Adoption Research Project
Introduction and Purpose
Since the mid-1970's, adoption practices in the U.S. have changed dramatically, and the confidentiality maintained in the past is no longer the norm. The trend is toward "openness" in adoption, in which contact occurs between the adoptive family and birthparent(s), either directly or mediated (e.g., through an adoption agency). Some adoption professionals argue that fully open adoption should be standard practice, that the secrecy of confidential adoptions has been harmful to all parties involved. Others argue that openness is harmful and experimental. Their view is that confidential adoption worked well, so why change it?
Although such professionals hold strong feelings about adoption, almost no research on this topic has been available to guide adoption policy and to answer basic questions about the dynamics of adoptive families and other types of families "yoked" by a common person or a common relationship. In order to address these questions, we designed a research project that focuses on the consequences of variations in openness in adoption for all members of the adoption triad: birthmothers, adoptive parents, and adopted children, and for the relationships within these family systems.
Participants, Methods, and Procedures
Adoptive families and birthmothers were recruited for the study through 35 adoption agencies located across the United States. We sought families in which there was at least one adopted child (the "target child") between ages 4 - 12 at the time of the interview, who was adopted through an agency before his or her first birthday; in which the adoption was not transracial, international, or "special needs"; and in which both adoptive parents were married to the partner they had at the time of the adoption. We simultaneously sought birthmothers who made adoption plans for children placed with these families. Participants in the study were located in 23 different states from all regions of the U.S., making this study the only nationwide one of its kind.
Adoption agencies which were invited to participate in the study had had placement experience with different levels of openness. We asked each agency to select all children who met the criteria outlined above, then to sample randomly among them within levels of openness until they located a set number of families and birthmothers willing to be interviewed. A few families (12 of 190, or 6.3%) were recruited through advertisements in newspapers and periodicals. Although this sample is not a fully random one, families were specifically not recruited on the basis of their success with adoption or their having an interesting story to tell, which is often a problem in volunteer samples.
The final sample in the original study includes 720 individuals: both parents in 190 adoptive families, at least one adopted child in 171 of the families, and 169 birthmothers. The vast majority of adoptive parents were white, Protestant and middle to upper-middle class. Virtually all had adopted because of infertility. The average level of education was 16.2 years for adoptive fathers, and 15.1 for adoptive mothers. Adoptive fathers ranged in age from 32 to 48 (mean=40.7) and adoptive mothers from 31 to 46 (mean=39.1). The average number of adopted children in each home was 1.8. Ninety of the target adopted children were male and 81 were female. Their ages ranged from 4 - 12 (mean=7.8 years). At the time of the birth of their child, the birthmothers ranged in age from 14 to 36 years (mean=19.1). Almost 2/3 of the birthmothers delivered when they were teenagers. At the time of the study, the average age of the birthmothers was 27.1, and the average number of years of education attained was 13.5. The majority of birthmothers indicated a current annual income in the range of $20,000 - 29,000. Almost all were white, half were currently married, and they had from 1 - 5 children.
We attempted to interview as many fully corresponding sets of adoptive parents and birthmothers as possible (i.e., cases in which the birthmother, her child by birth, and the family who adopted her child were all interviewed). The sample includes 77 fully corresponding sets: 11 confidential, 36 mediated, and 30 fully disclosed. Families were sampled across the full range of openness in the adoption. Five major categories were used to differentiate among levels of openness:
confidential adoptions, in which no information was shared between birth- and adoptive parents after 6 months post-placement; (N=62)
time-limited mediated adoptions, in which information was relayed between adoptive parents and birthmothers by a caseworker at the adoption agency, but the information sharing had stopped by the time we interviewed the participants and the parties did not intend to continue communication; (N=17)
ongoing mediated adoptions, in which information exchange mediated by the agency was continuing; (N=52)
time-limited fully disclosed adoptions, in which adoptive parents and the birthmother had had direct fully identified contact which had stopped by the time we interviewed the participants and the parties did not intend to continue communication; (N=2)
and ongoing fully disclosed adoptions, in which direct sharing of information was continuing, usually accompanied by face-to-face meetings (N=57).
Adoptive families were interviewed in their homes in one session that lasted 3 - 4 hours. The session included separate interviews with each parent and with the target adopted child; administration of several questionnaires; and a joint couples interview with the adoptive parents. Birthmothers were interviewed in their home or by telephone. They also completed several questionnaires.
Measures: The following measures were administered separately to the
adoptive father and the adoptive mother:
Following the individual adoptive parent interviews, the couple was brought together to respond to a final series of questions in a Conjoint Couple's Interview concerning their experiences and attitudes as adoptive parents.
Adopted Child Measures
ø Child Interview:
designed to elicit open discussion of the child's experiences and feelings
about his or her adoptive family situation and knowledge of and attitudes
about his or her birthparents; covers general adoption issues as well
as issues specific to the level of openness of the child's adoption. Special
training was provided for interviewers who worked with the children, and
interviewers spent extra time to develop rapport with the child before
Questionnaire: basic information about age, education, occupation, income,
ethnicity, religion, and family composition.
