Tips for Navigating Open Adoption With “Unsafe” Birth Family
Foster and adopted children come to our homes from what are often chaotic and even unsafe conditions. We know that open adoption is good for our kids. But navigating open adoption with potentially “unsafe” birth family is much trickier when we are unsure of the safety implications.
How do you navigate a relationship with unsafe birth family?
A member of our online community recently posted a question that comes up quite frequently. In essence, she is concerned because birth mom has recently been released from jail and wishes to have contact with her son. Given the nature of the crimes which landed her in prison, this adoptive mom has some valid fears about the birth mom’s addiction and ability to keep her son physically safe.
Ten Tips for Navigating Open Adoption with “Unsafe” Birth Family
L.S., another member of our community, shared her experiences with open adoption and had some sage advice that we found worth passing on. These tips came out of her years of parenting young pre-teen and teens through adoption, so some of it is specific to that stage. We’ve summarized her points and added some helpful tips from other parents who also offered support and advice to the concerned mom. You might find benefit in talking through these tips with your partner or even a caseworker before implementing them with your child.
Focus on your child’s emotions
If your child is hesitant for a visit, don’t push. Similarly, if he is excited, don’t squash it. Let his feelings be the most important emotions acknowledged – more than those of the birth family and certainly more than yours.
Remember that safety does not equal comfort
Assume that navigating this relationship will be uncomfortable, especially at the start of building it. There will be moments of emotional discomfort, especially for your child. But discomfort is not the same as being unsafe. “Unsafe” rises to a pretty serious situation. “Unsafe” means physical violence, illegal drugs, family members being high, guns or other weapons, and abuse. It doesn’t mean swearing or talking about UFC or birth family saying, “we’re your REAL family.” Deciding something is unsafe is much more severe.
Be present, and supportive, but do not take over
The birth family is not your family. They are your child’s family. They may not necessarily want a relationship with you, and that’s okay. Recognize that you – at least to start – kind of “come with the territory” and to have a relationship with your child, they have to be okay with a relationship with you. Let them have time and space to build their relationship and support what that looks like where you can. If you get to create a satisfying relationship with them in addition to that, you are fortunate.
Consider that you can track birth family online
You can search on the internet and social media for the birth parent or extended family. If applicable, you can look at records in the state where the birth parent is incarcerated. In some states, you can access their contact information or sign up to be notified when an inmate is released. This is something you could do with your child or that you could show him how to do.
Remember that family is good
Think of your child’s birth family as you would think about your son- in-law’s family. You are family to your son-in-law, but his family isn’t exactly family too. Establish healthy boundaries, practice clear and direct communication, and then follow through with what you say. Those actions will communicate that the birth family matters to you and will make a difference in the tone of your relationship.
Be a safe landing place
This relationship, especially in the early days, will be very intense for your child. He will need your emotional support whether the contacts go well or not. It will likely be intense for you, too. But you need to have your own feelings handled in ways that don’t add an additional burden to your child. Your job is to be a safe landing place for your child so that he can process with your support. That’s enough on his plate. When he goes to bed, have your own time to handle all of it.
Come up with a signal for visits
Give your child a way to communicate with you that enforces his sense of safety with you. It can be a hand signal that keeps you in touch without making it public that you are doing so. One finger up could mean “I’m good, Mom.” Two fingers would mean “I’m getting uncomfortable, but I don’t need to leave yet.” And three fingers to mean “I’m done. Get me out of here!”
Talk in advance about how you will end the visit if he is requesting it. Before you go to a visit, come up with some ideas which he can agree to implement. This gives him a sense of control over the relationship or the visit and builds trust that you will respond appropriately to his feelings.
As she put it, L.S. and her spouse “talk through scenarios beforehand and talk about what would be an immediate ‘we’re outta here’ and what would be an ‘I’m really not loving this’”.
Remember the big picture
If your child is a tween or teen, he likely has not yet developed the ability to think long-term about this relationship. It’s your job to help him understand that you have a lifetime together to figure out these relationships. Take some of the pressure off by assuring him that he doesn’t have to decide all of the details of the relationship with his birth family on anyone else’s timeline. Talk together about what kind of contact he wants, how often he wants visits, how much contact he wants with extended family, etc. But let him know he doesn’t need the answers today. He can take his time to figure out what relationship he wants with which people.
Teach your child to take care of himself
It is common for adoptees to admit that they are people pleasers. Your child might want to take care of EVERYONE. Especially if he senses that you are struggling to make this open adoption relationship with his birth family work. Your role is to teach him that his emotional needs matter the most in this relationship among you all. His voice matters the most in determining the path of these relationships. You will need to teach him to recognize his “voice” and use it to care well for himself. You might consider working with an adoption-informed therapist, for your child – and for you – to be sure everyone’s emotional needs are being addressed.
As Leslie said, “Definitely monitor any pressure put on him to please others and be everything to everyone. That is a burden he does not deserve!”
Your first priority has to be your child’s physical safety, and only you can make this decision, even if it is “in the moment.” Talk together about what physical safety is – you might need to define it for your child. Then discuss what “exit plans” you can create together and how you will keep him safe above all else. That might look like hosting visits at a local park or trampoline park instead of the birth parent’s home. It might mean video calls for a while. The “how” of the visits might need to flex and change according to your child’s comfort and needs so that you can be confident that he is safe.
Other Creating a Family Resources You Might Find Helpful:
- Essential Conversations Adoptive Parents and Birth Parents MUST Have for a Successful Open Adoption
- Why Co-Parent with My Foster Child’s Birth Parents When I Want to Adopt?
- Are Open Adoptions Worth the Hassle?