On June 8th, NBC’s Today Show ran a segment called “Today’s Professionals answer viewer questions.” A panel of three “experts” – Donny Deutsch, a former advertising executive, Star Jones, an attorney, and Nancy Snyderman, a physician – answered audience questions on several subjects. A question was asked about the benefits of open vs. closed adoption and if the panelists had a preference. There was surprisingly no debate amongst the panel as all three said they were in favor of closed adoptions.
[Skip to 2:15 after the commercial]
At IAC, we were surprised to see that a morning show with such a wide reach and mass audience would comment on the open vs. closed adoption topic without mentioning a single benefit of open adoption. We decided to take the opportunity to ask one of our nationally regarded experts, Independent Adoption Center Associate Executive Director Kathleen Silber, MSW, ACSW, to weigh in on how she felt about the segment and the benefits of open adoption compared to closed.
What was your initial reaction to the segment?
KS: Well honestly, it feels like a step back into the dark ages, where closed adoption was still the norm. A lot has changed in adoption over the years. It’s generally accepted knowledge now that an open adoption arrangement is not only healthier for the adoptees, but for the families as well. What’s shocking about the commentary on the Today Show is actually how archaic those views are – it’s hard to believe people are still advocating something that’s known to not be good practice.
What was your reaction to Nancy Snyderman saying that finding your birthmother is like “opening Pandora’s box?”
That’s a typical reaction of parents with a closed adoption and it’s based out of a lot of fear. They don’t know the birthmother or anything about her. What was sad about what was said on the show is that it just fed into the old stigmas about adoption that birthmothers are somebody horrible that you wouldn’t want to have in your life. Birthmothers of open adoption know this is going to be a permanent long-term relationship where she knows her role is just the birthmother, not the parent. There is no mystery with open adoption because everything is out in the open.
Where do you think these misconceptions come from?
I think a lot of the misconceptions come from a lack of knowledge. It’s a typical reaction for adoptive, or potential adoptive, parents to react based out of fear when they first hear and think about open adoption. A lot of times it’s the initial reaction of “I just want to parent this baby. I don’t want to have any contact with the birthmother because it sounds scary. I just want to adopt the baby, not the birthmother, too.” And that stems from ignorance, because people think that the women who choose adoption for their babies are horrible people or have a bad history, but that’s not the case.
Now when people go through the educational process about adoption they learn about the issues, particularly for children. It moves them past their needs and on to what the child’s needs are going to be. It seems these supposed “experts” that responded were reacting out of what they felt were the parent’s needs and not thinking about what the child’s needs may be.
If you were on the panel, how would you have responded?
You know, closed adoption used to be the only choice, but back in the early 1980’s we started noticing a lot more of the adult adoptees were wondering about their past and they had so many unanswered questions it was hard for them to cope. We’ve learned through research and working with these families and children that open adoption leads to better mental health in the children, birthparents and adoptive parents, and it has a higher success rate than closed because of this. It doesn’t matter how great a child’s adoptive parents are at raising them, a child wants to know where they came from. Children who grow up obsessing over unanswered questions tend to develop problems. It’s hard to grow up not knowing “Who do I look like?” and “Why was I given up?” Some children do alright with it, but others develop serious psychological problems. Comparatively, with open adoption, a child knows the answers to all these questions. They grow up so much better from a mental health point of view.
How does contact with the birthparents work in open adoption?
I think when people first hear about open adoption they think, “Oh this is going to be confusing to the child, they’re not going to know who their mom is,” well, kids are smarter than that. They figure out who mom is because that’s the person that’s there everyday. So say if the birthmother were to come visit or something and the child falls down and skins his knee, who is the child going to run to? He’s not going to run to the birthmother, he’s going to run to his mom, the one who’s been raising him.
It’s best to view birthparents as extended family members who visit the child maybe once or twice a year. While there’s a place in the child’s life for these family members, there’s no confusion about who “Mom” and “Dad” are. After all, your child cannot have too many people in his life who love him, and a little extra love will only help your child build a more positive self-concept.
These days, what percentage of adoptions are open compared to closed?
At this point a minimum of 80% of all infant adoptions are open. That’s the national average and I believe it’s even higher than that. That’s why it seems irresponsible to advocate closed adoption on national television.
Contrary to popular opinion, closed adoption is actually much more prone to failure than open. Even if someone is interested in a closed adoption it’s hard to find an agency for it these days. And modern tools like social media make closed adoption a thing of the past. Pretty soon, there will be no distinction between open and closed adoption – it will only be open.