Findings to Date
We have learned a number of important things from the first phase of our study. For example, when compared to parents in confidential adoptions, those in fully disclosed open adoptions generally reported higher levels of acknowledgment of the adoption, more empathy toward the birthparents and child, stronger sense of permanence in the relationship with their child as projected into the future, and less fear that the birthmother might try to reclaim her child. Despite these mean differences, variations within levels of openness were present (Grotevant, McRoy, Elde, & Fravel, Family Process, 1994, 33, 125-146).
We have also examined consequences of variations in openness for the children (Wrobel, Ayers-Lopez, Grotevant, McRoy, & Friedrick, in press). Comparison of parents' and children's reports of openness revealed important gaps between parents' participation in open arrangements and their inclusion of the adopted child in the communication. Although the children, as a group, scored within the normal range on Harter's self-esteem scale and indicated satisfaction with their current adoption arrangement, they also evinced curiosity about their birthfamilies. Almost half the children in mediated adoptions were excluded from contact their adoptive parents were having with their birthmother, but most of these children are not aware of their being excluded. Most of the children in fully disclosed adoptions were included in meetings with birthparents and were aware of the arrangements. Greater information about the adoption was related to higher cognitive levels of understanding about adoption in general. Results of the study were not compatible with speculations by critics of openness, who stated that such arrangements would damage children's self-esteem and cause them confusion. Self-esteem, satisfaction with openness, and curiosity about birthparents did not differ by level of openness. On the other hand, results did not support the alternative position that more openness would enhance these outcomes. Since many of the children were young when visited, a follow- up at adolescence will yield important information about longer-term openness effects.
Another study (Ross, 1995) focused on familial predictors of outcomes (externalizing problems, internalizing problems, self-esteem) for the adopted children in the study. In this non-clinical sample, incompatibility of the child with the family (as perceived by parents) emerged as a strong predictor of both perceived externalizing and internalizing difficulties.
In another study (Mendenhall, Grotevant, & McRoy, Family Relations, 1996) we contrasted two groups: families with mediated adoptions who had had an opportunity for greater openness but chose to retain mediated openness, and families in which the mediated adoptions became fully disclosed. Adoptive couples' interviews were coded for communication facility. Couples increasing openness showed significantly higher levels of self-disclosure, listening skill, empathy, continuity/tracking, respect / regard, and global communication facility than did couples in the other group. We cannot infer that the better communication skills caused them to increase levels of openness, but it may be that their attempts to increase openness were facilitated by their communication skill.
Relationships between the adoptive family and birthmother are also being examined through the lens of boundary ambiguity, which is said to exacerbate family stress because of family members' inability to determine who is inside and who is outside the family system (Boss, 1988). Boundary ambiguity occurs when a family member is physically absent but psychologically present, or vice versa. Deborah Fravel (1995) has examined the psychological presence of the birthmother in the adoptive family system. Tentative conclusions indicate that boundary ambiguity is almost inevitable in adoptive families but that it manifests itself differently by level of openness. Management of the psychological presence of the birthmother may also vary according to both level of openness and some personality characteristics and relationship tendencies of the adoptive parents such as tolerance for ambiguity (Fravel, Grotevant, Boss, & McRoy, 1993; Fravel, 1995).
Karen Schmid (1994) examined relationships between adoptive grandparents and their adult children, as perceived by the adoptive parents. This study focused on the way adoptive parents interpret their parents' reactions to and feelings about adoption in general, and open adoption in particular; how their relationships affect those in the nuclear family; and the consequences of such variations for initiating or maintaining contact between the families by birth and adoption. Most grandparents were little involved in couples' decisions to adopt but were generally supportive. However, many of them were guarded about couples' choice of openness, and adoptive parents had to negotiate these relationships with their parents at the same time they were establishing relational ties with their new child and the child's birthparents.
Finally, Harold Grotevant has also been involved with the Family Story Collaborative Project, an interdisciplinary multi-site collaboration. The team's goal has been to understand how family narratives provide a window into families' construction of meaning about their relationships and how such constructions are related to developmental outcomes for children and qualities of the marital relationship. In the lives of adults, narratives reflect the meaning constructed as they become parents, whether by giving birth or by adopting a child. In adoption, one takes on a new and usually unanticipated role that involves constructing a narrative that somehow explains, accounts for, or justifies this new status. If things are going well, narratives lend a sense of coherence and meaning to the experience of individuals constructing them. Such outcomes are presumably associated with psychological well-being and resilience. The adoption component of the collaboration has examined links between narrative coherence and relationship style of adoptive couples and then examines their relation to the couple's marital satisfaction and the social competence of their adopted child.
