Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Adoptions in American History: Open or Closed?

Pop Quiz!

Have adoptions historically been open or closed?

I’ll give you a few minutes to come up with your answer. While you’re doing that, let me outline what I mean by “open” and “closed.” Openness in adoption covers a scope of situations, from regular contact between an adoptee, their birth parents, and their adoptive parents; to infrequent contact; to letters; to phone calls. Openness also involves the free, honest sharing of information between parties in an adoption. This means that ethnicities, medical history, facts about siblings, and the information on the adoptee’s original birth certificate are, in an open adoption, shared with the adoptee.

So – did you come up with an answer yet?

I’ve been training audiences of prospective foster and adoptive parents for several years, and I’ve asked this question to hundreds of people. Some people opt not to answer. Most believe that adoptions have historically been closed. But adoptions have historically been open.

Not what you expected?

Adoption has not always been under the scope of public law, and accordingly has been somewhat informal, but it’s historically been quite open. If a child was being raised by a person other than their biological parent, folks usually knew. The child knew. The public knew. Sometimes, a parent-child relationship was established, and other times the relationship remained something other than parent-child, but still nurturing and based on meeting the child’s needs. But the knowledge of the situation was common. Everyone in Avonlea knew that Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert were caring for, but not the biological parents, of Anne. And that was the norm for as far back as anyone can look.

This wasn’t without problems. Anne of Green Gables relates the uncertainty that the Cuthberts’ neighbors felt at their choice to care for an orphan. The neighbors felt certain that orphans were somehow less safe, not as good as, and less natural than a child born to a family. And so, Anne entered the town with judgments already made against her.

Anne is fictional, but the judgments were quite prominent in real life, as well. Many times, children who were available for adoption were born to unmarried women. Many people in those days assumed that this fact was relevant to the character of the child. They called these children “illegitimate” – and it seems that they expected no good of them. Think about the word “illegitimate” for a second. If I say that a monarch is “illegitimate,” I’m saying that he got where he is through unorthodox means, and because of how he got there, he has no right to be there. That’s the same thing people were saying about these kids. And because the information was publicly available, anyone could go to their local hall of records, inquire into a child, and use what they found as an explanation for why the child isn’t (or won’t be) any good.

Minnesota was the first State to change this. In 1917, Minnesota enacted a law which kept adoption records confidential from the public. There was no intention to keep the adoption records confidential from the parties in the adoption. The law made it so that a nosy neighbor couldn’t poke into a child’s record, but did not prevent a child or the adoptive or birth parents of the child from accessing the record.

The confidentiality was intended to protect the children from undue scrutiny, but benefits were also found by adoptive and birth parents. Adoptive parents could hide the fact that their family was formed through adoption, perhaps denying or hiding the infertility or difficult family circumstances which brought about the adoption. Birth parents – especially birth mothers – could be protected from public judgment for having a child out of wedlock.

And so confidentiality morphed into secrecy. While confidentiality says “this is my story, and I can share it with whom I choose,” secrecy says, “this is my shame. I can’t share it with anyone.” And that’s what happened to adoption records. By the end of World War 2, adoption records were largely sealed. Adoption was secret. A nosy neighbor would still be denied access to an adoptee’s birth certificate. And the adoptee would also be denied access. No contact, no information. And that’s what most people think has been the historical norm. But really, it only came into prominence in the 1950’s, and was only briefly unchallenged.

In the 1970’s, Florence Fisher founded the Adoptee Liberty Movement Association, which held that adoptees have the right to their own story. The ALMA fought for adoptees to have access to their original birth certificates, and coined the term “birth parent” to give a name to those people whose identities were locked away and inaccessible, while still acknowledging that the adoptive parents are also “real” parents.

The fight continues. In some states, adoptees have access to their birth records. Openness can happen naturally. In other states, the records are sealed. Adoptees in the wrong states might not know where they were born, whether they have siblings, or even what their name was at birth. Perhaps the records stay sealed because there is a prevailing thought that “things have always been this way.”

But it’s just not true.

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Interested in more posts like this? You might enjoy:

Open vs. Closed Adoption - an introduction for prospective adoptive parents

What I Learned in Intro to Psychology: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in Foster Care

A Girl's Escape From Foster Care: Perfect Monday Moment November 2012


  1. well, I didn't see THAT coming...I would have thought that people would be afraid of open adoptions.

  2. Some folks are initially afraid of it, but once they explore and learn their fear usually subsides. I'm pleasantly surprised by how many prospective adoptive parents do know how important and beneficial openness can be! For what it's worth, when I ask roomfuls of prospective parents what they think the norm is, and what they want, most people say that they're open to an open relationship, but that they assume that closed is normal.

  3. we still live in a society where folks from the 1950's are still alive and influencing. Open adoption is often scrutinized by people born to that generation, so to speak. This has been my personal experience. However, as stated by the author, the state you live in also contributes to this.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Robyn. I think we are in the midst of a culture shift with regard to how people feel about openness in adoption, but part of any culture shift is disagreement! By the way, there's a really good book that just came out, called "The Open Hearted Way to Open Adoption" by Lori Holden.


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