive parents interviewed in three Waves. The sample was not random as the researcher used a snowball sampling technique. The sample was composed almost entirely of White, middle to upper middle class, heterosexual, two parent families who adopted White children. The research included semi-structured interviews with the adoptive parents. Two different research associates coded and reviewed the interviews.
The adopted children were under a year during the first Wave of data collection (Siegel, 1993). They were six and seven years old during the second Wave (Siegel, 2003), and were 14 and 15 years old during the final phase (Siegel, 2008).
In the first Wave, the researcher found that adoptive parents were overwhelmingly and strikingly positive about open adoption often because they believed it was in the best interest of their child (Siegel, 1993). This trend continued in the second Wave of the study. Strikingly, no adoptive parents indicated they wished they had less openness. Any wish for a change in openness was for more contact, not less. Again, parents believed that openness was in the best interest of their child, but the researcher did not tackle this issue in depth (Siegel, 2003). In the third Wave, however, perhaps because the children were adolescents, adoptive parents were explicit in how they believed openness benefitted their children. All of the adoptive parents saw openness as helping their child deal with identity issues, and none felt that openness exacerbated the issues of adolescence. All of the adoptive parents expressed positive feelings about open adoption and noted that no child had run away to live with their birth family. Adoptive parents even felt positively about contact with birthparents who had mental health or substance abuse problems, noting that birthparents did not engage in threatening behaviors during contact, and that the benefits of contact was still important for their adolescent (Siegel, 2008).
Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project (MTARP). The MTARP is a large-scale longitudinal mixed methods study that has completed two Waves. As the total population of families in open, semi-open, and closed adoptions is unknown, the researchers developed an innovative sampling technique intended to minimize the impact of a non-random sample. They contacted 35 adoption agencies that facilitated voluntary infant adoptions with all three levels of openness. Each agency then stratified their total population so that the researchers could randomly select a representative sample of families for each level of openness.
The final sample included 190 adoptive parents, 171 adopted children and 169 birthmothers. The sample was overwhelmingly, White, Protestant, and middle or upper class, from 23 states representing all regions of the United States. It included representative samples of families in open, semi-open, and closed adoptions.
In the first Wave, the children were between the ages of 4 and 12 with two thirds between ages 5.5 and 8.5 years. Five measures examined adopted child outcomes: self-esteem, socio-emotional adjustment, understanding adoption, satisfaction with adoption, and curiosity about birthparents. There was no relationship found between adoption openness and self-esteem, either positively or negatively. There was also no relationship or a very weak positive relationship with adoptive father’s perceptions of socio-emotional adjustment and adoption openness. Not surprisingly, children’s understanding of adoption increased as they reported having more information about their birthparents. There was no relationship found between the satisfaction of adoptive parents with the adoption and the level of openness. Finally, all the children exhibited curiosity about their birthparents regardless of the level of openness, but girls were more curious than boys (Grotevant & McRoy, 1997). The two other studies using data from the first Wave MTARP research showed that adoptees in which their adoptive and birthparents had collaborative relationships were doing better on ratings of psychosocial adjustment (Grotevant, Ross, Marchel & McRoy, 1999; Grotevant, 2000).
During the second Wave of research, there were 177 adoptive parents and 152 adopted children from the first Wave participating in the study. The children were ages 11-21 years with most between 12.5 and 15.5 years. Five different sets of researchers used this data to investigate various outcomes for adoptive children and all of the findings build on and reinforce one another. The first finding was that adolescents who had contact with their birthparents maintained higher satisfaction with their contact status than those who did not. Not having contact with birthparents is generally, though not universally, associated with dissatisfaction with the amount of contact (Kohler, Grotevant, & McRoy, 2004; Mendenhall, Berge, Wrobel, Grotevant & McRoy, 2004). Also, adopted adolescents and adoptive parents who had contact with their birthmothers were the most satisfied of all the groups with the level of contact, and those with no contact were the least satisfied. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of all adopted adolescents and adoptive parents in all the groups wanted more contact with birth relatives in the future. The number of participants wanting to see contact decrease in the future was extremely low: only one adopted adolescent and two adoptive parents. In addition, none of the adopted adolescents who had contact with their birth mothers felt any fear, hatred, surprise, anger, or confusion about who their parents were (Grotevant, et al., 2007). The data also showed that adoptees in open adoptions reported significantly lower levels of externalizing behaviors than those in closed adoptions. Interestingly, adoptive parents reports showed no relationship between openness and externalizing behavior by the adolescents (Von Korff, Grotevant, & McRoy, 2006).
