One of the questions that we’re frequently asked is “how do folks manage open adoptions with unstable birthparents?” The birthparents Abrazo serves are usually some of the most strong and courageous people we know, frankly. But it’s understandable why people worry about this, given how the world misjudges parents who place children for adoption– as well as the motives of those who adopt?

Parents who are adopting and those placing a child for adoption are usually in some state of crisis that’s been exacerbated by their life circumstances. Being gifted with or relieved of parenting duties does not forever erase all the challenges that destabilize them. Those who struggled with poverty or addiction or mental health diagnoses before placing are likely to still face the same sorts of problems in the future. This doesn’t mean they cannot successfully manage being in an open adoption relationship. But it does mean birthparents and adoptive parents must accommodate some challenges in order to glean the greatest benefits of openness for the adoptee.

The truth is that in any adoption, situational instability can impact either side of the adoption triad. Granted, the homestudy process tries to ensure that the people who are adopting have demonstrated some level of stability, while prospective birthparents’ instability is valued as justification of their placement decision– at least before adoption, anyway. Everyone has some relative/s who struggle/s with instability, so it stands to reason that the same can be true in families built by adoption.

What follows are some pointers on ways to manage instability in open adoption relationships.

Learn all you can before you have to know it.

Whether the other parent’s primary struggle is related to mental health or addiction or dysfunctional relationships or whatever, seek to understand all you can about the condition beforehand.

This will not only enhance your ability to negotiate potential challenges in the future. It can also help educate the adoptee about the struggles the birthparents face, some of which may (or may not) be hereditary.

One good rule of thumb is to not match with anyone with whom you cannot feel uncomfortable. Because even if you assume they may stabilize in time (or won’t keep in touch), every adopted child (who is or may potentially be yours) deserves to grow up with parents who can commit to embrace their birthrelatives unconditionally.

Agree on fair boundaries from the start, then be consistent.

If your child’s birthparents suffer from addiction, establish an understanding upfront that visits with the child will not take place when the birthparents are under the influence.

The detrimental impact of visits missed or cancelled without advance notice must be discussed, so everyone understands how harmful this can be. Broken promises potentially hurt the adoptee and the adoptive family as well as the birthsibling(s) and birthfamily.

Likewise, birthparents being treated for mental health issues should be compliant with any ordered treatment in order to enjoy the privileges of direct contact with the adopted child. And adoptees should also be provided with an age-appropriate explanation of any mental health condition impacting their birthparent(s) or their adoptive parent(s).

Communicate expectations clearly, and review them periodically.

Don’t assume the birthfamily knows when it’s too late to call or text the adoptive family (or vice versa). Tell each other how (and when) contact with your household works best.

Birthparents should not be bringing friends or guests for adoption visits without clearing it with the adoptive family in advance. (And adoptive families shouldn’t show up with unannounced friends or family members, either.)

Parents should privately discuss in advance what sort of gifts for the child/ren are (or are not) considered appropriate in either household.

Be direct in helping the other parents understand what photos or information should or should not be shared with others, whether in real time or via social media, and document this in writing so both have reminders to refer back to.

Do NOT give, loan, offer nor extend help in the form of money or gifts of value.

Open adoption relationships are healthiest when both sets of parents can view the other as equals. Gratitude is one thing– payments are another. For either to be financially dependent on the other is not only illegal, it destroys the equity dynamic of the relationship.

Alter contact if absolutely necessary, but don’t cut it off completely.

Should the birthparent be unable or unwilling to engage in appropriate phone conversations with the adoptee, then maybe temporarily restrict contact to FaceTime convos between everyone, or shared videos screened in advance by the adoptive parents.

If a parent is in rehab or a psych facility and cannot have direct contact, then the other parents can resort to mail to offer ongoing assurance of the continued concern for their welfare.

When adoptive parents or birthparents divorce, both of the divorced spouses become responsible for maintaining their own continued contact with the other family. It is not okay to disparage the ex to the other family for any reason.

If a parent gets incarcerated and the adoptee finds family visits to the jail or prison distressing, then perhaps schedule visits between the adults only, and allow the adoptee to do video visits or write letters instead.

Remember: in any open adoption, continued communication is a lifeline, so sustain it however you can, for as long as you can.

Meet in public places if you’re uneasy.

If a troubled birthparent or mercurial adoptive parent demonstrates signs of mental instability or seems to have had a recent break with reality, then either postpone a meeting, ask your adoption agency to supervise your get-together, or meet in a public place in which security is available to help intervene if needed.

Don’t take on a job that’s not yours.

Adoptive parents cannot be their child’s birthparents’ therapists, nor can birthparents serve as counselors for their child’s adoptive parents. (No matter how much you might care.) If you desperately want to help get the other parents help, do it by offering proactive referrals– and until or unless you’re asked to help them find help.

Places like NIMH can help offer mental health service referrals nationwide. Those affected by natural disasters or terrorism can can help through Disaster Distress Helpline. The SAMHSA Treatment Locater is a government-funded site helping those suffering from with addiction get the help they need.

Safeguard your family as needed.

In a quarter-century, Abrazo has never seen any of its clients nor staff physically-endangered by participation in open adoption, but please know that nothing about open adoption requires you to forfeit your family’s safety.

If you ever feel your open adoption relationship is putting you at actual risk of harm OR if you are physically threatened or have reason to believe your child’s other parent has a plan to harm themself or someone else, contact law enforcement immediately, then later notify your adoption professional also.

Please note that all of the advice above is applicable to open adoptions
with unstable birthparents or adoptive parents, because nobody is ever “always” stable or unstable. Rest assured, though: open adoption relationships between people who genuinely care about their child and his or her other parents can usually withstand nearly any challenges, over time and with love.

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