Kristi's Gift

She gave up her infant son to two strangers who became her friends. Now, more than two years later, she's still in his life, visiting regularly. In an open adoption, they're all doing their best for Ryan.

"It will be a lot more years until we have hard data," says Rappaport. "But when I ask open adoptees what open adoption means to them, they say they don't know. They find the question boring. Because for them there is no other way to do it. And that's the sign that's really powerful. It's normal."

Other agencies began to hear stories of the center's successes, including Houston's 47-year-old Homes of St. Mark, a nonsectarian, licensed agency. The Homes is now part of what Rappaport estimates is a majority of agencies in the country that practice open adoption, with 30 percent of licensed agencies still doing mostly closed adoptions. Private adoptions, which Rappaport says are risky because of the lack of counseling for the birth mother and its subsequent higher-than-average failure rate, can run the gamut from closed to open.

The Homes of St. Mark is a member of the federation and began doing open adoptions 12 years ago. Pam Lucas believes that the Homes was one of the first agencies in Houston to practice this kind of adoption. About 85 percent of its adoptions are open, with the other 15 percent remaining "semi-open," meaning cards and pictures are exchanged but there is usually no physical contact. The Homes also works to place children in CPS custody into permanent homes, and these adoptions are sometimes closed due to a birth mother who has problems with drugs or other issues. Pam estimates about 50 children are placed with parents each year and the majority of their birth mothers are college-age and unmarried. Birth fathers are involved in the process about half the time. As director of adoption, Pam is shouldered with the complex job of explaining this new concept of adoption to everyone involved.

Not all of Kristi's family understood her decision to place Ryan for adoption.
Deron Neblett
Not all of Kristi's family understood her decision to place Ryan for adoption.

"It's not uncommon for adoptive parents to contact us and when we ask them, "How do you feel about open adoption?' their hair stands on end," says Pam. Adoptive parents new to the process have a host of concerns. Will the child think of the birth mother as his real mother, and his adoptive parents as just the folks who tuck him in at night? When the child becomes a teenager, will she want to run away and go live with her birth mother? Will the birth mother be out lurking in shadows somewhere, trying to take over the parenting role? Pam adds that there is often family pressure on adoptive parents. Don't do this, they're told. It's sure to be a mistake.

Pam says open adoption agencies combat these worries by counseling birth parents and placing would-be adoptive parents in intensive monthly meetings with others wishing to adopt. From the time they are approved by the agency to the time when they receive their child (which can take anywhere from two weeks to several years), the couples learn about the history of open adoption, how it works and why it has worked for others. Meanwhile, the Homes counsels birth mothers to make sure they are confident in their decision to place. If a pregnant woman changes her mind during the process, the Homes will do whatever it can to help her develop a parenting plan, as opposed to talking her out of her decision. This seriously reduces the agency's failure rate.

When a birth mother selects a potential mom and dad from a résumé book, Pam arranges a first meeting. After the facilitated meeting, and if there is a "match" (which almost always happens the first time around, says Pam), the adoptive parents and birth parents begin the first steps of a complicated dance that hopefully will ensure what will be a lifelong relationship. Like Jill and Bill, adoptive parents might take birth mothers out to shop for baby clothes together, or accompany the birth mother to a doctor's visit. They might choose a name together. They discuss, with help from the Homes, what openness means to them and what kind of boundaries need to be set. As this happens, Pam says, the couples involved are building a line of communication that will stretch on long after the child is born. And so when the birth mother places her child, she knows that she has made a decision that will benefit him or her, and the adoptive parents feel comfortable with her. The couples can get so at ease, Pam says, that birth mothers sometimes invite the adoptive parents to cut the umbilical cord in the hospital. Many birth parents and adoptive parents create a ceremony to transfer custody either in the hospital chapel or at the Homes. And after the adoption is finalized, Pam estimates, birth mothers see the child about every three months, although they might communicate with the adoptive parents on the phone or through letters more often than that. The Homes continues to follow up with everyone, and to serve as a resource and hold annual picnics and holiday parties for all the families.

Pam is quick to stress that while the adoption is legally binding, the open aspect of it is not. Nothing is signed to give the illusion of openness as a legal contract. Instead, she says, it is more of a fluid relationship that will change as time goes on. In most cases, Pam says, the child sees the birth mother as a good family friend. His adoptive parents, who provide the child with day-to-day care and love, are always understood to be his mom and dad. By the time the child is old enough to understand, he is so accustomed to the birth mother's presence that it becomes normal to him.

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