ADOPTION SEARCH:An Ethical Guide for Professionals

Published by Catholic Charities USA

The Manual includes a focus on searching on behalf of children and adults who were in foster care prior to being adopted. The complex issues faced by this population and the people in their lives are examined. This manual is an important tool for persons who provide services to children in foster care and/or after adoption.


The concept of open adoption signifies direct contact between the participants. In working with the special needs population, this is the outcome for which one strives. However, there must be caution regarding fully identified contact until there are indicators that the direct contact is advisable and does not pose a hazard for the participants. The hazard potential has to be evaluated in regard to all the participants. Just as there are problems in the birthfamily that lead to separation, there are also very disturbed children who may pose a risk to their birthrelatives.

Contact can be conceptualized as a fluid continuum. This can include letter writing, picture exchanges, telephone calls and visits using the professional as an intermediary. As trust evolves, this may move to direct contact among some or all of the participants.

At any time, modifications can be made to deal with new developments over time. For example, adoptive parents and birthparents may visit with one another even if the children for some reason can’t be included. Or, when visits are not possible, updates including pictures, videos, letters can be considered. This is concrete evidence of the continued importance of the birthfamilies in the children’s lives. It also provides the birthfamily with entitlement- how they feel and how they are doing matters; they are family to the children. By doing this, adoptive families are able to nurture the self-esteem of a population that is loaded with shame, low self-esteem, loss and more. The message that gets transmitted is “even with all your problems, we value you enough to give you information!” The empathy of the adoptive families guides their generosity in sharing. The more we tap into that, the greater the benefits for all parties.

Mike, age eleven, was adopted by his foster parents. He maintained direct contact with most of his birthfamily because there was a history of how protective and caring his relatives were of his welfare. The primary person excluded from direct contact was his birthmother. As time passed, efforts began to appropriately incorporate her. The process began with correspondence between the adoptive mother and the birthmother using the professional as the intermediary. It evolved to letters to Mike. When these letters contained some inappropriate messages, some guidance was offered to make the letters more constructive For example, one letter suggested they would “be a family again,” as though the adoption would be undone once she reentered his life. She knew this would not happen, she just wanted to be a part of his life. The input about her letters was not intended to make the birthmom feel badly about herself but rather, to make the building relationship as sound as possible.

Eventually, planning began for a meeting that would include Mike. This involved sessions alone with the birthmom, then a session including the adoptive parents and finally a visit that included all the adults and Mike. The first visit lasted about an hour and a half. Anticipating that Mike might get very anxious during the course of the visit, the plan included a location where he could move about if he wanted to.

As it turned out, Mike was so excited to see his birthmother that he sat pretty continuously asking her question after question. The birthmother’s family was totally supportive of the very gradual steps that were taken so that she could build a relationship with her son that was sound for him, for her and his adoptive family.

Mike often spent time at his aunts’ and grandparents’ homes without his adoptive parents. During the early stages of reestablishing contact with his birthmother, his adoptive mom asked that he not speak on the phone with his birthmother unless she, the adoptive mom, were there. She wanted to be able to supervise the contact and process with Mike whenever it happened. The relatives honored this even though Mike cried and pleaded to speak with his birthmom when she called. This respect of boundaries strengthened the relationships among all involved. Mike’s parents were bestowed with the appropriate role of making decisions on his behalf. This is parental entitlement.

The birthfamily is important in and of itself. It also is an important resource that can surround children with ongoing love and indicators that they are still claimed by the birthfamily. They can provide messages of entitlement to both families- by birth and adoption. Simultaneously, they can give the children permission to love and belong within their adoptive families. Whenever this cooperative scenario can occur, both families benefit.

When children can work out their issues with the principals, a therapeutic opportunity is created. We know children need to know they are loved and remembered even if they can’t be parented within their birthfamilies. As the years pass, they have the opportunity to work on these issues with greater maturity. Every step of the way, the developmental tasks are aided by the emotional, psychological work that preceded it.

