' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: No Matter How Adoption is Done, Grief Remains for Mothers

Monday, March 26, 2012

No Matter How Adoption is Done, Grief Remains for Mothers

“Putting an end to secrecy in adoption does not erase the grief or loss embedded in the adoption experience” according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute March, 2012 report, Openness in Adoption: From Secrecy and Stigma to Knowledge and Connections. With that caveat, the institute strongly endorses openness in adoption because "ending secrecy empower(s) participants by providing them with information and access so they can face and deal with facts instead of fantasies.”

IF adoption is necessary, we at First Mother Forum concur that openness is not only better but essential in voluntary infant adoptions.

The number of completely closed infant adoptions (once considered necessary to create “forever” families) has shrunk to a tiny minority. Degrees of openness, however, are on a continuum from semi-open adoptions (mediated adoptions) where communications are through the adoption agency to completely open (fully disclosed) adoptions where the parties and their extended families interact at will. Adoptions that start as closed may become open while adoptions that begin with high expectations of continuing contact become closed. 

The Institute listed these factors as important to achieving successful open adoption relationships: 
  • “Shared understanding by birth parents and adoptive parents about what open adoption is and is not
  • "Empathy, respect, honesty, trust and a commitment to maintaining the connection
  • "Ability of all parties to exercise self-determination in choosing and shaping open relationships
  • "Development by all parties of ‘collaborative’ communication in planning for contact and in conveying needs”
Easier said than done, however.

“The primary benefit of openness is access by adopted persons--as children and continuing later in life--to birth relatives, as well as their own medical, genealogical and family histories," according to the report. Adoptive parents say there are benefits in their relationships with their adopted children, and reduced fear of, and greater empathy towards birth parents.

But when we survey agency websites, we see that open adoption is a marketing took to induce mothers into giving up their babies. Open adoption is touted as a benefit primarily to the mother as a kind of shared parenting, and that it will eliminate or at least reduce their pain. During counseling sessions before the child is born, agencies may convey a subtle message that if would be best for their child if they would forgo the privilege of contact, just “butt out.” Some mothers do just that, finding contact painful and unaware of the loss to their child because they have not been counseled about the long-term effects of adoption on the children themselves.

Mothers considering adoption are labeled “birth mothers” from the get go, implanting the belief that they are carrying the child for someone else and have little say in what happens after the relinquishment papers are signed. At the agency sites, we have found no use of the term "first mother" anywhere.

Mothers are unaware that they can negotiate the terms of open adoptions. Agencies or attorneys give them a canned form with an implicit “take it or leave it" message. Bethany Christian Services, for example, offered Catelynn and Tyler of 16 and Pregnant fame a semi-open adoption, never telling them they could have direct contact with the adoptive parents of their daughter, Carly. The producers of the show have arranged reunions between Catelynn and Tyler and their daughter; the tearful hugs make for great TV. Catelynn and Tyler have gone on to become spokespersons for Bethany, perhaps part of their continuing effort to convince themselves they did the right thing. Of course money may play a part. 

Adoption agency staff represent both mothers and prospective adoptors in developing the agreement, and are likely to be more supportive of the prospective adopters who are paying the bill. In independent or attorney-arranged adoptions, the same attorney may represent both parties. If the mother has her own attorney, the attorney is paid by the prospective adopters, calling into question who he or she may actually feel loyalty towards.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Mothers may not question the document put before them because they believe that those “nice people” will certainly agree to more contact after the baby comes. The agreement Gina Crotts entered into, prepared by the infamous Demon in Adoption, LDS Family Services, provided for photos and letters for the first three years, then an annual update until her daughter turned five. At that time, Crotts asked for the communications to continue. The adopters agreed to send an annual letter, but added they no longer wanted Crotts to write to her daughter. The same peculiar thinking that afflicted Tyler and Catelyn seems to have infected Crotts as well: She founded a non-profit company that sends gift baskets loaded with “comfort” items to new birth mothers, such as body lotions and fancy soaps, with a note praising them for their "courageous" decision. We fail to see how a nice-smelling bottle of anything provides much comfort for losing a child, and find the whole idea rather revolting.  Crotts' website says: bmb (birth mother baskets) provides a loving voice saying, "you are not alone, you are loved, you are brave and yes someone has felt this unbearable pain before." At least she acknowledges the pain of giving up one's child is unbearable.

