Open Adoption Communication Agreements: An Important Tool

I’ll be sitting on a conference panel next week talking about being a birth mother and my experience in open adoption. In trying to condense the last almost twelve years into approximately five minutes, I asked for help from the conference organizers and was given a prompt.  The prompt read, “Discuss how the open adoption plan originated and then how it has changed (or not) over time.” It freaked me out a bit at first and then it made me laugh, but it did give me direction.

Around the same time I was talking to my son’s mom and we somehow ended up talking about how the agency I work for negotiates open adoption communication agreements.  Her question was, “How come we never did anything like that?”

I remember at the beginning of our open adoption relationship feeling unsure when or if more updates would arrive.  Feeling like I couldn’t call because I might be bothering them, interrupting their life.  Feeling like my entire existence was an inconvenience to them.

While open adoption communication agreements aren’t legally binding in all states (and even where they are we don’t know how legally enforceable they are, as I’m not familiar with anyone having taken a breach to court), but they are a wonderful tool.  Of course as with any tool they need to be used correctly.

Communication agreements should:

1. Be a jumping off point. Contact can expand, but everyone is agreeing to at the very least what is outlined in the agreement.

  •  I have goals of sending my son (and his brother) cards for every holiday each year, but if that were in an Open Adoption Communication Agreement (OACA) I’d be in breach of that contract every single year.  If I were to write up an OACA now I’d put in that I will send cards/gifts twice a year and, during the meeting to discuss the agreement, I’d talk to my son’s adoptive parents about whether they’d be open to me sending cards more often even though it’s not in the agreement.  Or, as our relationship progresses, I’d say “I’d really like to send the boys cards for Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. I know it’s more than our agreement but are you okay with that?”

2. Be an honest reflection of what you would be comfortable with.

  • It can be tempting to agree to whatever the other party suggests, but you have to be true to yourself.  Either party can fall into this trap, often because they want to please the other person or they’ve idealized the situation in their minds. Agreeing to too much or to too little can set you up for disappointment.  Too much might not be sustainable even with the best intentions and too little may never grow into what you truly hoped for.

3. Be specific.

  •  Stating contact will be had three times a year says basically nothing.  What type of contact? What times of year? Who will initiate? Really spell it out. For example, “The adoptive parent(s) will send written updates and pictures to the birth parent(s) at or around the child’s birthday, Christmas, and Halloween.  When the child reaches school age an additional update and photo will be sent at school picture time.  Phone calls may occur as often as monthly, to be initiated by either party. Visits will take place biannually and each party is responsible for their own travel costs if there are any.” That takes some of the guess work out.

4. Be flexible.

  • It may sound like I’m contradicting myself, but flexibility is just as important as specificity. Life happens. If you’re agreeing to an update around a particularly busy time of year (the holidays) or if a particular time of year becomes hectic after a few years, how will you handle that? Is calling and saying, “I’m swamped, but I haven’t forgotten the update it’ll be in the mail soon” enough? What about sending a short update and at least one picture with the same message? As a birth parent are you open to receiving more frequent updates if something especially important/adorable occurs or is the number you’ve put in the contract the absolute maximum you want to receive each year?

5. Be child focused.

  • It should go without saying that we’re doing this for our children, whether by birth or adoption.  We make this agreement before they can have any say in it (unless it’s an older child adoption in which case the child should have some say!) and we need to try to decide what is going to serve them the best.  This means communication isn’t a one-way street.  Envisioning a birth parent as a non-descript entity to whom we send pictures a couple times a year is one thing, but actually receiving something from that person (even a card once a year) as well is immensely better. We also need to keep in mind that they may not like the agreement you’ve set up as they get older. How will that be handled?  Will updates still be sent but with less photos since the child now hates having his or her picture taken? Will visits still happen even when the child becomes a sullen teenager who just wants to hang out with her or his friends? 

I’m not saying that an open adoption can’t develop and thrive without a written agreement.  I’m living the proof that it can, but it makes an already complicated dance even more so. Do you have a written communication agreement? What do you recommend be put in writing for those heading into the adoption process?

About the author:
Kat Cooley, MSW writes here at Open Adoption Bloggers twice a month. She is a social worker providing comprehensive all options counseling to those experiencing unplanned pregnancy and will soon be returning to school to pursue a PhD in Social Work and focus on adoption related research .  She is also a birth mom over a decade into an open adoption.  She is always open to suggestions for topics; you can leave them in the comments, at the OAB Facebook page, or tweet her @KMCooleyMSW.

