Why openness with biological siblings matters for adopted kids

When a child joins a family through adoption, the focus is often on openness with birth parents. But ties to bio brothers and sisters should not be overlooked.

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Sara* adopted now five-year-old Devin* as a newborn, and soon after he was born, his biological brothers and sister (who still live with their birth family) came to see him at the hospital. “We got pictures with everyone together at the hospital, which is such an amazing memento to have,” says Sara, who has since helped her son maintain a relationship with his birth brothers and sister thanks to a sibling openness arrangement.

A private adoption agency drafted Devin and his siblings’ openness agreement and took into account both what his birth mother and adoptive parents wanted. The two families get together a few times a year and also exchange photos and emails. Sara was surprised at how much she came to care for Devin’s birth siblings: “I think the tone of our relationship was set in hospital,” Sara says. “We celebrated together.”

The Adoptive Families Association of BC defines openness as “the level of contact between the adoptive family and someone significant to the child’s life, prior to adoption.” Generally, openness agreements for birth siblings are less formal than those for birth parents, and they are arranged outside of court. Openness orders can be decided in court if the relationship with a sibling is deemed meaningful and there appears to be risk it won’t continue. Sometimes families have different lifestyles, are busy or don’t appreciate the significance of the siblings’ relationship. They may even have concerns that it’s negatively impacting their child. If one family wants to stop access, often the court is where things are sorted out.

Adoptive parents can help a child navigate bio sibling relationships to learn more about their family of origin—a crucial part of any child’s identity. Sibling openness creates continuity for the child between their birth and adoptive family situations.

Pat Convery, the director of Adoption Council of Ontario, says “birth siblings are an extension of an adopted child’s family; the question is, how do you bring them into the adoptive family?” Sibling openness happens on a spectrum and doesn’t necessarily involve visits—letters, emails and photos count. “It’s already happening through social media,” Convery says, referring to the fact that some children secretly find their siblings through Facebook and Instagram anyhow. Unless safety is a concern, she encourages families to consider openness right off the bat, so they can help their child nurture, understand and, if necessary, put boundaries around these relationships.

Savannah*, whose four adopted children have several biological siblings in other homes, understands why some parents are nervous about openness. Perhaps they won’t like the other family, or their kids may regress or revert to old behaviour patterns. But ultimately, she says, “it’s about nurturing a kids’ connections”—emotional, genetic and cultural. “We’re holders of those connections until they’re old enough to decide for themselves,” she says.

Savannah’s nine-year-old daughter Jillian* says she’s sometimes nervous before seeing her bio siblings. “I’m not always sure they’ll remember me, but our parents make sure we see each other as much as we can.” And among the perks to openness, according to Jillian, is recognizing the physical and personality traits she shares with her biological family members. “It’s neat to see what I looked like when I was little because my sister looks just like me.”

To create an openness agreement that works, The Adoptive Families Association of BC recommends getting the help of an adoption-competent social worker, counsellor, or mediator, prior to adoption, so expectations are clear. Honest communication and the help of supportive people are crucial in establishing sibling contact, and parents shouldn’t commit to more than they’re comfortable with: expanding an agreement is easier than scaling back. Savannah feels that most families would benefit from scaling back anyhow, “so they can work at being a family, become confident in their new role, and allow time for healing.”  Going all in from the get-go doesn’t give new families a chance to develop trust and strong bonds.

Parents may wish to get to know siblings and their families through photos and emails before meeting. Ellen* adopted Will* and Stella* when they were six and seven; their siblings were adopted into other families. “The visits were something we were supposed to do, but we were finding we had nothing in common with the other families,” Ellen says, admitting that early visits weren’t easy. Yet, as in most relationships, by simply spending quality time together or helping each other out from time to time, their bonds steadily grew. “Our visits began lasting longer, and I realized they’d taken on a different feel: relaxed, engaged, cherished.” Ellen began inviting the family over on holidays and Will and Stella have since made many memories over Christmases and Thanksgivings with their siblings.

For some adopted children, contact with biological siblings maintains a child’s connection to race or culture. Sylvia’s* sons Jackson* and Jordan* (now 18) came to Canada from Malawi in 2003 and were adopted shortly after. They’ve kept in contact with their biological family, including several siblings, through letters and photos, and at age 13 they were able to return to Malawi to visit. “My sons were able to meet people who looked like them, including a set of twin brothers and half sibling twin brothers. Sylvia calls the reunion “life altering” and says it solidified the boys’ identity.

mother showing her toddler daughter snapshots from a photo album Why adopted kids need to know where they came from Her son Jordan agrees. “When we left our home we were pretty young, so we didn’t remember much, but when we went back to visit it helped me figure out who I really am. I think that every adopted kid should at least know where they came from.” Jordan believes he wouldn’t have been able to embrace his Malawian identity if he hadn’t gotten to know his siblings who remain there.

Jackson says that until that trip he felt “a piece of the puzzle was missing,” and being with family in Malawi helped. “I ate things I never thought I’d eat, learned to dance like they do and listened to the amazing singing.” Jackson also plans to return to Malawi, when he has kids of his own, so they can meet their bio aunts and uncles.

While it’s generally a positive thing, sometimes sibling openness can create issues, for example: a child may act out old negative patterns or have regressive behaviour after visits with a sibling. Good communication, being there for visits to support your child, helping with email, and keeping the routine for communication predictable can help alleviate stress. “Having clear expectations from the start is crucial,” ACO’s Pat Convery says. She also stresses that openness can change over the years, as siblings go through different phases, so families should be prepared for that.

There are situations when openness is not advisable, because of the physical or emotional risk to the child, or if a sibling remains with biological parents when your child has a closed adoption with no access. Marnie’s* son Declan*, now 18, was not allowed contact with a sister because of her physical violence towards a younger sibling. Marnie feels that although it was right to keep Declan safe, his longing is still there to connect. “I really wish I’d seen my sister more growing up, to know her better,” Declan says. Lisa Highfield, who runs Healing Hearts, a counselling and support service for families, suggests being honest with kids, but keeping the information age appropriate, making sure that no one is being shamed. “Let them know why openness isn’t possible—that it’s not a punishment; they’re just being protected.”

While openness isn’t always a possibility it is usually a plus in an adopted child’s life, and worth the work it takes on the parents’ part. As Sylvia says, “Openness is a mindset—my sons need their roots to be able to spread their wings.”

Read more:
How adopting my daughter helped me reconnect with my roots
What it‘s like to foster 115 kids

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