First mothers may be unaware that open adoption agreements are not enforceable under the laws of their state and, that in all states, the failure of adopters to comply with the agreement does not nullify the adoption. Even if agreements are enforceable, mothers have to go through mediation with the agency before going to court. Agency social workers may “out talk” her, tipping the proceedings in favor of the adoptive parents who may be a future source of business, and who were a source of previous income to the agency. Court action is often an illusion because most first mothers lack the funds to hire an attorney. And of course, the adoptive parents may simply move and leave no forwarding address.

Mothers may even learn that the open adoption agreement never existed. Carla Moquin and her husband selected a couple to be parents for their soon-to-be born daughter that they thought they could not raise. They sat down with the agency representative and the prospective adopters, worked out an agreement, and signed the document. When the adoptive parents refused to honor the agreement, Moquin learned the agency had never filed it with the court, making it unenforceable.

Mothers “who have the highest grief levels are those who placed their children with the understanding that they would have ongoing information, but the arrangement was cut off” according to an earlier Institute report.*

Open adoption agreements may contain an “ad terrorem” clause providing that if the mother challenges the adoption, she will have no further contact with her child. This happened in Janette Barcenas' case; the adopters in effect punishing her son by denying him contact with his mother because Janette had the audacity to claim that her consent was coerced.

What it really all comes down to is the good faith of the adoptive and birth families. With that, written agreements may not even be necessary.  In 1992 Linda Schellentrager and her husband, Marty, adopted their son, Eric. Before the adoption, the parties connected through an 800 number supplied by the agency. During the phone call, the parties agreed to meet. After the adoption, Eric's mother and the Schellentrager's met at a hotel, and the parties developed a relationship which grew to include Eric's father and paternal grandparents. Linda reports that Eric is going fine. He just completed basic training in the Marine Corps.  

Good faith like this can’t be legislated, but states can put laws in place that make it more likely to happen.  Open adoption agreements must be legally enforceable, and all parties should be required to have adequate counseling about the merits of openness for the child, as well as the adults involved. Open adoption should not be used simply as a marketing tool to help convince mothers-to-be to give up their children, when they might instead find a way to keep them. The Institute could help by developing model legislation that states could adopt.

Additionally publicizing the benefits of openness will build public support, and more importantly, make both first mothers and the adoptive parents aware that openness is not just a way to transfer a child, but the way to raise a healthy adopted individual. We applaud both the Institute and the American Adoption Congress which has begun an "Adoption: No Secrets. No Fear" campaign for spreading this message.
*Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents (November 2006)



  1. I would like to see agency websites that said something like:

    Open adoption will be better for your child because he will grow up with a sense of his authentic cultural and biological identity. He will be able to see a face that looks like his, and in time, be able to relate to someone with whom he shares traits.

    First mothers need to be coached to understand that open adoption is a benefit not only to them, but for the child. They need to understand that it is not in their child's best interest to disappear. I don't know how common that is, but I have heard of a couple of cases where the adoptive parents want to keep contact but the birth mother has disappeared, or won't visit. I am sure those visits are hard, but mothers of all ages need to be encouraged to keep them up for the child.

    And of course adoptive parents need to feel they must keep the adoption open for thet well-being of the child. I would imagine what happens is that an infant can't request his first mother to show up now and then, in time, the adopters don't want someone coming around who is obviously related to the child in such a deep and meaningful way. They want to think of the child as theirs and theirs alone, without nagging interference. so the child grows up, the adopters never bring up the supposedly "open" part of the adoption, and the child/teen/adult never questions it, because...well, for all the reasons we know.

    We know that adoptive parents close open adoptions in number enough that there is an active Facebook page called "Mothers of Open Adoption Fraud." One unverified statistic that I received from someone whose heard from a Bethany agency worker: within a couple of years, 80 percent of the adoptions that started out "open" end up closed.

  2. "that in all states, the failure of adopters to comply with the agreement does not nullify the adoption."

    It should nullify the adoption. This is blatant and malicious fraud that has the power to destroy one's life. No one seems to care about that in the "adoption industry".

    All bets were off for me after my child's adopters made off with him after only a few years and left no forwarding contact information. I was left in the dark for 11 long years, not knowing if he was dead or alive. They promised me they would not do that to me, yet they did anyway.

    Lorraine said: "and then, in time, the adopters don't want someone coming around who is obviously related to the child in such a deep and meaningful way. They want to think of the child as theirs and theirs alone, without nagging interference. so the child grows up, the adopters never bring up the supposedly "open" part of the adoption, and the child/teen/adult never questions it, because...well, for all the reasons we know." I believe this is exactly the case, in my particular situation.

