I recently started reading Heather's blog and browsing the other bloggers that are part of Open Adoption Bloggers. I probably haven't said it enough but I am VERY supportive of Open Adoptions. Heather recently decided to issue occasional "writing prompts" to get people talking their experiences with open adoptions - she's calling it the Open Adoption Roundtable. Here's my way of joining in!
Although I'm not "personally" involved in the realm of Open Adoption - in the sense that I am neither a birthmom or an part of an adopted family - I do have experiences related to Open Adoption and am passionate about its value in the world of foster care and adoption.
I can still remember being very fresh and new at the world of foster care (because in reality, it wasn't that long ago!). I came in with many of the preconceived notions of someone who loved children and "wanted to help" but very few life experiences to draw from. The very first case I worked on as an intern involved 3 children - "Sarah" (age 5), "Brianne"(3), and "Josh"(15mo). Sarah and Brandi were the main focus of the case because their birthmom, Karla, was still working to having them returned home to her. I didn't even meet Josh until I had worked on the case for a while - because Karla was not working towards reunification with him. Josh had been born after the girls had been brought into foster care and Karla had been told that he would likely be removed from her also.
Karla stated from the very beginning that she was already overwhelmed with the task of having the girls returned to her. She saw how difficult it was for her girls and did not want to put another child through the ordeal. So, she made plans with the agency to have Josh placed in a pre-adoptive home immediately and to then voluntarily surrender her rights to him. Their were details in the case that had kept that from happening the last year and a half, but since his goal was no longer "Return Home", he did not visit weekly like Karla and his sisters. He came to visits on a monthly basis, but had been sick for the first two months I was involved. I wondered how it worked when he came and was interested to find out.
When his (foster) mother brought him to the next visit, Karla was delighted to see him. She also appeared to be happy to see his mother. The two women hugged and then Karla gasped over how much he'd grown in the last few months. When the girls arrived later, they were thrilled to see their brother as well - like any "big sisters", they rushed around to bring him toys and pushed each other out of the way to try to make him laugh. Josh clung tightly to his mother for the first 20 minutes or so, obviously somewhat overwhelmed by all the commotion. Karla had put her arms out for him when he'd first arrived, but he'd pulled away and clutched his mother tighter. I'd held my breath, but Karla said "That's okay!" and the mothers continued to talk about his recent accomplishments - what new food he was eating, words he could say, etc.
I was pretty impressed, I'd never give a lot of thought to how "open" adoptions worked - but it all seemed almost too easy! Karla was obviously interested in all of Josh's news, but also appeared completely at ease with his foster mother and even referred to her as "your mommy" when talking to Josh.
I worked on the case for about 8 months and watched Karla work diligently to have the girls returned to her care. But just before my internship ended, Karla had a major set-back in her efforts. Her actions were extremely detrimental to her case, and there was a lot of stress going into the next court date. No one knew what the judge would say or do and whether she would get another chance.
The day before the hearing Karla came to the office requesting a meeting. In the meeting she expressed her sorrow about the current issue and how much she wished she could change things. She took full responsibility for her actions and how they were affecting her girls. Then she asked us what would happen to the girls if they didn't come home to her. We explained that the girls had not been placed in a "pre-adoptive" home because she was working so hard to have them returned. But that in the course of discussions with their foster parent, she had expressed a willingness to adopt the girls if it became absolutely necessary. The meeting was incredibly sad and Karla left the office in tears.
The next day, as the Social Worker and I walked into the courtroom, we were stopped by Karla's attorney. He told us that she wanted to sign specific consents. In other words, she wanted to relinquish her rights - but only to the foster parent. We were both shocked by this decision. The lawyer waved Karla over and we asked her if she was sure this was what she wanted. She told us it wasn't what she wanted - it was what she knew was the best thing for her children. The paperwork was signed (for all three kids) and Karla had to testify in front of the judge that this was her decision, that she understood the ramifications, and that it was irreversible unless the foster parents did not adopt the girls. She cried through the testimony.
