Involving Birth Parents in the Lives of Adopted Children

When it comes to involving birth parents in the lives of adopted children, both parties should know what they're getting into. If both sets of parents go into this decision with the child in mind, the benefits to the child can be enormous.

Benefits to the Children
Adoption agencies began sealing adoption records somewhere around the 1930s, making it a real challenge for an adult child to find his birth parents. According to the consensus at Adoption Network Cleveland, many adopted children are curious about their birth parents and hope some day to cultivate a relationship with them.

In recent years a few states have unsealed their adoption records. According to Eileen McQuade, president of the American Adoption Congress, this procedure has not created problems in the states that have done so to date. These states include: Alabama, Delaware, New Hampshire, Oregon and Tennessee.

Michigan adoption documents were sealed from 1945 to 1980, but pending legislation may reverse that action. According to the April 25, 2008, issue of The Detroit News, many of the more than 20,000 adults who were adopted during that period are anxiously awaiting copies of their original birth certificates.

Understanding the Need to Know
Even in the happiest of homes, adopted children may still want to find out about or meet birth parents, for several reasons:

  • Curiosity. Humans are curious creatures. We want to know. When a child gets to know her birth parents, she also begins to understand her place in the universe. It's hard for children to accept that their parents may have simply given them away. When children are reunited with birth parents, it's much easier for questions to be answered. When an adopted child has the answers to his questions, many other fears and questions can then be put to rest.
  • Loss. Many children have a difficult time dealing with the loss of their birth parents. Meeting with their birth family or allowing some type of interaction between the child and her birth parents is often a very good way to help a child deal with some of the stress that accompanies this type of separation.
  • Self Identity. Adopted teen children are especially susceptible to feelings of vulnerability and a loss of self worth and self identity when they're unable to find or meet their birth parents.
  • Medical Concerns. Genetics play a significant role in an individual's risk for certain illnesses. Adopted children often want to know the medical history of their birth parents, even if they don't want to know the parents themselves. Several states have responded to this by making it possible for children to get non-identifying information that provides some background on ethnicity and medical history. To get the full picture, however, it's often necessary for adopted children to have some level of contact with birth parents.
  • Sense of Abandonment. Not all adopted children feel as though they have been abandoned, but for those who do, meeting their birth parents may help alleviate feelings of grief, loss and worthlessness.
  • Losing Adoptive Parents. We all need to feel connected in some way. When a child is adopted and then also loses his adoptive parents, that loss is compounded. At that point, his search to find his birth parents can become an all-consuming effort. According to Barbara MacKenzie, regional director of Lutheran Child and Family Service of Michigan, because people today cocoon more and more with televisions and computers it's becoming more and more important to feel connected.

Right to Know
Birth parents and children both have rights in adoption matters. Some birth parents do not wish to be contacted, and some adopted children do not wish to meet their birth parents. It boils down to respect. But if both parties are interested, and the parents of the adopted child are in agreement, there is no reason not to meet and become involved in one another's lives.

If you feel a meeting between your child and his birth parents would be a good idea or could be detrimental, talk to your social worker, adoption agency or other professionals who can help you make the educated decision.

Family Involvement
Because an adoption attorney may have access to necessary files and information, it's always wise to consult with an attorney before you start your search. As a general rule, adoption records are held and governed by the laws of the state in which the child was born. For out-of-state adoptions, a child may need to travel to that state in person to get records or to appoint a proxy in that state to handle the research. Social workers and attorneys are commonly used as proxies, and you'll need to pay their fees along with any fees that are part of the research process.

A few states, including Illinois, are now using the Web to provide information on birth parents to adopted children. The Illinois system gives both children and parents the right to allow or refuse contact.

Meeting Birth Parents
If everyone's in agreement, understand that this will be a stressful and emotional time for everyone, particularly the child. Birth parents can start by explaining the circumstances surrounding why the child was given up for adoption. After that obstacle has been overcome, giving the child information about his family background is usually helpful. Does your child look like someone in the family? Was she named by or for someone special? Does she have the same interests as someone else in the family?

Because your child now has two sets of parents, everyone needs to be understanding of one another. Your child is the one who should come first. If you feel meeting with the birth parents will be good for your child, adopted parents should do whatever they can to make these meetings a positive experience. Remember, as the adoptive parent, you may be a visitor in this particular situation, but you are still the parent. Your rules and expectations still come first.

If your child will be spending time away from you with birth parents, make sure they understand your rules and expectations. Don't allow leniency or a separate set of behaviors while your child is away, or you'll find yourself in constant conflict with your child.

Adopted Foster Care Children
Before setting up meetings between the birth parents and a child you adopted through the foster program, examine the situation from all angles. Foster care is reserved for negative situations, so it may be best to keep the child separated from his birth parents. When the child is of age, he can decide for himself whether he wants to reopen communications.

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