Finally, this second Wave of data also showed that adolescents who were satisfied with the contact they were having with their birthmothers had positive feelings toward them, felt the contact contributed positively to their identity formation, and had a desire to meet other birth relatives. Those who were not satisfied with their contact overwhelmingly wanted more contact, and felt gratitude toward their birthmother for the adoption plan. Those adolescents who were not satisfied because there was no contact with their birthmother had negative feelings toward their birthmother because the birthmother had not tried to contact them, very much wanted contacted, and often had made unsuccessful attempts to contact her. Finally, the smallest group consisted of adolescents who were satisfied with no contact. These adolescents generally felt their adoption status was unimportant, often because their family did not discuss the subject. They also felt fortunate to be adopted, but did not connect this to feelings of gratitude toward their birthmothers, and did not feel contact was necessary. They also had negative associations about what contact with their birthmother would be like (Berge, Mendenhall, Grotevant, & McRoy, 2006).
California Long-Range Adoption Study (CLAS). The CLAS is a very large-scale, longitudinal, quantitative research. There are four Waves to the study. The sample is not random, but its large size makes it more likely it is representative, but as it turned out an overwhelming majority of the sample was White and middle-class causing concern about how representative it truly was. Of the 4,916 children adopted in the California between July 1988 and June 1989, inclusive of public, private, and independent adoptions, a letter mailed to 2,589 of these adoptive families asked them to participate in the study. Of these, 1,219 families agreed to participate in the first Wave two years after adoption. Wave 2 included 764 families, four years post-adoption. Wave 3 only included 231families, all of who adopted from foster care, which is outside the parameters of this literature review. Wave 4 included 469 families, fourteen years post-adoption (Crea & Barth, 2009).
The first three Waves of the research consistently found that openness did not have any impact on parental satisfaction with the adoption or their feelings of closeness with their child (Berry, 1993, Berry, Cavazos Dylla, Barth & Needell, 1998; Frasch, Brooks & Barth, 2000). Wave 4 of the study found similar results. Crea & Barth (2009) found “Respondents’ perceptions of their children’s well-being over time had little to do with having an open relationship, although greater family well-being predicted openness. As such, this study adds to a body of research suggesting that open adoptions at least do no harm and may contribute positively to adoptive families well-being” (p. 618).
Recent Exploratory Study
Although the longitudinal studies provide a wealth of information on the topic of openness there continues to be ongoing exploratory research. The most important of these is Brodzinsky’s (2006) work showing that communicative openness about adoption in the family was extremely important in the adjustment of adopted children no matter what the degree of structural openness in the adoption. It also concluded that the study provided support for structurally open adoption because structural openness strongly correlated with communication openness.
All of the research is complementary and there are no serious discrepancies in the results. All of the studies support the hypothesis that adoptees in open adoptions have better outcomes than those in semi-open or closed adoptions. This includes evidence that adoptees in open adoptions report fewer externalizing behaviors, have better ratings of psychosocial adjustment, and believe that the contact helps with their identity formation. Furthermore, adoptees in open adoptions do not show any surprise, anger, or confusion about who their parents are. It is important to note that openness does not appear to affect self-esteem or how satisfied families are with the adoption or how close they feel to their child, either positively or negatively.