As we walked out, she requested "one last visit" with the girls. We assured her that we would make this happen and asked if she would be willing to also meet with the foster parents. She agreed and a meeting was set up for the next day.
That meeting solidified my belief about the importance of adoption (although it has been reaffirmed many times since). There were two mothers, talking about two little girls, and there was so much love and respect between them. Karla talked openly with the foster parent about details of the girl's past. She talked about them as babies and toddlers and gave her a few pictures that she had from their early years. The foster mother asked listened empathetically and took notes on important details about things such as medical histories. She asked Karla questions about how she would like the girls to be raised, hopes that she had for them, and what important things she wanted the girls to know. She reassured Karla that her girls would know how much she loved them.
There is no such thing, legally, as "open adoption" in my state. Once parental rights are terminated, the adoptive parents hold all the cards. But Sarah and Brianne's foster mom promised Karla that they would allow contact. They both understood that the agency would still have to supervise contact until the adoption was final and agreed to have three more visits in order to give the girls time to adjust.
It was a difficult process for everyone - but especially the girls. They wanted to go home and Sarah had been really "set" on it happening soon. Telling them was difficult, but the foster mom and Karla did it together. Sarah sat on Karla's lap, Brianne sat by foster mom's side.
For their "last" official visit they had a "see you soon" party - they didn't want to call it a "goodbye" party but Karla was planning to move and had requested some time to grieve before establishing further contact. Josh and his (now adoptive) Mom were there as well. The girls loved the party theme - but saying goodbye at the end of the visit was still traumatic.
Six years have gone by and the children have not had any face to face visits with Karla. This was initially her choice - phone contact came sporadically and Karla has struggled to deal with the many issues in her life. There were long periods of time where no contact happened at all - but the adoptive mothers were always been open and available whenever she calls. At this time, due to the best interests of the kids, Karla has no direct contact with the girls except for letters and gifts on holidays - but the adoptive parents are open to phone calls from her and will pass along messages to the children. Their intent is not to keep Karla from her kids, but to create security and consistency for the children.
The girls struggled to adjust to the changes in their lives. Sarah struggled the most - she worried about Karla and had many concerns about her safety and well-being. Her Mom was open with her about Karla's contact and this helped to reassure Sarah. Sarah also struggled with her disappointment about not returning home and felt conflicted in her loyalty to Karla and her adoptive Mom. Her Mom handled it by being supportive of her feelings about Karla - thus removing the need to "choose" between them. Sarah still talks about Karla (now "Mommy K") and hopes to see her again but is securely attached to her Mom and trusts that she is honest with her about Karla. For her mother, being able to give Sarah more information as she grows older has been invaluable to her healing.
Brianne has made the transition more easily and has few actual memories of living with Karla. But she too occasionally brings something up or asks about Mommy K - showing that children never really forget.
The concept of "adoption" is less clear for Josh - but he has a picture of Karla in his room and knows her as "Mommy K" as well.
Perhaps the most immediate benefit has been watching the relationship between Sarah, Brianne, and Josh (and their parents). They see each other regularly and delight in their time together. They have never lived in the same home - but they are siblings in every way. And their (adoptive) parents are close too - relying on each other for support and passing along information when one hears from Karla.
I know it doesn't always work out this well - the trauma of life with their parents is often too much for children when they are young and re-exposure to triggers hinders their ability to move forward. However, I do encourage adoptive parents to form some kind of relationship with their children's birthparents because they (and the information they have) is often so important to the healing process.
The beauty of Open Adoption in foster care is that it reduces the amount of "I don't know's", "Maybe's" and unanswered questions for children. It doesn't eliminate them completely - some can only be answered by the birthparent and are hard to explain to young children. Sarah can't get all of the answers from Karla right now, but through Open Adoption her parents are hopeful that one day she will be able to ask her the questions.