Open adoption is a process in which a birth mother, the child and the adopted parents all remain connected throughout the child’s life. It is a process that challenges us to be responsible for our actions and remain interconnected as humans. It, in turn, challenges our social ideals in a way that embodies that human connectedness and provides a brilliant service that benefits everyone in the equation, including the state and all its taxpayers.
Open Adoption was founded in 1985 and today provides more adoptions than any other adoption agency in the Northwest. Shari has been with the organization for 22 years and is now its executive director. The agency specializes in one thing, domestic infant adoption. Thirty years ago, the concept of an open adoption was unheard of, but prior to 1957, when all adoption records were sealed, that was not always the case.
Four Principles of the Open Adoption Program
Open Adoption & Family Services operates under four basic tenets:
They are pro-choice, which is unusual with adoption agencies, since most are religiously affiliated organizations. OA&FS is dedicated to providing an emotionally safe, non-judgmental experience for all participants, empowering a pregnant woman with all the information she might need to make her decision.
They welcome diversity, including same sex families. And as Shari has found through her organizational experience, “Same sex partners make great parents.”
They only do fully open adoptions – building a genuine relationship between the birth parent and the adopting parents that looks and feels like an extended family. Parents are given all the tools to make this a strong and healthy foundation.
And finally, they provide lifelong support, including ongoing relationship guidance, participation in open adoption community events and annual retreats for birth mothers.
Today, Open Adoption & Family Services is operating nationwide, providing services in states for which the process is very different from the norm. And in some cases, it even brings new options to states that have restrictive adoption laws.
For example, it provides a means for same sex partners to adopt, even in states where such adoptions are not allowed. What the process has done brilliantly is defuse the argument for such arrangements, because the birth mother remains involved. Innovation shows up in many different flavors.
Helping High Risk Mothers with Open Adoptions
This, however, is not the only innovation Shari has brought to the table. She has also worked in collaboration with the state of Oregon’s Department of Human Services to establish a program with high-risk mothers.
In these situations, children are typically removed from the mother involuntarily and placed into foster homes. The mother’s rights are formally terminated in court, which is an extremely expensive process for the state. As statistics demonstrate again and again, these situations often turn out to be traumatic experiences for both the child and the mother. The birth mother is given no choice as to where her child goes, and these irrevocable decisions are made behind closed doors.
To make this program a reality, Shari met with a variety of state directors of human services over years and finally found one who was willing to view the situation from a truly human perspective. Because of Shari’s efforts, Oregon today allows high-risk mom's to proactively plan an open adoption with kids under 1.5 years as long as they go through a private agency.
Empowering Birth Mothers and Adoptive Parents
One healthy outcome of this solution is that birth mothers are not being vilified because of their past. She tells the story of a birth mother who herself had been placed in 40 different foster homes growing up. She already had two previous children taken from her by the state, and she was pregnant again.
But this time she came to OA&FS, chose the adoptive parents and then placed her new baby with them. As it turned out, her other two children were eventually removed from their foster parents because of neglect, and the couple that had adopted her third child, adopted the other two. In doing this, all her children could now be together, and she can regularly visit them.
Honoring Moms and Kids
As Shari explains, “All this takes is a change in perspective. By treating these moms with dignity and respect, rather than vilifying or punishing them they can create a plan that ensures the well-being of their child.
“Often adopted children worry about their birth parents and want to know who they are and how they’re doing. There is a fear that they will grow up to struggle in the same ways their birth parents struggled. In this adoption model, they can learn to let go of that fear by seeing that their birth parents, free from punishment and vilification, can stabilize themselves.”
Saving Costs, Saving Kids
A program like this is not only good for all the immediate players, but it saves a tremendous amount of money for the state. It also saves kids who, growing up in foster care, have a higher likelihood of suffering from attachment disorders, addictive behaviors and learning disabilities.
“All of that expense,” Shari emphasizes, “could be avoided by honoring the birth mom and treating her humanely. In exchange, she chooses a family and brings her best self to the visits. She, in essence, creates an adoption she can feel good about.”
When we design our systems to be conscious, effective and humane, free from the biases and limitations that have kept us from recognizing our inherent human interconnection, we become unstoppable in our quest to manifest meaningful change. Personal accountability is essential. However, as long as society vilifies women, as long as we think it OK to brand women with a scarlet lifetime in dealing with their reproductive options, society bares the responsibility for the suffering it creates.
And it can be costly.
From Bias to Love
Unfortunately, our biases and prejudices are the antithesis of innovation. If we are truly in the business of creating profound social impact, we have to see our relationship to life as interdependent. What Shari Levine has done with Open adoption is to embrace that interdependence within our most primal, human activity, and in doing so, shifting the conversation from bias to genuine love.
“I think Open Adoption brings tremendous humanity to the ways in which people create families,” she says reflecting on her work. “It makes people accountable to the child – and the child is the most important person in all of this. As they piece together their essential sense of identity, they need to know that all of the important people in their life love and support them.” Perhaps it does take a village, after all.