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No matter what, some sense of loss

Experts on both sides of the open-adoption debate agree that most adoptees realize they've been given up once and fear it happening again.

August 06, 2007|Sonia Nazario | Times Staff Writer

EXPERTS who advocate open adoption as well as those who oppose it say that adoptees grapple with a sense of loss. Virtually all adoptees understand that they have been given up by their birth parents and fear deep down that they might be given up again.

Open-adoption advocates say that most adopted babies grow into well-adjusted children. At any given time, however, these advocates say, adoptees might react to the loss of their birth families in more pronounced ways.

Some of them express loyalty and gratitude constantly, trying to win favor with their adoptive parents. In the extreme, these children become overly adaptive -- compliant to a fault. They often show little or no interest in the "other mother."

Others act out. These children test their adoptive parents repeatedly, seeking reassurance that their second set of parents won't give them up. In the extreme, they act out violently to test their adoptive parents to the limit. They love their adoptive parents, but they also long for their birth families and feel sadness, even anger, about being adopted.

Kendall McArthur's adoptive mother, Dorothea McArthur, a therapist who works with adoptees, places Kendall in the mid-range of the children who act out. This has made Kendall's experience with open adoption more difficult than most. Still, Kendall did not require help at a residential mental health facility, as do 7% of adolescent children who are adopted as babies, according to an Illinois State University study.

Some of the pitfalls that Kendall and both sets of her parents faced as pioneers in open adoption have been eased today by counseling. Many adoption agencies now require "vision matching" sessions, where birth and adoptive parents state their expectations about visits and future communication. These sessions determine how special occasions will be celebrated and how future conflicts will be resolved. Birth and adoptive parents learn how to deal with fear, distrust and anger.

They learn how to set boundaries and ground rules and how to be assertive but sensitive. Birth parents are counseled to stay in touch and not to contradict adoptive parents in front of their children. Adoptive parents are counseled to work with birth parents to keep children from dividing and conquering.

Many birth and adoptive families describe wonderful relationships in open adoptions, where the birth mother becomes like a loving aunt. Indeed, the most comprehensive longitudinal study of open adoption has found that openness is beneficial in significant ways.

The study, conducted by the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas, is known as the Minnesota-Texas Adoption Research Project. It is ongoing and tracks 190 married couples in 23 states who adopted infants before their first birthdays in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The adoptions represent more than 30 levels of openness -- from closed adoptions, through adoptions in which parents have contact through intermediaries, to adoptions in which adoptees have direct contact with their birth families.

Though the study has found that the degree of openness does not affect self-esteem or emotional adjustment, it also has found that by adolescence, children in open adoptions:

* Were not confused about who their parents were.

* Clearly understood the roles of their adoptive and birth parents.

* Felt their relationships with their birth mothers gave them a strong source of additional support.

* Helped them understand who they were.

By adolescence, 62% of the study subjects had stayed in contact with their birth mothers. Of those, 98% wanted the contact to continue or to increase.

Among the adoptees in closed adoptions, the study found, half wanted their adoptions to stay closed, mostly because they felt that being adopted was not important and that contact with birth families might be negative. The other half wanted contact and felt hurt that their birth mothers had not sought them out.

Thomas Atwood, the president and chief executive of the nonprofit National Council for Adoption, which has lobbied against open adoptions, rejects the notion that adoptees are somehow incomplete if they do not know their birth family. "We will defend the option of confidentiality," Atwood said.

Sharon Roszia, coauthor of "The Open Adoption Experience," and who proposed open adoption to Dorrie and David McArthur, said children in closed adoptions wrestle with many of the psychological issues that Kendall faced. For these children, Roszia said, the issues simply remain submerged. These children deal with additional issues: Didn't my birth mother care enough to find me? Are the people I come from so terrible that I can't know them?

Parents who approach open adoptions with an open heart find that the benefits outweigh the risks, Roszia said. "It is better to deal with reality than fantasy and fear. Better to know than not know."



Helpful arrangement


For children in open adoptions, most wanted openness and felt it had helped them, a study found.


Satisfied or very satisfied with open adoption

Adopted adolescents: 84%

Adoptive mothers: 94%

Adoptive fathers: 85%


Teen adoptees hoping contact with birth mothers would...

Stay the same: 56%

Increase: 42%

Decrease: 2%


Source: The Minnesota-Texas Adoption Research Project, conducted by the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas.

Graphics reporting by Sonia Nazario

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