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9 thoughts on “Open Adoption Communication Agreements: An Important Tool

  1. Great post. I’m a birthmother too, in an open adoption for 25 years (I placed when I was barely 18). We never had a formal agreement; however when I was working with Catholic Social Services to place my son, they had me write my “wish list.” Looking back now, it seems rather trivial and certainly informal. But essentially it was my way of saying yes or no to cards, letters, pictures, videos, etc. I remember clearly saying no to receiving videos. I honestly didn’t think I could handle it.

    And yet, five months later a package arrived. In it, was a video cassette (ah the 1980s!) with footage of my son rolling over for the first time. I remember racing to the VCR and watching the tape over and over again. It was wonderful.

    I don’t think the agency ever communicated with my son’s parents that I wasn’t up to receiving videos, because I’m sure they never would have sent it otherwise.

    But I’m sure glad they did send it. It made my day 🙂

    I think formal agreements are just legal boundaries we put in place. They can help protect our hearts from feelings that might be too difficult to process. I do agree with what you’ve written. While at the same time, I’m glad we didn’t have a formal agreement. Honestly, we really didn’t need one.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    • I think the important piece is for the participants to discuss it and with mine and it seems with yours that didn’t happen. Even though we both filled out our “preferences” those weren’t passed on to the adoptive parents and we didn’t ever have a chance to discuss it. The placing parents and the chosen parents should all sit down with a neutral (or as neutral as possible) third party and really talk about what they are wanting and what they’re open to. What that might look like and what it might evolve into. Even if its never written down in a legally binding contract.

  2. All ours was, was a piece of paper saying we’d send a photo and update info every three months for the first year and twice a year thereafter at birthday and half-birthday. I have sent loads more than that. The birth families were not part of the agreement.

    In adoption #1 the birth family kind of disappeared (didn’t actually go anywhere, but didn’t respond to or initiate contact of any kind). In adoption #2, we are in touch mostly by phone and text (including texting pictures and videos). We play visits by ear but haven’t had one in ages (birth mother changing plans at the last minute).

    It isn’t what we had hoped for, but I don’t think an agreement would have made much difference in our particular cases. Life happens, as you say and our kids’ moms’ lives are just really fractured and chaotic.

    I do believe we are all doing the very best we can. And just because agreements wouldn’t matter much in our case doesn’t mean I don’t think they are an excellent idea. I definitely agree that they are.

  3. I think the process of making the agreement is sometimes even more important that the agreement itself. A third party asking questions like “what if [the chosen parents] think a picture is super adorable should they wait to send it with the next scheduled update or would you be open to receiving an extra update on a date you weren’t expecting it?” or “would you like updates to go directly to you via mail, email, or through an intermediary/the agency” and “ok the agency will forward mail to you this is the process of how you update the agency of where to forward that mail”

    It makes it real. It gives the participants an idea of what this whole opennness thing will look like. Life does happen. we all do the best we can and that waxes and wanes over time.

    • What I wish we had discussed (not that it would probably matter, considering the way things are at the moment) was contact with siblings. In our first adoption, first mom is raising three of my daughter’s siblings and just now she is super curious about them. I think she would give just about anything to meet and know them, and I am so sorry she can’t. I don’t despair. Maybe some day they will all reunite. But for now we just have old pictures (from before my daughter was even born) and speculation.

      I wonder how often sibling contact comes up in agreements?

      • i can’t say as a whole, but i can say that at my agency if a sibling is already born we ALWAYS bring sibling contact up for discussion. We can’t force it but we encourage it and always try to facilitate it. We bring up possible someday siblings but obviously thats harder to navigate.

      • In our case first mom asked us if we would adopt her future babies if she had any (she wasn’t planning to, but was worried about accidents). We promised. But we didn’t discuss visits with existing sibs.

  4. Im a birthmother. What I think is most important is to make sure the birthmother is thinking clearly.Give her time.The birthmother deserves good representation.And sometimes more then most thats not the case.The adoptees have the upper hand because there financal state is stable.Both parties should have proper representation so the birthmother could understand her options clearly so she is not taken advantage of.

    • Absolutely. I will make a note to write a post focused on this in the near future. I wrote this post about communication agreements referring to cases where an expectant mother or birth mother has 100% decided on following through with an adoption plan.

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