For the birth mother2 of a child voluntarily relinquished for adoption, ongoing contact with the child is positioned as an antidote to the exclusion and impotence of past adoption practices, which were ‘closed’ and the birth mother was ostensibly erased from the child’s life. In contemporary practice, the majority of Australian local adoptions are ‘open’ (84% in 2010-11), where the identities of birth parents are made known to adoptees and adoptive families (AIHW, 2012).
In Victoria, a legal mandate of contact has existed since 1984, whereby a birth mother nominates a preferred frequency of contact, in the form of face-to-face meetings and/or information exchange (e.g., letters, drawings, dairies) which is written into the Adoption Order, with the adoptive parents' agreement. This legal obligation is perceived to be in the best interests of the relinquished child and in practice contact is generally set at between one to four times annually (reluctant birth mothers are strongly encouraged to include at least one contact in the Adoption Order in case their feelings in relation to contact change over time). The specified number of contacts is a minimum standard and contact beyond the nominated frequency is at the discretion of the adopting parents. How contact is to be conducted is not prescribed.
In a 2005 meta-analysis, British researchers Logan and Smith reported that, in general, studies have supported the belief that openness benefits the birth mother. However, the Minnesota-Texas Adoption Study cautions that openness is not a universal panacea, and that while fully disclosed adoptions elicit the highest satisfaction, there is no one type of openness that fits everyone’s needs; rather, level of openness should be decided on a case-by-case basis and all parties should be made aware that changes in level of openness are to be expected over the course of the adoption (McRoy, Grotevant, Ayers-Lopez & Henney, 2007).
So how have Victorian birth mothers experienced contact and what is the relationship between the right to have contact and the contact itself? Fifteen birth mothers were interviewed to understand these important questions. The age of the women at the time of the relinquishment ranged from 16 to 30 years old. Their ages at the time of interview ranged from 21 to 50 years, at which time seven of the adopted children were under 18 (five were under five) and eight children were over 18, with the eldest being 23. A summary of the most salient interview findings is presented below, with selected examples presented through the various voices of the birth mothers.
Notwithstanding the legislation, only seven of the 15 birth mothers had experienced ongoing, face-to-face contact.
Two birth mothers had put temporary holds on contact: one, due to dissatisfaction with the limitations of the contact arrangement and the resultant conflict with the adoptive parents (she is now in independent contact with her adult daughter); the other was due to the birth mother’s feelings of betrayal and vulnerability when the adoptive parents adopted a second child (she reported she was going to resume contact soon).
A further three birth mothers had complete breakdowns in their contact with their relinquished children. One was instigated by the birth mother as a method of managing the ‘pain’ of seeing her son doing well. The other two breakdowns occurred even though there were repeated requests for contact (through the Adoption Service) from the birth mothers.
Three of the birth mothers had no face-to-face contact written into the Adoption Order. One birth mother had (now regretfully) elected to have information exchange for the first ten years only.
“I can’t have both, I can’t give him up for adoption and then expect to be a part of it so I just wanted to keep the contact for a certain amount of time…and then just let them be.”
Once ratified, the Order does not allow the birth mother to re-negotiate and she received no further information once the child reached ten years old, despite repeated requests. The second birth mother had information exchange during the life of the Adoption Order; however, periodically she had put that on hold as she experienced periods of depression, which she linked to the relinquishment. The third birth mother had information exchange that she discovered had not been passed on to her relinquished child by the adoptive parents. He reportedly found the information by accident at age 16, and when he turned 18 he sought her out for regular face-to-face contact.
Despite legal obligations, some birth mothers or adoptive parents within the individual triads were making choices on whether to participate in contact, even in the less immediate form of information exchange. These experiences demonstrate that, despite legal clarity, the mandate of openness was not universally applied, with over half of the women interviewed having significant difficulties in maintaining contact with their relinquished children, seemingly as a result of managing their emotional responses.
By definition, contact is an interdependent act that assumes a level of entitlement and requires reciprocity. However, at the time of the relinquishment most birth mothers remembered feeling a reduced sense of entitlement, which was articulated as a belief that they did not ‘deserve’ contact.
“I thought that once I had chosen to give her up for adoption I…don’t deserve to meet because it was my choice to relinquish her.”
Birth mothers were highly sensitive to the perceived needs of the adoptive parents, and this was expressed as reducing their presence lest they be construed as ‘too much’.
