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Families navigate as open adoptions become norm 

  • An old family portrait of Stephen Hickman, left, adopted daughters Rachel and Sarah Hickman, center, and Ruth Harms is displayed in their Amherst home.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    An old family portrait of Stephen Hickman, left, adopted daughters Rachel and Sarah Hickman, center, and Ruth Harms is displayed in their Amherst home.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • An old family portrait of Stephen Hickman, left, adopted daughters Rachel and Sarah Hickman and Ruth Harms is displayed, Saturday, in their Amherst home.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    An old family portrait of Stephen Hickman, left, adopted daughters Rachel and Sarah Hickman and Ruth Harms is displayed, Saturday, in their Amherst home.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Harms and Stephen Hickman pose earlier this month with  adopted daughter Rachel Hickman, and the family dog, Candy. The couple also has another adopted daughter, Sarah Hickman.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Ruth Harms and Stephen Hickman pose earlier this month with adopted daughter Rachel Hickman, and the family dog, Candy. The couple also has another adopted daughter, Sarah Hickman.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Harms and Stephen Hickman pose for a portrait in their Amherst home, Saturday, with their adopted daughter Rachel Hickman, center. Their other adopted daughter, Sarah Hickman, is temporarily out-of-state and not shown in the photograph. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Ruth Harms and Stephen Hickman pose for a portrait in their Amherst home, Saturday, with their adopted daughter Rachel Hickman, center. Their other adopted daughter, Sarah Hickman, is temporarily out-of-state and not shown in the photograph.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • An old family portrait of Stephen Hickman, left, adopted daughters Rachel and Sarah Hickman, center, and Ruth Harms is displayed in their Amherst home.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • An old family portrait of Stephen Hickman, left, adopted daughters Rachel and Sarah Hickman and Ruth Harms is displayed, Saturday, in their Amherst home.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Ruth Harms and Stephen Hickman pose earlier this month with  adopted daughter Rachel Hickman, and the family dog, Candy. The couple also has another adopted daughter, Sarah Hickman.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Ruth Harms and Stephen Hickman pose for a portrait in their Amherst home, Saturday, with their adopted daughter Rachel Hickman, center. Their other adopted daughter, Sarah Hickman, is temporarily out-of-state and not shown in the photograph. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

When Amherst residents Ruth Harms and Stephen Hickman set out to adopt their first baby girl in Kansas in the mid-80s as an “open adoption,” the notion of keeping in touch with the birth parents was considered groundbreaking and, for many, too laden with stress and heartache to be worth whatever gains there might be.

Fast forward 27 years to Amherst, where “contact” between birth and adoptive families was the subject of a two-day scholarly conference, attracting approximately 200 therapists, researchers and families, including Ruth Harms, who have accumulated a wealth of “open adoption” experiences.

“Contact had been considered experimental, dangerous and not to be done,” said Harold D. Grotevant, conference host and chairman of the University of Massachusetts’ Rudd Adoption Research Program, in his opening comments to participants seated at tables brightened with pots of purple, yellow and white chrysanthemums. “Given that contact is now part and parcel of the relationship in adoption, the question we pose is: ‘What works?’”

“This topic was really of interest to me because we have two very different stories of contact in our family,” said Harms, seated in the Student Union lounge before the conference, now in its fifth year. “Also, I’m interested to learn how things are being done now versus 24 years ago.”

Trend toward openness

In 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 1.76 million children were adopted in the U.S. Of those, 75 percent were domestic (about equally divided between private and foster care situations) and the remaining 25 percent, international, according to the National Survey of Adoptive Parents.

“The trend in private, domestic adoptions is definitely toward open adoptions,” said Grotevant, although there are no statistics on this. “There are relatively few cases where it’s closed, as birth mothers are involved in choosing the adoptive families,” said Grotevant. The same holds true for foster care adoptions, he said.

In cases of international adoption, “there’s currently not a lot of room for contact, but I think that’s changing,” he said. Social media and the Internet in general provides a means for finding birth families abroad, he said.

In cases of closed adoption, according to Grotevant, when an adopted person turns 18, he or she can go to the agency that handled the adoption and seek information, or petition the court for details.

Early connections

Nearly three decades ago while living in Kansas, Harms and her husband had planned to have one biological child and then adopt one. Then she and her husband, now a pediatrician practicing in Amherst, learned they had fertility problems and began to look into adoption options. While initially investigating an international adoption, they ultimately decided on a domestic, open adoption.