What is surprising is the level of caution expressed by some of the researchers regarding their findings. In particular, all of the researchers involved in the MTARP research are extremely reluctant to endorse open adoption, especially in the studies that include researchers Grotevant and McRoy. For example, in four different studies showing good outcomes for adoptees in open adoptions the researchers conclude that “openness decisions [should be made] on a case-by-case basis” and “that one size does not fit all” to argue against a blanket endorsement of open adoption (Grotevant & McRoy, 1997; Berge, et al., 2006; Von Korff, et al., 2006; Grotevant, et al., 2007). They base this conclusion on an extremely small subset of the adoptees and adoptive parent participants in the MTARP who were satisfied with having no contact with birth family, even though the research overwhelming shows the outcomes are much better for adoptees in open adoption. They also do not explore the reasons that these families are satisfied with no contact, which seem to include negative stereotypes about birthparents and discounting the importance of a person’s adoption status. Research has shown these to be untrue (Siegel, 2008; Brodzinsky, 2006).
Furthermore, Grotevant (2000) concludes that differences in levels of openness are minimally important in outcomes, but collaboration between birth and adoption families is very important. Children from collaborative relationships did better on ratings of psychosocial adjustment. Clearly, openness is required in order for adoptive and birth families to collaborate so it is baffling how openness could only be minimally important.
Despite these inconsistent conclusions from the researchers, the research results from the MTARP and all the other studies are very clear; open adoption provides the best outcome for adoptees.
It is also worth noting, that the longitudinal studies show stronger and stronger support by the adoptees for openness as they age and are able to express their opinions, even when adoptive parents relay what they perceive their children are thinking to researchers. The importance of this perspective is so important. Who knows better the impact of openness on adoptees than the adoptees themselves?
All of the studies discussed above have some important limitations. Aside from Brodzinsky’s (2006) research, the participants in all the studies were limited primarily to White, middle and upper class, two-parent, heterosexual families. Although this sample homogeneity allowed for easy comparisons among the studies and strengthened their internal validity, it is does limit the applicability of the findings to other populations.
None of the studies was able to use a truly random sample, but the larger studies used various techniques to try to ensure a representative sample. Siegel’s (1993, 2003, 2008) work only used a very small snowball sample, and did not have a control group of adoptive families in closed adoptions. Interestingly, despite these sampling limitations all of the studies showed very similar results.
Another limitation of the research is that only the MTARP longitudinal studies (Grotevant & McRoy, 1997; Grotevant et al., 1999; Grotevant, 2000; Kohler, et al., 2004; Mendenhall, et al., 2004; Von Korff, et al., 2006; Berge et al., 2006; Grotevant, et al., 2007) and Brodzinsky (2006) study the adoptees to both directly measure outcomes and to get their perceptions of the impact of openness. This most critical voice, adoptees, is missing entirely from both the Siegel (1993, 2003, 2008) the CLAS studies (Berry, 2003; Berry et al., 1998; Frasch et al., 2000; Crea & Barth, 2009).
The most important future research is to continue all three of the longitudinal studies now in process. As discussed the earlier, the more that adoptees are able to directly contribute to the research the better. Both longitudinal studies by Siegel and the CLAS would benefit by adding this to their research protocol.
In addition, this research needs replication with populations that are more diverse. This includes ethnic and racial minority families, families from working and lower class backgrounds, and LGBT families. Furthermore, research should also include transracially and internationally adopted children.
The empirical evidence shows that open adoption has the best outcomes for adoptees placed in voluntary infant adoptions. Most importantly, when adolescent adoptees participating in longitudinal studies speak about their experience they overwhelmingly say they want more, not less, contact with their birth families, and feel that the contact has had a positive impact on them. In addition, the evidence supports this view showing that adoptees in open adoptions report fewer externalizing behaviors, have better ratings of psychosocial adjustment, and believe that the contact helps with their identity formation. Furthermore, they do not show any surprise, anger, or confusion about whom their parents are.
This literature review was originally published in 2010. Since that time one of the most prominent researchers, Harold D. Govtevant, has become more outspoken in his support of open adoption. See his web site at:
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