Most adults are fully aware of where they come from and have access to parents to ask for additional information as they grow. They don’t question who they are, struggle with identity or have to live with uncertainty or family secrets.
This is not the case for most adoptees, who often have questions about their backgrounds, biological parents, extended family, medical history and circumstances surrounding their adoption. So when an adoptee wants access to birth history and information is it not a frivolous request. It is a need to fill the totality of who they are.
The majority of adoption files are considered “closed” or “sealed records,” being inaccessible, except by court order, once the adoption is finalized. Beginning around 1930, closed records were designed to protect birth mothers, children and adoptive parents from the stigma of illegitimacy and shame. Placements occurred in a state of secrecy, with birth mothers sent away as soon as they began to “show” and adoptive parents told to pretend the child was theirs biologically which included not telling the child they were adopted. Birth records and certificates were known to include misinformation in an effort to shield birth and adoptive parents, as well as the children from the stigma of adoption.
Over the years the debate over continuing to deny access to any information has escalated. Adoptees have been denied access to birth history, medical information and their original birth certificates. Birth parents have been barred from receiving information on the adjustment, status and well being of their children. Adoptive parents are unable to obtain medical, psychological or familial history to answer a child’s questions or to aid in their adjustment or medical treatment.
The arguments for and against open records, include:
OPEN RECORDS includes the “right to know”—allowing adoptees the same access to birth information as non-adopted adults. Having access to information is not threatening to birth parents and their privacy as getting information does not mean the adoptee will interfere in a birth parent’s life. But there may be an effect on adoption since new birth parents fearing exposure may choose abortion.
CLOSED RECORDS continues the right to privacy for birth parents, while protecting—and insinuating—triad members are living with shame and continuing the “secrecy” of adoption, preventing adoptees from obtaining family background information which helps form an adult identity, and medical information to help prevent and receive treatment for any hereditary disease.
OPEN RECORDS WITH RESTRICTIONS is a middle road approach. Information would be provided only through an intermediary, with parental permission and a limit of the birth years that would be covered by the openness.
Each state has its own regulations regarding adoption records. Some are open adoption record states. Others have pending legislation or have begun to open adoption records. Until a time that all states open adoption records without limitation, many adoptees, birth and adoptive parents need to rely on search groups, professional searches and registries to obtain information.
As legislatures and adoption movement groups grapple with the pros and cons of open and closed adoptions, adoptees, birth and adoptive parents continue to struggle with the “right to know,” stepping out of the shadows of secrecy, shame and stigma and obtaining the same rights as non-adopted adults—to know who they are.
UNDERSTANDING OPEN/CLOSED RECORDS
States with Open Adoption Records (5/2014)
Access to Adoption Records (2012)
ADOPTION SEARCH GROUPS AND REUNION REGISTRIES