Over the past 10-15 years, U.S. adoption agencies have moved toward offering more opportunities for openness in adoption. The Center for Social Work Research has been studying these changes in agency practices since 1987, and has been assessing implications for the mental health of birthparents, adopted children and adoptive parents. Thirty-six agencies were interviewed in 1987 (Time 1), 1993 (Time 2), and 2000 (Time 3). The later study was funded by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

The previous studies found that agencies are encouraging mediated and open adoptions for birthmothers and adoptive parents, sometimes to the exclusion of confidential adoptions. Agencies are now finding the need to develop new programming for their clients to best help them deal with grief, role and boundary issues, and identity in the context of their individual adoption. Agency workers were also called upon to make a shift in the ways they presented adoption options to prospective parents and prepared them for the adoption experience. Agencies reported the least emphasis on the provision of pre- and post-adoption services for adopted children.

As adopted children enter adolescence, the issue of identity formation can become paramount. Most literature written on the adopted adolescent and identity issues is based on confidential adoptions. The increase in open adoptions may buffer adolescents from problems because both the secrecy and uncertainty of their origins is greatly reduced. Because the group of children interviewed in the original 1987 “Openness in Adoption” study are now in their late teens or young adulthood, the timing is appropriate to explore the mental health issues associated with both the more open adoptions and with confidential adoptions. This is an important issue to study, as many adult adoptees in confidential adoptions indicated their need to search and know more information about their birthparents to help resolve identity issues. The study examines how the agencies which served these former clients have changed their post adoption services over time to meet the changing needs of their client population. This longitudinal study offers documentation of changes in agency practices with respect to open adoption, the impact openness has on the agency, and the emotional issues and development of the adoption triad, in particular, the children. Twenty-nine of the original 36 agencies have participated at Time 3.

The results of the study indicate that fully disclosed adoption arrangements are becoming more common and have had the greatest growth since Time 1, while confidential adoptions continue to decrease in frequency. Changes in the openness options offered by the agencies at all three time periods have been primarily driven by the demands of the birthmother. Openness in general has become the preference of most agencies, and agency staff report that openness and greater access to information increases trust between triad members, decreases anxiety, and engenders empathy. Agency staff note that adopted children generally have the same basic developmental issues as other children their age, but the adoption is an added layer of developmental complexity. As children and adolescents, they may have more difficulty with identity formation and understanding the complexities of adoption, but access to their birth story and birthfamily history typically helps. With greater openness and having access to their birthmothers, agencies state that adopted children have fewer fantasies about their birthmother and feel greater empathy toward her.