Understanding Options Counseling Experiences in Adoption

The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) is excited to release our latest research report Understanding Options Counseling Experiences in Adoption: A Quantitative Analysis of Birth Parents and Professionals. This research was conducted by Dr. Elissa Madden, Assistant Professor at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University; Dr. Scott Ryan, Dean and Jenkins Garrett Professor at the School of Social Work at The University of Texas of Arlington; Dr. Donna Aguiniga, Associate Professor at the School of Social Work of the University of Alaska-Anchorage; and Marcus Crawford, Doctoral Candidate at The University of Texas of Arlington.

The decision to relinquish parental rights to a child for the purpose of adoption is laden with many practical considerations, and even more importantly, a range of complex emotions and feelings for parents. It stands to reason that best practice in this area would dictate expectant parents who are exploring options surrounding an unintended pregnancy would receive unbiased and thorough counseling that explores the full range of options available. This practice has been referred to as “options counseling” in the field of adoption, and similar to other regulations in adoption that vary drastically by state, the practice of options counseling can be dramatically different based on state statute and/or agency practices. In fact, only about half of all U.S. states include references to options counseling in statutes that guide adoption – most of which are vague in nature and advise, instead of require, that expectant parents are made aware of counseling opportunities.

Given the negligible regulations surrounding what should be one of the most critical aspects of the adoption process, combined with scant research that explores the nature of this experience for expectant parents, further investigation into this process is critical if services to expectant parents are to be informed and ethical. This new study specifically sought to investigate the decision-making experiences of women and men who relinquished their parental rights to adoption as well as the standards that guide professionals who provide options counseling.

There are two phases of this study; the first that is currently being released is a quantitative analysis of a survey with birth parents and adoption professionals. The study specifically sought to analyze individuals who had relinquished their parental rights to a child for adoption after 1989 in an effort to explore more current experiences in adoption, particularly given more recent trends towards openness in adoption. Ultimately, 223 birth mothers responded; unfortunately, due to limited numbers of responses from birth fathers, this population could not be included in the study. For the professional respondents, 141 adoption professionals from 38 different states participated in the survey.

The second phase of this study, expected to be released in early Spring 2017, is a qualitative analysis of birth mother experiences as well as professionals who provide services in this area. The analysis is based on individual interviews that were conducted earlier this year.

UT Arlington Options Counseling Survey

A variety of detailed findings have been uncovered in this work which ideally will assist in creating best practice standards; standards that ultimately ensure an expectant parent is duly informed of all options surrounding an unintended pregnancy and is meaningfully and unbiasedly supported in whatever decision he or she ultimately makes. Only then can we say that informed consent has been given.

Major findings specific to birth parent experiences have been captured in key areas that informed their decision-making as they deliberated about the options surrounding an unintended pregnancy. This includes practical and emotional considerations, levels of perceived and available support, as well as knowledge and access to services and resources surrounding the full options available to them. Relationships with their child and adoptive family after relinquishment as well as the ongoing impact in their life were also explored.

There are many key areas to highlight in this study – some of which include findings that indicate a vast disparity in information women received, with the greatest concern being that the majority of women reported that they received very limited information about parenting their child. Financial and housing concerns as well as a perceived lack of emotional and social support were reasons many women had for ultimately relinquishing their parental rights to adoption; notably many women reported that the greatest lack of support came from family and friends. One birth mother poignantly stated, “It was a confusing time. I did all the wrong things, but it was no one’s fault. I needed someone to help me realize I could do it and have the courage and have the help. Without that, I guess I turned against myself. No one did anything wrong. But I just didn’t have someone who said it’s okay to keep him and I’ll help you.”

For many of the birth mothers who participated in this study, the findings demonstrate that the process was traumatic in varying ways. There were also mothers who expressed a more positive experience and successful outcomes. Many women, even those who felt positive about their decision, did still indicate some level of regret, with one mother aptly stating “knowing you did the best thing doesn’t mean you never get to feel regret.”

One interesting aspect of this study was the disconnect that appeared at times surrounding the services adoption professionals perceived themselves to be providing robustly and the perceptions from birth parents who often reported wishing they had more access to supports and resources along the way, most especially with regard to options surrounding parenting decisions. This point is not to argue that professionals as a whole are not necessarily providing services in a certain manner; rather, it is to say that there is something lost in the communication of this information that is not being understood and received appropriately by expectant parents. In that regard, it is possible that the overall lack of standards that inform options counseling combined with the manifold differences in state laws blur the information and services provided. This can have the unfortunate impact of leaving many expectant parents in a position to feel further confounded during an experience that is already rife with complexity.

DAI decided to release this report during National Adoption Month because this aspect of the adoption experience cannot be left out of the narrative, yet historically has been. It is critically important to ensure that all voices connected to adoption are heard from equally during this month and throughout the year. At the same time, for those of us who are connected to adoption, we must be open to learning about each other’s mixed experiences within the complexities that adoption yields.

This research study surrounding options counseling experiences is the first of its kind to truly gather perspectives from those most closely connected to this experience – many of whom have struggled in various ways in the absence of meaningful services while they were expecting and after the decision-making process. Practice in this area should not lead any expecting parent to one particular outcome; rather services should be geared towards supporting parents in making decisions that are fully informed and represent their choice for what they believe to be the best solution for themselves and most especially their child. This is what ethical options counseling represents and we all have a responsibility to make certain it occurs ethically.

Our sincere gratitude goes to James Stevens, who is responsible for creating the Lynn Franklin Fund in honor of Lynn C. Franklin, and to all those who donated to the fund which made this vital work possible. We additionally want to acknowledge Brenda Romanchik (LCSW, ACSW, CTS and author of A Birthparent’s Book of Memories and other publications) who served as Project Lead on this study, as well as the Lynn Franklin Fund Advisory Council who provided invaluable insight throughout this research.

Read the full report here.


Since 1996, The Donaldson Adoption Institute has been on a mission to improve the lives of children and families through research, education and advocacy. We investigate the issues of greatest concern to birth families, adoptive/foster families, adopted people, the people who love them and the professionals that serve them. We educate and train professionals, enlighten parents and engage members of the community to make a positive impact on laws, policies, practices and perceptions.


2 Comments on “Understanding Options Counseling Experiences in Adoption

  1. I have been thinking about this topic for decades, both as a birthparent from the ’60’s and as a clinical social worker active with the adoption community, including a stint on a university hospital’s maternity and labor and delivery unit. I appreciate that this research shows the inadequacy of options counseling, but we need to push forward and think outside the box here, starting with the idea that providing women and their babies with resources, emotional and financial, to begin with, will often negate the need for any sort of decision making around maintaining the mother-infant relationship. Just by posing the possibility of separating mother and child with “options counseling,” sets up these typically vulnerable women for perceiving themselves as lesser than other mothers (older, richer, coupled). I know there are women who insist on relinquishment and these women would definitely benefit from an updated version of options counseling that actually ensures informed consent. However, the vast majority of women who become pregnant want validation of their pregnancies and their potential for parenting and they need to know that they will have the support they need. To even suggest that “adoption is an option” is to undermine these women and increase the likelihood of a surrender and that outcome, as research has already shown, is not best for mother or baby.

  2. Pingback: New Study – Birth Parents | One Woman's Choice

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