    Perhaps one day adopters will be held accountable in a court of law for the deceit and lies they employ to procure someone else's infant. Until then, mothers will continue to be manipulated by this fraud called "open adoption" and we will continue to hear these stories...

  3. Stephanie:

    I know your story and it is incredibly tragic. You were really lied to by the adopters as you debated whether or not to relinquish your son. We are so sorry this happened to you, to anyone.


  4. As a first mother from a semi-open turned fully open adoption (circa 1985) if a mother isn't fully willing to relinquish and the decision isn't hers and hers alone, it can be an extremely painful, heart wrenching, tormenting experience. That was the case for me anyway. Going back 27 years (I was 17) when I began showing signs of NOT wanting to go through with surrendering, my social worker presented me with "a new concept that allows birthparents to choose the adoptive parents" (from 3 type written, non-identifying, no pictures autobiographies written by hopeful paparents). Then, aparents would be required to write a letter and send a picture of the child once a year for 2 years...those were their only requirements. It was supposed to give us, the birthmother, control in the process. Hmmm...the social worker was the one who decided which autobiographies we could read, so who REALLY had the control there? Anyway, very long story short, when my daughter was 9, the adoptive parents generously invited us into their lives. By that point, I had married her "birth" father and we had 4 little boys...full siblings for her! We went into the openness blind...who would say NO to a chance to know their child?? But I wasn't prepared for what developed over the years. I have been in and out of counselor's offices more times than I can count. Bottom line, if the adoption is coerced, forced, or manipulated, even "open" adoption can be hell on earth, and I'm not so sure it was in the best interest of my daughter either. From the very little she's shared with me, watching her first mother being "mommy" to her siblings was hurtful and confusing, yet she wasn't allowed to voice that growing up. Ahh, I could go on and on...but I won't bore you guys!

  5. Boy, Amy, is your story not boring.

  6. Well, there's so much more to my story that I wouldn't know where to begin! lol I've just recently gotten back into on-line adoption "stuff." I used to be very active on the parentsplace adoption messageboards 12 years ago or so. For my own mental health, I had to take a break...albeit a long break, because it was taking a huge toll on my family. It's hard not to become engulfed in all of it. I think I'm in a place where I'm ready to talk again...I just don't know where to go in order to be heard. My daughter is 27 now, and our relationships with her are so fractured. If I could tell you she's turned out just fine and is a successful, happy individual...well, I would...but I can't. She's not. Whether it's due to being given up, or over-indulged by her adoptive parents that have lead her to where she is, I can't say for sure. But this "open adoption" was a big, fat FAILURE for everyone. I hope things have changed...

  7. I agreed with you until this point

    "make both first mothers and the adoptive parents aware that openness is not just a way to transfer a child, but the way to raise a healthy adopted individual."

    No one can guarantee a "healthy adopted individual" just because the adoption is open or semi-open. The only problem with adoption in the past wasn't just that it was closed. There were many other issues. Even a child in a semi-open or open adoption still has to deal with issues of being relinquished in the first place. It could even be worse for the child to know that his first parents could have contact and choose not to than it was for those whose parents didn't know where they were.

    No matter how adoption is done, grief remains for the child, too.

    @Stephanie wrote: "Perhaps one day adopters will be held accountable in a court of law for the deceit and lies they employ to procure someone else's infant."

    They won't be held accountable until the open adoption contract is legally enforceable. And I would bet that most PAPs and adoption agencies and attorneys will work to make sure that this never happens.

  8. After my daughter was in foster care for 3yrs 7mths she got a forever family in us just last Thursday and I feel like the luckiest person alive to have the legal chapter closed.

    I've done everything possible to get to know her birth mom but the fact is, not every person who has a child is able to raise a child. Her birth mom is full of broken promises - to my daughter and to us.

    You talk about open adoptions as if they are possible in nearly every scenario when in fact they're very challenging. Our daughter is school-age and knows (age appropriate information) about the situation. She asks about her birth cousins but the sad reality is they don't respond to my phone calls or texts. Her birth mom goes through phases where she's around and then inevitably disappears again.

    The vast majority of adoptions in the US are adoptions by foster parents (like myself) and relatives, which means there are many more that fall into our category than ones where a teenager gives up an infant like in 16 and Pregnant.