Amy had been removed from her mother’s care when she was six. She was in foster care for two-and-half years and was eventually adopted. She had many struggles with every aspect of her life and eventually lived in a group care facility during her teen years. Her adoptive family claimed her through all the turmoil. The family was involved with therapy very regularly. With the support of the psychologist they worked with, at age 16, a request was made to open her adoption so as to have gradual contact with her grandmother, birthmother and sister. 

It was evaluated that letter writing would not work with Amy and her birthmother because her birthmother had a history of not writing back. Efforts had been made through the years to engage her birthmother and to give Amy some outlets for her needs. Disappointment typically ensued.

The birthmother met twice with the psychologist and the professional handling the opening of the adoption. Subsequent to that, a meeting was arranged including Amy’s adoptive parents. The goal was to help her understand Amy’s needs and to evaluate how she might best participate. This birthmother’s life was still not very stable but it was felt she was doing well enough to participate in Amy’s life. She expressed a strong desire to see her daughter and to help in any way she could.

Several sessions were also held with Amy and her parents to prepare them for the contact with her birthfamily. Amy had some fantasies about how she hoped to incorporate her idealized birthfamily. This can be quite typical especially when many years have passed since the last contact.

The first visit Amy had with her birthmother took place in the office of her psychologist. Her parents and the facilitating professional were there too. The timing for this contact was important because Amy was not functioning well and had fantasies about living with her birthfamily. She was in the midst of a move to yet another facility.

Even with all her problems, it was felt she needed to reconnect at a concrete level with her birthfamily. This was not a child who was going to enter her adulthood smoothly under any circumstances. It was evaluated, that the support that could be provided to her while she still was a minor and in the care of various adults, made the timing for this venture optimum.

During the years that followed, she maintained varying degrees of contact with her birthmother, grandmother and finally, as she emancipated, her adoptive parents. She was able to see, from a more mature viewpoint, how her birthmother continued to have troubled relationships with abusive men. Amy didn’t want to repeat the pattern even though she sometimes did. Having contact with her birthmother provided her with a realistic view of what her life might have been like had she stayed with her birthmother.

When Amy was twenty-one years old, her birthmother asked her why she didn’t have a baby. Amy told her she wasn’t ready for a baby and she didn’t want to do to a baby what her birthmother had done to her. This story was not recounted unkindly, but rather with an empathic tone regarding the truth of the statement.

When Amy was twenty-three years old, her adoptive mother reported that Amy was still struggling but that, little by little, she was continuing to process her history and deal with her life. Her adoptive mother felt that the contact, established when Amy was sixteen, kept her birthfamily from being mysterious and romantic. Prior to establishing contact, Amy had powerful yearnings to incorporate her birthfamily and thought all would be well if they were a part of her life. This, of course, did not materialize, but the inclusion of the birthfamily did have significant benefits for all.

Amy’s adoptive mother reflected that the contact was a positive move, which helped Amy get more reality based in an appropriate and desirable manner. It discharged a lot of tension that Amy exhibited, which often translated to serious acting out behaviors. Amy was better able to understand why she could not stay in the care of her birthmother. Even now, her birthmother could not have taken care of her.

Her birthmother was able to know that Amy still considered her an important part of her life even with all the problems that faced them both. Additionally, her birthfamily was able to participate in her life in whatever manner was deemed possible.

The adoptive family felt validated as Amy intermittently contacted them, knowing they would always consider her their child. As the years passed, her adoptive mother said that her anger towards them dissipated and that the exchanges they had with her were peaceful and appropriate. Though she didn’t maintain regular contact, whenever she called, she wanted to know how each and every family member was doing.

Amy depended on their groundedness. They knew they were not to blame for Amy’s problems and were able to set appropriate boundaries while remaining faithful to her as her parents. They strongly felt that if the adoption had not been opened, Amy would have permanently disconnected from them. Supporting her need to be in touch, helped keep her a part of their family.

As a teenager and eventually as an adult, Amy integrated both families in ways that she could manage.