“I was probably worried that they might think I might try and take things over or become more a part of their lives than they wanted. I didn’t want to be a burden, be an imposition, be anything that would make them feel uncomfortable.”
A reduced sense of entitlement and sensitivity to the adoptive parents’ limits continued to influence the ongoing negotiations of contact and its boundaries, even in the most positive open contact arrangements, which were differentiated by flexible boundaries.
“We’ve never stepped on their toes…[or] asked them for anything…but they ring whenever they want. It’s something I’ve never been able to do… I don’t want them at any point to think that we are trying to become too involved… I don’t want them to start having boundaries. If I push them are they going to stop the way they are? So for that, I am prepared to follow them.”
The attitude of the adoptive parents appeared decisive in three circumstances where the contact had begun reasonably enough but had deteriorated over time, to the point that arrangements had broken down.
“I did [consider going to Court] at one stage, but not now. I couldn’t do it to him…Yeah I can force them to visit but what’s the point? The family is just going to make it hard. I don’t want to see him like that…you know, I just want him to think that he’s got the control.”
Where the adoptive parents had ceased contact, the leverage that the Adoption Order afforded the birth mother was determined by the perceived wishes of the child, even if they also believed the child’s response was a reflection of the adoptive parent’s influence.
Two birth mothers, whose relinquished children are now young adults, had narratives that seemingly defined the benchmarks of successful open adoption; independent, enduring, flexible boundaries between all members of the adoption triad. The identified factors for the success were the containment of the birth mother’s pain and grief during contact events, and the birth mother’s evaluation that the adoptive parents' valued her presence in the life of the child.
Birth mothers’ experience of contact
In general, birth mothers expressed a bittersweet evaluation of contact.
“It’s better to be happy and hurt, than hurt and not know about it.”
While feelings were mixed, the actual act of contact was reassuring; the decision to relinquish was a good decision because the child was seen to be managing.
“I say to myself that ‘I have done the right thing’…She is doing well, developing, she’s happy… How do you know until you see it for yourself?”
But contact is hard and has its limits.
“Contact is bloody hard. It’s traumatic and at the end of the day you sometimes go ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’… I certainly enjoyed seeing her and being with her but it’s an artificial event I suppose… It wasn’t about trying to get to know me, it was just going through the motions.”
Discussion and conclusions
Maybe unsurprisingly, Court ordered openness in adoption arrangements does not seamlessly translate into regular contact between the birth mother and her relinquished child. Differences exist between what the law provides for and how contact is practised, with issues of power, entitlement and emotional capacity creating challenging dimensions of complexity that shift over time.
There is little argument against the value of a ratified document as legal protection. The very existence of the legal rights of the birth mother has the potential to impact powerfully on her continued meeting with the adoptive family. All members are aware that contact is culturally sanctioned, a manifestation of the best interests of the child. However, in some families decisions were made independently of any legal obligation and the leverage of the Court Order was untested.
Maybe the law is unable to create a commitment to openness within the adoption triad? Maybe the law can only adopt the language and attitude that upholds an expectation that openness exists and is supported? The complex emotional dynamics of openness need to be robustly explored as a pre-requisite to the formation of open adoption; not only embedded in the law, but in the education and assessment of people hoping to adopt and in the counselling of women contemplating relinquishment. Most importantly, contact is not static; the child grows, needs change and the adoption triad needs ongoing support to build the capacity to uphold and value the legally mandated contact rights.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2012). Adoptions Australia 2010-11 (Child Welfare Series No. 52). Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=10737420776.
- Logan, J., & Smith, C. (2005). Face to face contact post adoption: Views from the triangles. British Journal of Social Work, 35, 3-35.
- McRoy, R., Grotevant, H., Ayers-Lopez, S. & Henney, S. (2007). Open adoptions. In R. A. Javier, A. L. Baden, F. A. Biafora, and A. Camacho-Gingerich (Eds.), Handbook of Adoption: Implications for researchers, practitioners and families, (pp. 175 – 189). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
1Philippa Castle is a senior psychologist at a non-government child, youth and family organisation who has provided pre-adoption counselling services and served on expert advisory panels in the adoption area.
2 While acknowledging sensitivities in relation to terminology, the term ‘birth mother’ is used for ease of reference and in recognition of the two mothers in the life of the child.