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What the Research Says: Adoption Openness

Topic: Open Adoption after private and foster care placements:

Researchers: Thomas M. Crea and Richard P. Barth

Purpose of Study:

The purpose of the current study is to examine the longitudinal patterns and predictors of contact between adoptive families and birth families over all four phases of the California Long-Range Adoption Study (CLAS).

Previous Research:

Language terms are taken directly from the research article and may not reflect the writer or organization’s preferred adoption language.

Research on open adoption began as a response to early critics who claimed that openness in adoption could hinder an adoptee’s attachments to their adoptive parents or cause confusion in relationship roles. Previous research found that open adoption does not need to include person-to-person contact. However, face-to-face contact was positive for adoptive parents, especially if there had been contact before placement. Adoptive parents were more likely to maintain contact when they had a sense of control regarding contact and boundaries and felt assertive as the adoptee’s parent.

More recent research has focused on attitudes and satisfaction in open adoption and the adjustment of Birth Mothers post-placement. A 2003 study showed that infant adoptions at 18 months post-placement showed three results:

  • 90% of adoptive parents were content with the level of birth parent contact they currently had, which indicates that the decision regarding openness made in the early stages of an adoption has a high likelihood of being maintained long-term

  • Contact gave adoptive parents a more positive view of birth parents.

  • Adoptive parents who desired either an increase or decrease in the change in the level of contact reported more marital distress, depression, and increased difficulty in raising the child.

In 2004, a study showed that 90% of adoptees and biological parents believed their reunions were positive experiences.

There have only been two long-term studies done regarding openness in adoption. The first was the Minnesota-Texas Adoption Research Project (MTARP), specifically on private agency adoptions. The MTARP showed that adoptive parents in open adoptions showed “greater compassion for birth parents and a stronger sense of parent entitlement.” It also showed that discussing birth parents did not confuse the adoptee, and open communication between birth parents and adoptive parents increased the adoptee’s social-emotional outcomes. The second long-term study we will discuss more in-depth.

Summary Early Phases of the Study:

The California Long-Range Adoption Study (CLAS) was a 14-year, long-range study done in four phases. Reporting was done by the adoptive parents and included data collection on the characteristics of the adopted child, adoptive family, birth parents, type of adoption, children’s special needs, adoption subsidies, behavioral functioning, parenting issues, school performance, and openness and contact with biological family members.

Phase one, done two years post-adoption, found that communication between birth and adoptive parents was more extensive in private and independent adoptions than in Foster Care Adoptions.

Phase two, done four years post-adoption, showed families in all adoption types reported a 44% reduction or loss of contact with birth families.

Phase three, done eight years post-placement, confirmed phase two findings that adoptive families said the level of openness had little connection with adoption satisfaction and the child’s adjustment.

Findings in Phase Four:

This article focuses on phase four of the study done 14 years after the first phase. Data collected showed that the younger the adoptee was when placed, the higher likelihood for openness. There was a higher rate of open adoption when the adoptee was white. Adoptions from biological families who are Hispanic tended to be closed. However, there was no difference in openness in other transracial adoptions. Private agency adoptions had higher rates of openness, and foster care adoptions had an 85.2 % likelihood of being closed.

By phase four of the long-term study, contact with birth family dropped from 60.2% to 39.2%. Contact consisted of 11.9% by phone, 7.5% by mail, and 6.2% by in‐person meetings. The adoptee’s contact with birth parents mirrored how the adoptive and birth family communicated. There was a decline in adoptive parents feeling in control of the contact, but there was an increase in adoptive parents feeling comfortable with the contact. Only 29.4% of adoptive parents believed their children would continue contact with their biological families when the adoptive parents no longer initiated the contact. The adoptive parents’ feelings about the level of contact directly influenced the openness of the adoption. Time also had little effect on the degree of openness.


Research before this study showed that adoption openness increases the likelihood of satisfaction in the adoption. This long-term study indicated that having openness earlier in the adoption process, if possible, had long-term positive effects on the adoptive families. Adoptive parents can choose what type of contact but should consider long-term what kind of contact their adoptee may want, as the study indicated the adoptee would replicate a similar type of contact. Adoptive parents should take time to consider their own feelings and reactions to openness as it directly affects the adoptive parent’s level of satisfaction in the adoption and the degree of openness both throughout the adoptee’s life.


Crea, T. M., & Barth, R. P. (2009). Patterns and Predictors of Adoption Openness and Contact: 14 Years Postadoption. Family Relations, 58(5), 607–620.


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