What rights do biological parents have to contact their child that has been legally adopted?

Recently on our legal forum a user asked, “I gave my child up for adoption ten years ago. Recently I have started wondering where they are and what they are doing. I would love to contact the adoptive family. Is it legal for me to contact my child? I was fifteen when I had the child and not fit to be a mom. I don’t want my child back, but it would be nice to just get periodic updates.” 

Important of terminating your parental rights

State laws generally protect the rights of the birth parents prior to adoption- assuming there is not a voluntary termination. In fact, before you gave up your child for adoption you were required to provide consent, most likely in writing before a judge or a court-appointed representative. Most states also require a specific amount of time to pass prior to terminating a parent’s parental rights.

Once the time requirement expired and you legally terminated your rights, it’s very difficult to revoke your consent- barring fraud, a mutual agreement between birth and adoptive parents, or the court intervening and determining the revocation is in the best interest of the child.

With that said, whether or not you have the legal right to contact you child will depend on a variety of factors. The most important factor, however, is whether or not the adoption was an open or closed adoption.

Open Adoption vs. Closed Adoption

Closed adoption

For many years closed adoptions were the most common type of adoption. Children were placed for adoption, adopted by a family, and the adoptive family and the birth family had no contact with each other. In fact, after the adoption was finalized the records were sealed.

Historically, information about the adoption was generally not given out to any parties involved unless specific paperwork was filed at the time of the adoption allowing children to access it when they turned 18 years of age. Some states, however, have updated their laws to include legal processes which may allow a previously closed adoption to be opened. The methods and requirements, however, vary by state and should be discussed with an adoption lawyer.

Open Adoption

Open adoption, an option process which allows for some type of contact between the birth family and the adoptive family, has become increasingly popular over the last thirty years. Contact can include anything from periodic phone calls and letters to interaction which is much more inclusive and allows for more continuous contact.

The type of contact allowed may be simply a mutual and informal arrangement between the families or it may be formalized through a written contract.

Note: Twenty-eight states currently have statutes which allow for enforceable written contractual agreements. Families who want to create a written contract can do so prior to the finalization of the adoption. State laws, however, vary.

For example, all states will require the agreements to be in the best interest of the child and protect the rights of all parties involved. Other states may limit the enforceability based on the type of contact, type of adoption, the type of children adopted, and the age of the child.

States which do not have enforceable contact contracts

There are a handful of states which do not have laws which address postadoption contact. Other states address the issue but do not allow for enforceable agreements. Several of these states specifically mention that agreements for contact are not binding, while other states allow for contact to rest expressively with the adoptive family. 

If you have questions about the laws in your state, you can contact an adoption lawyer for more information.

What does this mean for you?

You did not mention whether you had a closed or an open adoption. If the adoption was open, you may have an opportunity to contact your child. As mentioned above, some adoptions will be finalized with a legal contact agreement, while others might simply have a mutual arrangement for contact.

If the adoption was closed; however, getting information about your child may be much more difficult but not impossible.

Bottom line:

Terminating your parental rights is a big decision; one that should not be made without fully understanding the long-term ramifications of your decision. Unfortunately, many mothers may need to make the decision at a very young age. The best a young mother can hope for is that they have family members, friends, and legal help to help them make the right decision.

The good news for many biological as well as adopted children is that the trend has moved towards inclusion and encouragement of open adoptions. While this is not right for everyone, it’s great families have a choice.

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