“We were at our daughter’s birth,” said Harms of her now 27-year-old daughter, Sarah. “She came to us after 24 hours (the legally required waiting time for birth mothers to sign adoption agreements) and we set up a birth plan to be in touch with her birth mother.” That pre-Internet plan consisted of sending photos and letters back and forth at Christmas and Sarah’s birthday.

Face-to-face contact with Sarah’s birth mother was left open as a possibility for the future. “We actually saw her birth mother a month after the birth, but she didn’t want the baby there,” said Harms. The birth mother was likely trying to avoid the difficult emotions, said Harms, especially so soon after giving birth.

Grotevant and other speakers addressed issues like conflicting emotions and other potential challenges associated with contact during the plenary session for the UMass conference. Birth parents often experience a “continual, unresolved grief” following adoption, said Grotevant, describing contact as a “paradoxical relationship” in which relationships are built among “intimate strangers.”

Balancing act

Another point made by Grotevant, whose research has focused on relationships in adoptive families, is that contact is a delicate balancing act, in which both sides’ desire for contact is likely to change and evolve other time. Often, contact is not a priority for both sides simultaneously, sometimes leading to hurt and misunderstanding.

“Contact can change over time,”said Harms.“What’s established at the time of adoption may not feel right later.”

Harms has navigated this emotional journey with both of her adoptive daughters in different ways. Soon after moving to Amherst, when Sarah was 2, Harms and her husband adopted Rachel, also an open adoption.

Neither girl has met her birth parents, but for different reasons and with different results for everyone involved. Sarah, who has always had some contact with her birth mother through letters and now social media, has chosen not to meet her mother face-to-face despite her birth mother’s invitations to do so.

Rachel’s mother, meanwhile, gradually stopped retrieving the letters and photos Ruth sent to her through the adoption agency. And although Rachel has sleuthed out who she is through an old photo and a first name matched to a local high school yearbook entry, she has not taken the search any further.

“Rachel was just never particularly interested at all,” said Harms. She said she still regrets having less information about Rachel’s birth family than Sarah’s and has always encouraged both girls to seek out their families of origin.

Sarah’s interest has evolved, in part due to the transforming events that Grotevant calls “life happens.” Translation: death, divorce, birth of new family members and geographic moves. In Sarah’s case, her birth mother married, moved abroad, and had other children whom she did not give up for adoption.

“She was angry about that,” Harms said of the half-siblings. “She didn’t understand that.” While that may or may not begin to explain why Sarah has chosen not to meet her birth mother face-to-face, she has been able to enjoy her siblings from Scotland.

Harms said about three summers ago, the family arranged to have her brother for a visit at their home.

“It was lovely,” said Harms. “They made an amazing connection. It was like they grew up together. They even look a lot alike.”

Other speakers explored the issues of race, ethnicity and identity in adoptive families, a topic Jen Dolan, Rudd Adoption research program manager, knows well.

Dolan recounts something her 12-year-old son, adopted from the Philippines, told his teacher at age 6: “I’m sad. I’m the only one in my family who’s adopted and who has brown skin.”

“It kind of broke my heart, I’ve got to tell you,” said Dolan.“As much as I love him, I knew there was nothing I could do for him.”

What she could do for him, however, was sign him up in the Adoption Mentoring Program, a collaborative effort of the Rudd Program and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Hampshire County. Harms supervises the program, whose mission is to match adopted children with adults from similar ethnic and adoption backgrounds. For three years now, Dolan’s son has had a Big Sister from the Philippines who had been adopted herself.

After the keynote talk, Harms said, “I was struck by how different things are now.”

When she was adopting her daughters, she remembers a distinctly different sensibility. “‘Oh, that’s so great,’” she recalls friends saying, ‘but they were also worried for us. But nowadays, it’s very common.”

Grotevant encourages local families to go to the Rudd website at psych/umass.edu/ruddchair to access conference materials via YouTube links. “The more we can do to connect with families in our local community, the better,” he said. “Through our conference, we hope to reach out to the adoptive community. We’re very open to people contacting us.”

Overall, the message at the conference was one of hope for contact between birth and adoptive families, despite the significant emotional hurdles.

“If we manage these issues well, contact can be very positive,” said Ellsbeth Neil, senior lecturer in social work and director of research in the School of Social Work at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Speaking from the child’s perspective, she asks: “Why should I have to lose these important people in order to have a new family?”

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