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Opening Up Adoption

Learn more about one of your neighbors, a pioneer of open adoption.

San Ramon resident Kathleen Silber is a history maker in the world of adoption and local celebrity you may not know about. Her story starts more than 45 years ago.

Silber earned her masters degree in social welfare from the University of California at Berkeley and was offered three jobs upon graduation. Her ultimate job choice was in the field of adoption — a decision that would frame her entire work career and change the face of adoption throughout our country.

When Silber began working in the field of adoption in the late 1960s, there was no such thing as open adoption. Adoptions were surrounded in secrecy. Birth mothers placed babies for adoption and would never know what kind of family their children went to. 

Children who were adopted could not answer simple questions like, “What do I look like?” or “Why was I given up for adoption?” If there was a medical problem later in life for adoptees, they had no health history to fall back on because they knew nothing of their birth families. 

Simply put, closed adoptions provided no answers to these questions, as files were sealed.

In the 1970s, Sibler watched adult adoptees talk about their experiences related to adoption and the voids they had in their lives as a result of knowing nothing about their own genetic history. 

“As a result, I made a commitment to provide adoptions where children had answers, instead of unknowns," she said. "My idea was to promote better mental health for adopted children. Luckily, I was the regional director of an adoption agency at that time, so I was able to implement changes at my own agency.”

“To me, the step to open adoption (considered very radical in the 70s and 80s) was the obvious answer. After all, what could be wrong with openness, honesty, and communication within the family?" she continued. "This is the foundation of all healthy families."

Even though her agency began making significant changes to how adoptions were handled, other adoption agencies in the country didn’t follow suit. 

Silber decided she wanted to make an impact on her chosen profession, so she wrote the first book about these new kind of adoptions, called Dear Birthmother, which was first published in 1982.

“This book had a tremendous impact on changing agency practice nationwide, and it is still used as required reading at many agencies, even after all these years," Silber said. "My second book, Children of Open Adoption, was a follow-up and talked about how the children with open adoption were faring over the years."

In the 1980s, open adoption was still a new and hot topic. Phil Donahue was the first talk show she appeared on and the first national show to address this new idea in adoption. 

Silber then appeared on numerous national television shows including: The Today Show, Nightline, Good Morning America, and 20/20.

In 2011, the majority of adoptions – about 80 of domestic infant adoptions in our country – are open adoptions, where the adopted child, the adoptive family, and the birth family get answers to their questions. 

Some maintain contact with each other with frequent letters, frequent visits, or yearly visits — the amount of contact is up to each family. To adoptive families across the country, Kathleen is the hero who stopped the secrecy surrounding adoptions and allowed children of adoption to know where they came from.

Today, Silber continues her work in adoption, helping to create families. She has been the Associate Executive Director of the Independent Adoption Center in Pleasant Hill for the last 22 years. 

They have six offices in five different states, and Kathleen supervises all of the counselors in California. She continues to be on the forefront in her chosen profession.

In fact, the Independent Adoption Center, under her lead, was one of the first agencies in the country to welcome singles and gay couples as prospective adoptive families. Thousands of families have been created thanks to Silber!

Why is Kathleen a “mover and shaker” in her field? In the 1970s, she dared to question traditional adoptions and had the courage to change it. Along the way, traditional adoption agencies offered much opposition. 

“I always felt this was the right thing to do – the best thing for adopted children’s mental health," she said. "I feel very gratified that I was personally responsible for contributing to this positive change in the field of adoption.”

To learn more about adopting a child, visit the Independent Adoption Center’s website at www.adoptionhelp.org.  

Interested in reading one of Silber’s ground breaking books? Both books can be ordered through the publisher at www.coronapublishing.com.

dtwx August 01, 2011 at 08:49 PM
I'm definitely no expert in this field, but I have heard that in general, it's not a good idea to let children know they're adopted when they're young. If they can believe that the people who are raising them are their real parents, it would avoid a lot of feelings of abandonment. It does no good emotionally to know the truth when they're children.
jimm August 02, 2011 at 01:39 PM
You've gotten some really bad advice, dtwx. When the child does find out he or she is adopted, and they always do, any trust between the child and adoptive parents will be forever damaged.
Sarah Frank August 02, 2011 at 11:34 PM
So true--kids know even if we don't tell them--best to be open and honest and not let children create their own untruths.
Janice P Ellis August 03, 2011 at 03:09 AM
Wow, dtwx - I'm STUNNED by your comment here. How can LYING to a child, especially about something as important as their BIRTH, be in any way, shape or form a good thing??? I adopted my daughter in 1991, when she had just turned two years old. Even as she learned to read, I bought her age appropriate books about adoption. By the time she was old enough to understand the full meaning of being adopted, she felt perfectly comfortable with it. As such, she just accepted it as another piece of the story of who she is, and she has grown into a wonderful young woman who is full of promise. Lies never stay buried - they always come to the surface sooner or later, usually with devastating consequences. Trying to keep adoption locked away as some deep, dark family secret is a belief system that no longer works. We all deserve to know the truth. Children must be and SHOULD be included in that.
Rick January 03, 2012 at 07:24 PM
I am no expert. But I've heard the same thing that it's bad to let children know they're adopted. This is only if there's no way for the children to find out on their own. Knowing does not provide any benefit. And the downside would be that they would feel abandoned.

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