    I'd like to say as a mom (not just an adoptive parent) - parenting is hard work. I have no fertility issues and have a birth child as well, so I know full well the experience of carrying a child and the subsequent bond with that child. While I think it's great if an adoption can remain open, the decision to close the door on birth parents should be an option. While it may be hard for birth parents to hear, the people raising the child probably have a better read on what that child can handle and what is best for him/her at this stage.

    I was very clear with our daughter's birth mom (who lost custody) that in the very least we'd stay in contact and allow occasional visits (1-2 times a year)... but that it was contingent on her being in a healthy/safe situation. I absolutely reserve the right to cut off contact or refuse visits if they will be harmful to my daughter.

    Despite the late night drunken calls from her birth mom we've chosen to keep the door open, but from a distance. She'd like our daughter to have sleepovers at her house, which I refuse, with no remorse. My daughter has expressed how painful it is to see her birth mom - her memories are mostly traumatic ones. I've tried to create new, happy memories by inviting her birth mom to our house and to go on fun outings but I do not trust her ability to make good/healthy decisions. She's been given access to every kind of conceivable service but to no avail.

    In my heart I'm rooting her on - hoping she finds a way to turn a corner, and if my daughter chooses to have a closer relationship when she's older I'm okay with that... but I'd want her to go in to the situation with eyes wide open. I'm sheltering her from the chaos of her birth mom's life because I don't want her to feel any ownership or responsibility over her actions.

    I believe that honesty and age appropriate information is key. We've chosen not to give any details about her birth dad because he's a violent criminal but sometime when she's older we'll begin to have those conversations and answer any questions that arise. In the meantime, we're taking it day by day.

    Bottom line: relationships between adoptive and birth families are complicated and require a lot of compassion on all sides.

  9. Anonymous:

    Yes, you are right, some situations demand different solutions. You sound like you have done all that you can to keep channels to the birth mother open, but you are right, there are always situations like yours that demand different action than we propose in this short post. We fully support adoptions from foster care (see, What We Think About Adoption) when the birth family is unable or unwilling to care for the child.

    We sometimes forget about people and situations like yours, and it is good to be reminded. Thank you for leaving your comment here.

  10. Anon,

    I have great respect for those who adopt children from foster care. Sounds like your daughter is very fortunate to have her new family.

    Our post addressed "voluntary infant adoptions" (second paragraph) which as you say are a small minority of adoptions each year. We agree that cases where there has been neglect or abuse, present different issues and openness may not be appropriate ort must be handled differently.

    And yes, whether voluntary infant adoption or adoption from foster care, the relationships between birth and adoptive families are complicated and require compassion.

  11. When we went through the adoption process we worked out a formal Open Adoption Agreement with our daughter's First Parents in great detail. Although Open Adoption Agreements weren't/aren't legally enforceable in our state, we wanted to have it in writing so everyone (including us) knew exactly what each others expectations were. The agency refused to have anything to do with it and counseled us emphatically NOT to put such an agreement in writing. We did it anyway. Here is what we officially agreed to: We already had "full disclosure" and at first contact had given them our names, address, home and cell phone numbers and other identifying information. We agreed to send photos/letters monthly for the 1st year, every other month the 2nd year, quarterly the 3rd year, bi-annually the 4th year, then anually every year after. We also agreed to get together once a year until our daughter was 18. We agreed to keep our (800) number for the first year and the first parents/family could call us whenever they wanted. However, after placement our relationship with our daughter's first parents/family continued to evolve and we eventually became just a family, getting together whenever we wanted. Although there have been some twists and turns along the way as in any relationship, I have always felt comfortable that it was the right choice for our daughter's sake. I've been honored and humbled by her first family's generosity and acceptance of us.

    Barring any strange or unusual circumstances, I don't understand the fear that some adoptive parents of having a relationship with their child's first family.

  12. "While I think it's great if an adoption can remain open, the decision to close the door on birth parents should be an option. While it may be hard for birth parents to hear, the people raising the child probably have a better read on what that child can handle and what is best for him/her at this stage."

    Anon, are you referring to situations such as yours where you claim the natural parents are "dangerous" when you say this, or every "open adoption"? In all fairness, it is not just natural parents who are "dangerous". Many adopters have no business parenting someone else's child, especially those who will lie to and deceive someone to procure her infant from her.

    The "decision" to close the door on someone when you promised you would not is despicable. If this was a determining factor in someone deciding to go through with the adoption when she is young and vulnerable, it is as cold and heartless as they come. I don't care what kind of control freak, power trip someone is on. In many cases it boils down to the adoptive family being threatened of the natural family, so they can't handle "sharing" their adopted child. IMHO people like this have no business adopting, especially when they go into it pretending they want this openness they really don't want and never did.

