Openness in adoption should begin long before the birth mother and adoptive family navigate ongoing contact. Here, adoption professionals offer best practices for working with prospective birth parents.
An expectant woman who contacts a U.S. adoption agency or an attorney is likely to feel fearful, vulnerable, and emotionally worn. She may lack support from a partner or other family members, and is probably considering adoption among other options. If she’s decided to carry the pregnancy to term, she’s hoping to make the best decision regarding the child’s future.
Although these emotions and circumstances have likely remained a constant, the way such a woman can expect to be treated by that agency or attorney has changed radically as adoption has become more transparent.
Prospective birth mothers (and birth parents) are now accorded more respect and dignity — and are empowered every step of the way, from weighing their options to choosing a family. Although statutes vary considerably from state to state, reputable agencies and attorneys adhere to certain best practices, from that first contact onward. They generally agree that prospective birth mothers should have the right to:
1. Receive Counseling
“The more opportunity a birth mother has for counseling early in the process, the more confidence she’ll have in the decisions she makes,” says Gregory Franklin, a member of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, based in Rochester, New York.
Though few states require counseling, all adoption professionals would recommend it. An expectant woman needs to have a realistic idea of her options, including knowing what her life will be like if she decides to parent. “We help every woman who calls us to explore adoption and parenting,” says Judy Stigger, LCSW, of The Cradle, in Evanston, Illinois. “We might sit down with her to make a budget and go through what her day will be like with a baby. We make her aware of community resources, but, for many women, that’s not enough. They need the involvement of a partner or parent to consider parenting.”
2. Her Own Legal Representation
“Some states allow birth parents and adoptive parents to be represented by the same attorney in private adoptions, but I absolutely do not believe this is in anyone’s best interest,” says Franklin.
3. Not Feel Pressured
Most states regulate allowable birth mother expenses. New York, for example, allows adoptive parents to cover reasonable medical and pregnancy related living expenses, including rent, utilities, food, and maternity clothes, from two months before the baby is born to one month after.
“The goal of this law is to see that the adoption process doesn’t cost the birth mother anything, and also that it can’t make her any money,” says Franklin. He advises families to let the lawyers negotiate the specifics. “The relationship between birth parents and adoptive parents should be utterly supportive and respectful,” he says. “Hopefully, this is the beginning of what will be a long-term relationship. Keeping discussions about things like money out of it lets it start on a much warmer note.”
When an agency is involved, it often acts as the intermediary. “We have adoptive families contribute to a pool, and we provide support to the birth moms as needed,” says Stigger. “This keeps the adoptive family a step removed, so there’s no sense of coercion.”
4. Change Her Mind
In their annual Cost & Timing of Adoption surveys, Adoptive Families magazine has found that about one in three domestic adoptive families experience at least one failed adoption. “Adopting parents need to know that a birth mother may change her mind, and that she has the right to do so at any time until she signs papers or whatever state law determines,” says Franklin.
5. Choose the Right Family
Most of the birth parents Franklin works with come to him having already been matched with an adoptive family through networking. He believes this route is empowering for everyone involved: “You’re not dealing with a birth mother who’s just found out she’s pregnant and panicking. Instead, she’s talking with her doctor, with friends and family. In a way, networking forces her to reach out for support, so she isn’t making this decision in isolation.”
Franklin often asks what attracted her to a particular family, but doesn’t question or judge. “It’s not my life and not my choice,” he says. “I think it’s something special that the birth mother and adoptive parents have found each other. We attorneys are just there to make sure that needs can be met on both sides.”
Matching is a little different when an agency is involved. A prospective birth mother may look through dozens of parent profiles, which she narrows down to five or so to interview. “Adoption isn’t an option for her if we don’t offer her a family she feels comfortable with,” says Stigger. The Cradle is careful to include a range of ethnicities in the first group of parent profiles. “We know her decision won’t necessarily be dependent on ethnicity, but we want her to see at least one family who looks like her, so she has that option.”
6. Have Her Wishes for Future Contact Be Honored
“One of the first things I’ll ask is, has she thought about openness in the future?” says Franklin, who estimates that 90 percent of the adoptions he arranges involve some degree of post-adoption contact, whether through letters or visits.
He encourages families to allow for change when working up a contact agreement — or simply to stay in touch. “These documents are drafted when people are in a certain place, in a kind of crisis mode. But the reality is that things will change. You can’t predict where you’ll be in three months, a year, or 15 years. But you need to make sure you can keep communication open, because you’re in this relationship for the sake of the child.”
Compiled by the editors of Building Your Family.
“WHY I CHOSE ADOPTION”
The Early Growth and Development Study is an ongoing national study of birth parents and adoptive families. It’s providing a rare glimpse of the birth family’s choices and attitudes through every stage of the process. Here’s how birth mothers responded to a question about the adoption decision.
95% You were able to screen and select the adoptive parents.
84% You were able to talk with, e-mail, or meet potential adoptive parents before the birth.
60% You had access to post-adoption services, like counseling, support groups, and updates from adoptive parents.
47% You received counseling.
26% You were able to talk with other people who had made an adoption plan.
22% The agency or the adoptive family paid for medical care.