There are all kinds of open adoptions. I know several families who’ve adopted and none of them have the same relationship with the birth families. Last week in the post, Birth Family Relationships, I talked about how different contact can look for each family. Connections with birth family can be done through the exchange of letters and pictures (although you will hear others say this isn’t an open adoption, I consider it a semi-open adoption), meeting at the park for play dates, having the birth family over for holidays or a fun day, phone calls between the birth parent and the child. (I would suggest reading the post I linked to above, as it gives tips on how to know what type of birth parent interaction is best for your family.)
Our daughter, Payton, came to us through foster care. Her bio mom, Susan* was homeless most of the time Payton was in our care. Part of Susan’s parenting plan (set of requirements she had to fulfill before getting custody of Payton) was that she gain safe housing, a job, write a letter to Payton, and show in supervised visits that she could care for Payton. She wasn’t able to complete any of these requirements.
Towards the end of Payton’s time in foster care we sat down with case workers and made a plan for future contact with Payton’s bio family. In her case it included extended family members as well as her birth mom. Because Susan hadn’t been able to stay in one place, the case workers set it up so that we would correspond with Payton’s bio aunt Jana* through the Department. We agreed (as did they) to send letters and pictures twice a year to the Department of Human Services (DHS) and DHS would then forward those to the aunt, Jana, who would share them with the birth mom, Susan. The bio family was also welcome to send gifts to Payton whenever they wanted.
We heard from Payton’s bio family on her first birthday after her adoption. The family included a photo, gift, and card, in which her cousins wrote, “I hope you have toys to play with.” I kinda felt like taking a picture of Payton’s room and sending it to them. Her bio mom had included a short note in the card.
We didn’t hear from them again for three years. Yeah, three years! I had been sending photos and letters (although I’ll admit I would sometimes go a few months off the target date). Then in January of 2013 I got a call from Payton’s post adoption worker, Marge*, who I barely have any contact with. She said another case worker came to her, saying she was Payton’s bio aunt and she had a gift for Payton. WOW!
So, Jana had got a job at DHS working on children’s cases. For those of you who are looking into doing foster care, please don’t let this deter you, this is an extremely odd case.
When Marge called, she was at work and whispering over the phone. It was weird, and I felt very unsettled. Jana knew our names, which had been intentionally kept private through the process and afterwards (hence the reason why correspondence was done through DHS), and knew Marge was our post adoption worker. More unsettling.
A little backstory. When Payton was place in foster care (she was in five homes, including one failed attempt at placing her back with bio mom within her first nine months of life) this bio aunt, Jana, had been contacted and asked if she wanted to take Payton. She declined, she was pregnant and couldn’t do it.
After Payton was in our home for a few months we were notified that Jana wanted custody of Payton. At the time our county had their brain screwed on, and they denied the transfer, saying that Payton was bonding with us and another move wouldn’t be good for her. (Payton had also been tossed around, living in different homes constantly, and dropped off with strangers while with her bio mom.)
Of course Jana wasn’t happy about the decision, and when she showed up, knowing our names, and talking about us at DHS I was shocked, and worried. I was put on edge and looking around every corner, wondering if someone was going to show up and try to take Payton. Unfounded fear, but it was there.
Marge called again from her cell after work and asked if she could bring the present Jana had left with her. I said she could. Marge was floored that Jana knew our names, who she was, and felt it wasn’t right that Jana had approached her the way she did.
Because there was so much trauma prior to Payton coming into foster care and then through the time DHS worked on reunification, we chose not to tell her where the gift came from, nor the cards and pictures. (Her diagnoses are listed below.) It ended up being a good thing we didn’t because there were three years between the correspondence. In the end it would have caused more trauma for Payton if she’d known.
When Marge brought the gifts in January 2013 she said that bio mom had another baby. The baby had just turned one. This just might have something to do with the reason the family was reaching out to Payton. But, I wish it wasn’t only because of the arrival of another baby that has a birthday very close to my daughters.
In those years when we didn’t hear from the bio family, there was some relief for me. When your child has PTSD, what was diagnosed as Reactive Attachment Disorder (you can read about that here), Oppositional Defiance Disorder, and a mood disorder, all because of her former life, it’s scary to keep that door open. At least for us. It was even scarier and upsetting when the door had been closed (their choice) and they opened it again. Lots of emotions circled, and circled that January right before Payton’s birthday (January 31). Not something I wanted to deal with days before my daughter’s fifth birthday.
When I opened the cards from the bio aunt, Jana, I was put at ease a little. The fear about her showing up faded quickly with the words she wrote, it conveyed that she wanted the best for Payton and she knew she was with a good family who cared about her. She gave me her phone number in case I ever had any questions about their family. She was kind. The note from Payton’s birth mom, Susan, was short and nice, telling Payton about her new bio sister.
But, what if Payton had contact with them before? What happens when they drop off into oblivion? How does the hurting child feel? Those memories of neglect come back. Those feelings of not being important come roaring in.
This year I was certain we would receive another gift and card from them. We didn’t. It’s now May, and it’s been sixteen months since we’ve heard from Payton’s bio family.
My husband happened to run into Payton’s birth mom, Susan, at the grocery store last week as I was working on these posts about birth families. It’s the first time we’ve seen her outside of DHS in 2009. She now lives in our area, and had her daughter with her. Susan called out to Justin in the store, and they chatted. I was concerned about how her and her daughter were doing, but Justin said both looked good. I’m really glad.
Each adoptive family makes their own choices as to what the openness will look like. Your open adoption may not look like your friends and that’s okay. Ours is a story of how there can be ups and downs in open adoption, but that you always need to take into consideration your child and your family.
*Names changed to protect privacy.