Is my open adoption safe?
Three questions to consider when substance use is involved
Angela Welch, MA, LPC
My husband and I adopted our daughter four years ago, and we have an open adoption with her birth mom, Lora. We regularly send updates and pictures and plan visits with her several times a year. We’re aware of Lora’s substance use history, but she has been in recovery and stable since we’ve known her.
When she didn’t show for our last scheduled visit, she later shared she’d recently been arrested for shoplifting and is using drugs again. I feel our contact may be getting too complicated now, and it’s unsafe to expose our daughter to this lifestyle. Wouldn’t it make sense to close the adoption?
Navigating open adoption relationships is indeed complicated. Every situation is unique, and relationships change over time. Having entered unfamiliar territory in your relationship, I encourage you to thoughtfully consider the following before deciding how you move forward.
CLOSED ADOPTION VS. OPENNESS IN ADOPTION
To clarify terminology, a closed adoption implies it is confidential; neither the adoptive parents nor the birth parents have any information about each other. No pictures, no updates, no contact. Your relationship with your daughter’s birth mother is clearly open, as you’ve been exchanging updates and meeting for years.
To clarify further, open adoption is not solely defined by the form or frequency of communication; that’s a contact agreement. Openness is a relationship that honors the connections made in adoption and celebrates shared love for a child. Openness also offers the opportunity for children to access important pieces of their adoption story and incorporate them into their identity.
To fully “close” your adoption is no more feasible than never interacting with your in-laws again. Ending contact with Lora is a choice, but it may be a drastic response with long-term consequences.
WHAT WAS YOUR ORIGINAL MOTIVATION FOR OPENNESS?
I regularly consult with adoptive parents who are navigating openness complexities. Some share that they opted for an open adoption because they understood the connection would ease the birth parent’s grieving. This motivation led them to end contact when they felt it had been “long enough.”
Other families say they agreed to openness because they felt they had to if they wanted to adopt. They’d never really felt comfortable with it, so once the decision power shifted to them, they stopped communicating with the birth family.
In these situations, the adoptive families did not truly value the benefits of open adoption, perhaps due to insecurities or lack of training and preparation. Essentially, they approached their adoption as delayed closed. You’ve been very committed to your open adoption to this point, so perhaps your motivation was based in wanting openness for your child and believing the challenges are worth it.
Often with substance use disorders, the recovery process involves phases of abstinence and misuse. Right now, it sounds like Lora is open and honest with you about her struggle and is looking to you for understanding. Ending contact when she is reaching out could create feelings of rejection and betrayal.
If she becomes more stable after you’ve cut off communication, how would you reconnect and rebuild trust? You might offer to resume contact when she’s in recovery, but she may pull back, fearing that you will disengage again. If unable to reconnect, your daughter may be unable to ask her questions in the future, ones that impact her identity or even health. Plus, she may resent your decision to sever ties with such an integral person in her life.
IS MAINTAINING YOUR RELATIONSHIP TRULY A SAFETY CONCERN, OR DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE?
Your child’s safety should be your number one priority. But it’s important that you don’t confuse uncomfortable with unsafe. A birth parent’s world may look different than that of the adoptive parents. Mental health challenges and substance use may be factors. Some may have experienced trauma and have a hard time building healthy relationships. Most people are uncomfortable in relationships when they don’t share common experiences or struggles.
Would visiting Lora, with you present at all times and in a public place, be truly unsafe? Probably not. A number of children in foster care have parents who misuse substances and have visitation.
While Lora’s personal issues are not ideal for the relationship, your child’s safety and security lies in your strength and confidence in your parenting. Staying engaged shows your daughter your dedication and perseverance.
WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?
How do you handle communication and visitation with a birth parent who is living a different life than the one you’re teaching your child? Rather than completely disengaging and potentially damaging multiple relationships, now is a time to re-evaluate what openness looks like while honoring the relationship.
These tips can help you set boundaries and adjust expectations:
Talk with Lora by phone or in person. Emails and text messages, while convenient, are easily misinterpreted and cannot convey the empathy and care you need for this discussion. Consider having a meeting with an adoption specialist available to help mediate.
Engage her in the decision-making. Lora is well aware that you hold the power in the relationship, and she is more likely to collaborate when she feels she has a say.
You could say: “You’ve been honest, and we’re grateful you feel so comfortable with us. We’ve never faced this circumstance before, and we want to assure you that we remain committed to this relationship. When you didn’t show the last time we came to visit, we felt confused, concerned, and frustrated. We don’t want to end up angry, and we don’t want you to feel ashamed. Let’s come up with a plan together. What do you feel is most realistic for you at this time while you’re working toward stability?”
Give her some ideas: “We can do more phone and FaceTime communication than visits temporarily. Or, you can call us the day before the visit to confirm you have a way to get to the park or restaurant. What do you think?”
Set some firm safety rules. Let Lora know why you might have to end a visit early. “We want this time with your daughter to be your special time. We ask that you not bring anyone else to the visit. If you get a ride, please ask the person to come back for you later. You cannot be under the influence during the visit. We’ll have to end the visit immediately if you’re not clear and focused.”
Expect that she may become angry, defensive, or upset. She’s likely struggling in many ways, including with coping skills. Validate her fears about your openness agreement. Reiterate that you want to honor your commitment but need to have trust and safety first. Remind her that your relationship needs to be flexible, and this is a temporary adjustment.
Navigating this situation is not easy. Ultimately, it’s your decision to do what’s best for your daughter and your family. Just keep in mind that what’s best also includes your daughter knowing you are her safe base, helping her develop into a confident adult without lingering identity questions, and showing her how to honor commitments.
Your compassion and grace in this moment will leave a lasting impression.