Open adoption: Yours, mine & ours
Published: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 1:39 a.m.
Reuben Haskell will never have to wonder who his biological parents are, why they gave him up or if they loved him. The answers to the questions that haunt so many adoptees have been all around Reuben since the day he was born 16 months ago.
Reuben and his adoptive parents, Gainesville's Nick Haskell and Xandria Birk, are part of a new era in adoption that eliminates the secrecy that shrouded most adoptions in the past.
Open adoption, which at its most basic level means that the birth and adoptive parents meet beforehand, often gives birth parents a choice in who adopts their baby and encourages communication between families throughout the child's life. About 80 percent of domestic infant adoptions are now considered open, says Dr. Bruce Rappaport, founder and executive director of the non-profit Independent Adoption Center in Pleasant Hill, Calif., the nation's oldest and largest fully open adoption agency.
"We were kind of outlaws," Rappaport says of his concept of adoption when he founded the agency in 1982. Though the degree of openness varies depending on the situation, having an open adoption removes the stigma once attached to adoption, Rappaport says.
"The secrecy has really been a huge problem over the years," he says. "We've just normalized it."
When Haskell and Birk decided to adopt after trying unsuccessfully to have a baby, Birk says she felt sad that her child wouldn't physically resemble her and her husband. An open adoption, however, could provide her son the opportunity to see himself in the faces of his birth family.
"I didn't want him to miss that experience just because I couldn't have it," says Birk, a part-time graduate student at the University of Florida.
After researching open adoption, she and Haskell were convinced it was best to give their child a sense of where he came from.
"There's a whole benefit to the child about knowing their background," says Haskell, director of Action Network, a faith-based initiative in Gainesville.
Birk and Haskell chose Adoption Advocates Inc., an agency in Austin, Texas, that specializes in open adoptions. They were present when Reuben was born and spent 10 days getting to know his birth family before returning to Florida. When Reuben was 6 months old, they brought him back to Texas for a visit. When he took his first steps, they called his birth parents within the hour. They exchange birthday and Christmas gifts, and, for the first year, sent letters and pictures every month.
"All this is is the opportunity to add more love to his life," Birk says.
Though Rappaport says that prospective adoptive parents sometimes worry they won't ever be the "real" parents, he says that in his experience, such fears have been unnecessary.
"That goes away by about the 150th diaper," he says.
Three-and-a-half-year-old Nia clutches the portrait to her little chest, wrapping her arms around the frame in a toddler-size hug. In the photo, her 1-year-old self is nestled between her two mothers - "Mommy," Nia's adoptive mother Diane Kendall, and "Mama Gwen," her birth mother Gwen Sinclair.
Though she lives with Kendall in Gainesville and Sinclair lives in Newport News, Va., each holds a special place in the preschooler's life - Nia even asks her friends at school how many mommys they have.
"Incorporating the birth mom to me seems only natural," says Kendall, a professor and researcher in speech pathology at UF who says she has always wanted to adopt.
"I want Nia to have her own relationship with Gwen separate from me," she says. "I'm going to build that bridge now, so that Nia can cross it anytime she wants."
Giving up her daughter to adoption was a difficult decision for Sinclair, who chose Kendall through a New Jersey-based adoption agency.
"I prayed upon it," she says. "I know that I did the best thing at the time."
She says she loves the relationship that she has with Kendall and Nia.
"Diane's just a blessing to me," Sinclair says. "She's like a mom and a sister. She's just everything."
Kendall flew Sinclair to Gainesville for Nia's first birthday, which was when the portrait that Nia now adores was taken. The photo shoot was difficult, Kendall says, because Nia seemed torn between the two of them.
Then Sinclair turned to her and said, "Diane, this is not about us," Kendall recalls.
"It's all about the child," she says.
Nathaniel Stapleton loves trucks. Cement trucks, utility trucks and, perhaps most of all, fire trucks.
The 2-year-old loses all interest in a northwest Gainesville playground when a fire engine drives by, toddling after the truck until his mother, Suzanne Stapleton, catches up and hoists him to her hip. The two watch as the truck stops at a red light, returning to the playground only when the light changes and the truck pulls away.
Nathaniel is the realization of a hope that Stapleton and her husband, Michael, have had since they married in 1997.
"I've been really thrilled to be able to start a family," says Stapleton, who works as an editor of an ecology journal at UF.
The Stapletons weren't necessarily looking for an open adoption when they decided to adopt. They began attending meetings of the Chosen Families Adoption Group in Gainesville in 2003. Through the group, the couple learned of a local baby that would soon be born and available for adoption. Eleven days later, they brought home baby Nathaniel, and the terms for a semi-open adoption were set: Though they have met with the birth mother and send her letters and photos, they have not exchanged identifying information such as last names or addresses.
So far, it's been a "fantastic situation," Stapleton says. "The birth mother has been so supportive."
But what happens if a birth relative isn't so fantastic? Terms of openness are only enforceable in eight or nine states, adoption expert Rappaport says, and Florida isn't one of them. He likens the relationship to that of an extended family - if there is a problem, the adoptive parents have the final say in who interacts with their child.
"You're the parents," Rappaport says. "There's no shared parenting."
He says that problems between birth and adoptive families have been rare in the 5,000 adoptions his agency has conducted. The most typical problem, Rappaport says, occurs when birth parents break off contact despite the adoptive parent's efforts to include them.
Gainesville's Dale Robbins has had problems with the birth family of her daughter, Alison, who she adopted as an infant 17 years ago. Though she says it was her decision to keep the adoption open, Robbins now wishes she had done things a little differently.
Close contact with Alison's birth grandmother has led to struggles over how much, and at what age, Alison should be told details about her troubled birth mother and what boundaries she should have now that she is a teenager. Robbins says the birth family also sometimes tells Alison that they are her "real" family.
"When you have two opposing views of how a child should be raised, it's a major conflict," says Robbins, a retired media specialist from Hillsborough County. "The children don't need to know every little thing. It's very confusing for them."
Alison agrees that there should be a limit to how much young kids learn about their backgrounds, though she feels it's better to know something about her identity than nothing at all.
"I can't totally cut off where I came from," she says.
Robbins is considering limiting contact with Alison's grandmother. Despite their difficulties, Robbins says that if she had it to do over again, she would still prefer an open adoption but would limit the degree of contact to pictures, letters and medical information.
"It's caused a lot of hurt for me," Robbins says. "When you raise a kid, that's your child."
What is open adoption?
At its most basic, open adoption means that the birth and adoptive parents meet prior to the adoption. Often birth parents have a choice in who adopts their child, and depending on the situation, the level of communication between the families after the adoption occurs can range from letters and photos with no identifying information to a relationship like an extended relative.
The ups and downs of open adoptions
Some things to consider about open adoption, from Dr. Bruce Rappaport of the Independent Adoption Center in Pleasant Hill, Calif.:
Christa Arnold Manning co-founded Gainesville's Chosen Families Adoption Group in 2000 and has three adopted children of her own. She offers these tips for parents considering open adoption:
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