How Adoption Grew Secret

Our kids deserve to know who their people were.

A file stamped, "Confidential" represents closed adoption records.

They’ve become a standard of news features, magazine articles, and movie plots: the stories of adopted men and women who decide to seek out their biological parents. The urge for reunion seems so elemental that a plethora of organizations has sprung up to assist adoptees in their search. Today, the Internet is filled with Web sites offering registries to help adoptees and birth families find each other by matching information such as dates and places of birth.

But many adoptees “in search” are unable to find information through these organizations or official state registry systems. Their only hope is access to original records, such as their unamended birth certificates. This is a source that remains largely closed to them, even though, as studies show, most birth parents are open to being found.

In fact, most birth parents may never have objected. The general assumption seems to be that closed adoption records were to protect the birth mother’s identity. But that isn’t the case—as I discovered when I undertook to research a question from my own family’s experience. The child my sister had surrendered for adoption was able to locate us because my sister had given birth in England, where records have been open to adult adoptees since 1975.

As I saw what profound satisfaction mother and daughter experienced getting to know each other, I wondered why almost every U.S. state had decided to close records to the adult children of adoption.

What I found surprised me. When adoption in America became legal in the second half of the 19th century, all adoption records were open. When they began to be closed, the intent was to protect adoptees from public scrutiny. Later, states began to close records to protect adoptive families from interference by birth parents.

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One of the most prominent players in the development of American adoption law was the Children’s Bureau. In the 1940s and ’50s, the bureau advised that birth and adoptive parents who did not know one another should not have access to information about each other. But it also said that original birth certificates should be available to adult adoptees.

By 1960, 26 states had made both original birth records and adoption court records available by court order. Twenty other states made birth records available on demand. But over the next 30 years, things changed; all states but Alaska, Kansas, and South Dakota closed their records.

Why? The historical record suggests that birth mothers were in fact seeking a measure of confidentiality. What they wanted, however, was to prevent their own families from learning of their situations. It may simply have been that closing records was consistent with an emerging social idea about adoption: that it was a perfect and complete substitute for creating a family by childbirth. An adopted child had only one family and so would never be interested in learning about any other family.

The record-sealing laws themselves may have fostered the notion that lifelong secrecy is essential to adoption. Adult adoptees were discouraged from seeking information about their birth families. In the 1970s, legal briefs and court opinions justified permanently sealed records in terms of birth parents’ rights to anonymity.
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Since the adoptees’ rights movement began in the 1970s, it encountered stiff opposition. Eventually, adoptees won the right to view records—in many states, including Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, and Kansas. Several more, including Arkansas, Delaware, and Illinois, made records available if birth parents have not filed an objection. Yet, even today, many states keep records sealed.

Senator Orrin Hatch said, “Ancestry is an important component of identity.” As state legislatures contemplate giving adult adoptees access rights, they should be reminded that once it was considered natural for adoptees to know who their people were.

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