Closed Adoption History

Closed Adoption- Introduction

Closed adoptions, also known as sealed adoptions, are adoptions where the birth records of the person who was adopted were sealed, most often by law or by the request of the birth parents. Many people who are unfamiliar with the history of closed adoptions in the United States assume that adoptions have always been closed or have been closed for a long period of time. In actuality, the trend to seal adoption records by sealing the court records of the adoption only began in the early twentieth century with a few states beginning to seal the adoption records from the public as early as 1917. This has led to some believing that the adoption records were sealed from everyone at this time, including the adults who were adopted as children and then sought information about their birth. This is simply not the case because as many as forty percent of the states in the US by 1960 still recognized the right of an adult to have unrestricted access to their own birth records. Then things began to change in the 1960s. Over the next three decades, the number of states that allowed adult adoptees open access to their birth records was reduced to three.

Reasons for Closed Adoptions

In the 1940s and 1950s, numerous voices in the childcare field began to voice concern over the openness of adoption records. However, contrary to what some might believe, this concern was not about the adoptee, as an adult, trying to find their birth parents. Originally, the professionals were worried that the birth parents would interfere with the child’s adoptive family. There was also a concern for the welfare of the child that was adopted if it was found out that the birthparents were not married at the time. This was due to the social stigma that was placed on unwed couples having children. The voices that called for the records to be sealed, such as the US Children’s Bureau, also specified that adults who were adopted as children should have unrestricted access to their birth records. The Children’s Bureau went so as far as to suggest that an adoption certificate could be used in place of a birth certificate, especially in cases where all that needed to be verified was the date and location of birth. The Children’s Bureau made this recommendation “so that he [the child] may be spared the embarrassment of explaining why his own name and the names of the parents are not the same as the names on his birth record.” The Bureau even suggested that the records should only be made available upon the request of the adult who was adopted, their representative, or court order. Federal laws, at first, also recommended that the records should be made available to adoptees once they were of legal age. Slowly, over the next few decades, this recommendation faded from the text of federal laws until the 1994 revision of the Uniform Adoption Act. The act specified that adoption records could only be unsealed by court order and that adult adoptees did not have the right to access their birth records. The reasoning behind the change to not allow adult adoptees access to birth records was not given in the text or summary of the law.

Evolution of State and Federal Laws

Indifference to the federal government, some state governments began to pass stricter laws early on in regards to adoption records. Some states began in the 1930s by passing laws that required the courts to notify the state’s office of vital statistics so that a new birth certificate could be issued for the child that had the adoptive parents’ names on them. A few states even began to act against the recommendations of the Children’s Bureau by adopting laws that required birth and adoption records to be sealed from everyone, including adult adoptees who were adopted as children. A survey of state adoption laws in 1938 showed that three states had adopted these kinds of laws. The same survey showed that only ten states had laws restricting access to adoption records so that only those who were a part of the process could access the records. Then a survey taken in 1943 showed that over half of the states had laws restricting access to those who were a part of the process. By 1960, twenty-eight states had reported that original birth records were only available by court order.

Open Adoption Movement

As the various state and federal governments continued to tighten restrictions in the 1960s, opponents of the sealed adoption process began to argue that sealed adoptions would actually do more harm than good. It was argued that sealing the entire process, especially while attempting to protect the child from the identity of their birth parents, was extremely harmful to the child. The opponents argued that this was because there were always certain aspects of the birth parents in the child, such as medical history, different genetic traits, and so on that could not be kept from the child. This, among other issues, would often lead to the children finding out that they were adopted, which often led to questions about who they were and why their birth parents placed them for adoption. With closed records, opponents argued, they would never be able to get the answers to these questions. If you are interested in reading more about open adoptions, you can read the article “Open Adoptions” which continues on about the Open Adoption movement.