    I realize your case in foster care adoption may be different, but there are two sides to every story.

    I, for one am glad some our sides get heard here and elsewhere.

  13. I agree with Robin's post, above. Totally.

    @2ndmom... you rock.

  14. Quoting 2ndmom, "barring any strange or unusual circumstances, I don't understand the fear that some adoptive parents of having a relationship with their child's first family."

    That is because you have an unusually open mind and you allowed your relationships to evolve naturally out of love instead of fear and competition. Most adoptive families (in cases of domestic infant adoption, not foster adoption) have been sold on the idea that adoption is just another way to have a baby and that baby will be yours for eternity. The birth family is erased by falsifying the birth certificate and sealing the records. They love this model because it frees them from ever having to acknowledge that "their" baby has other relatives out there somewhere....only the adoptive family counts and any suggestion by the adoptee that they have a larger family which includes the natural relatives is met with guilt-tripping at best, open hostility at worst.

    Agencies also love this model because it allows them to demand large sums of money for the creation of the mythical "forever family." And when the sh!t hits the fan and the adoptee wants to find his long-lost relatives, well that's just another cash cow in the form of expensive searches, mediated reunions, and various counseling services. They cash in on both the front and back end of adoption. Of course they will tell you they are providing vital social services, but they certainly won't provide those services for free, will they?

    I actually feel sorry for adoptive families who buy into this load of malarkey. They are the victims of con-men and carnival barkers who can smell desperation a mile away and know exactly how to exploit it.

  15. It seems to me if a mother was stable enough to fully engage in an open adoption she would be stable enough to raise her own child. The whole adoption model needs to change. When mothers look towards adoption they should be given information on resources to keep her baby, too. This is the only way a choice can be made.

  16. I agree with you Barbara. As much time, money and effort should go into keeping the family together as goes into tearing it apart.

    Of course there are desperate situations when a child needs to be removed from their home/family but even some of those can change with time and effort and maturity.

    In addition there is no recourse in adoption if the adoptive family turns out to be unfit.

    As long as open adoption remains just a piece of paper not enforceable in a court of law it is not worth the paper its written on. If a mother remains held accountable for life for giving up her child the adopters should also be held legally accountable for signing an agreement.

    I unfortunately feel as though "open" adoption is just a new marketing tool. I really don't think it was designed to help those adopted. Names are still changed, records sealed, birth certificates altered, rights signed away.

  17. Yes, Barbara, I abolutely agree. A mother who can navigate a "successful" open adoption most likely would be able to nurture her child.

    I am also amazed at the articulate, intelligent birth mothers writing on their blogs how they did the right thing in giving up their first child. They often tell about about raising subsequent children in a "Leave it to Beaver" family. Clearly these women would have made fine mothers for their first child.

    They can't (or don't want to) admit they were had by unscrupulous adoption counselors who convinced them that two parents with a few trinkets to offer would be superior to them. Instead, they try to push other young women down the same thorny path.

  18. My daughter, who we adopted at birth, has 2 younger sisters...but First Mom isn't parenting them. They are being raised by their Step Father and his wife. First Mom has a relationship with all the girls but doesn't want to the responsibility for being a hands on parent to any of them. It would SEEM that if she was capable of maintaining a wide open open relationship with us, the adoptive parents of her first child, that she would be able to have parented her. However, time has shown that not to be the case.

  19. Barbara reminded me of my thoughts when first asked what I thought about "open adoption". I couldn't imagine relinquishing if I was worthy of any relationship with my baby. I was young and inexperienced and naive and without support. I could have been a good mother. I don't think I could have navigated an open adoption though. Imagining watching someone else raise my daughter rips through my fragile emotions. ~ JJanet

  20. @Jane, not necessarily so, at least in one case where the reason for the adoption was a disabilitating illness of the mother, all went fine. I grant you, fostercare would have worked just as well, but that mother, was simply unfit as main nurturer.

    BTW. I'm still writing a little piece about adoption in the Netherlands, what should I do with it?

  21. Theodore,

    Something under 500 words? Pass it along. We do guest blogs from time to time.

  22. And we do have an email address at

  23. "Fancy lotions and soaps"? Is that poor deluded woman serious? Hey, decades ago, Garnet Mimms proved DEFINITIVELY that "a little bit of soap will never wash away my tears."

  24. Well, it was not yet detailed enough, and already close to a thousand words, but I cut it down for you.



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