The FSCP rating scales
were applied to 81 interviews from families randomly selected from the
larger Openness in Adoption Research Project sample. Participating families
had children between the ages of 4 - 8 and were equally distributed in
number across the 3 levels of openness in their adoption: confidential,
mediated, and fully disclosed open. The analyses involved 3 interviews
per each of 27 families: an individual interview with the adoptive mother,
an individual interview with the adoptive father, and a joint interview
with the adoptive couple.
Significance of the Study
The study is significant because it is national in scope; involves a sample (720 individuals) much larger than other adoption studies that employ interview methods and home visits; includes the full range of adoptive openness, including cases in which contact has stopped, some in which contact continues, and others in which it has increased or decreased over time, allowing for tracking of trajectories of openness over time; includes data from all triad members; includes data about adoption agency practices and policies to contextualize the work; links with the investigators' earlier retrospective investigation of emotional disturbance in adopted adolescents, now providing prospective data which can be examined longitudinally to test tentative conclusions drawn earlier; and has significant implications for legal and policy issues concerning adoption in the United States today. Progress toward such understanding will contribute to better theories about human development within the family, better methodology for studying complex living arrangements, a better knowledge base for prevention and intervention programs, and guidance for the establishment of policies that address the "best interests of the child" in cases of adoption.
We acknowledge with appreciation grant funding from the William T. Grant Foundation, the Office of Population Affairs (U. S. Department of Health and Human Services), the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, and the University Research Institute of the University of Texas at Austin.
With funding from
the William T. Grant Foundation, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health,
the Federal Office of Population Affairs, the University Research Institute
of the University of Texas, the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station,
and the Silberman Fund, we have now interviewed our families and birthmothers
once again. At time 2 (interviews conducted between 1996 and 2000), we
re-visited the adoptive families in their homes and conducted telephone
interviews with birthmothers. As with Time 1, we conducted individual
interviews with each parent, target adolescent, and birthmother, administered
a number of standard questionnaires, and engaged the adoptive parents
and adolescent in an audiotaped decision-making task.
The children in the study who were first seen at age 5-12 are adolescents (ages 12 - 18) at the time of follow-up. In this age group, important developmental issues emerge. Because of their adoptive status, we are particularly interested in adolescents' emerging sense of identity (e.g., Erikson, 1968). Much of the identity literature (see Marcia, 1980, for review) has focused on domains of identity that involve choices, such as selection of a career or a political ideology. Being an adopted person, however, was not the choice of the adolescent. We are very interested in how one's understanding of his or her adoptive status contextualizes other aspects of identity and self-development (Grotevant, 1992, 1993, 1994).
Adolescent adjustment is also being examined. Prior research suggests that adopted children are referred for psychological treatment two to five times more frequently than their non-adopted peers. This finding has been replicated in a number of western countries (see McRoy, Grotevant, & Zurcher, 1988, for review). Many of these young people, like the children in our study, were placed as infants with childless couples. Despite the good prognosis, the emerging problem behaviors typically included aggressiveness, acting-out behavior, and impulsiveness, especially in boys (e.g., Simon & Senturia, 1966). The follow-up study provides a unique opportunity to test hypotheses about the development of problem behavior in adopted adolescents with prospectively collected data. The data collected at time 1, including the Child Adaptive Behavior Inventory, Harter self-esteem measure, and parental assessments of child adjustment from the parent interview provide a strong foundation from which to assess adolescent functioning.
The follow-up study also provides an opportunity to examine parent-adolescent relationships. This will be the first study to examine the interplay between adolescent identity issues around adoption and parent-adolescent relationships. The author's model of individuality and connectedness in parent-adolescent relationships (Grotevant & Cooper, 1985, 1986) will provide a framework for investigation of this topic. Since individuality and connectedness in the marital relationships of the adoptive parents were assessed at time 1 (Bengtson & Grotevant, 1996), these data will permit examination of longitudinal links between family relationships during the childhood years and subsequent parent- adolescent relationships.
All of these individual and relationship variables will be considered within the broader context of the lives of these families. What changes have occurred in the level of openness in the family's adoption, if any? Has family composition changed since time 1 through parental divorce, death, or birth of new children? In what ways have the child and the family been involved with the extended family of the birthparents, if any? The data in this study will provide a unique opportunity to answer these questions with a large national sample.
Outreach and Dissemination Efforts
The world wide web
now provides the means for rapid dissemination of research based information
to a global audience. For the past several years, Hal Grotevant has been
involved in outreach activities through the Children, Youth, and Family
Consortium, a major interdisciplinary, collaborative effort linking the
University of Minnesota with communities beyond it. With the assistance
of our research team, we have helped develop AdoptINFO, internet-based
resources on adoption. One of the sections on this web site offers the
latest research on openness in adoption, and our most current research
findings are posted there for anyone in the world with internet access
D. Grotevant, Ph.D.
G. McRoy, Ph.D.
- back -