How Adoption in America Grew Secret

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In the '40s and '50s, most state laws did permit adult adoptees to view their birth records. But by 1960, 26 states were making both original birth records and adoption court records available only by court order. Twenty other states still made the birth records available on demand, but over the following 30 years, all those states but three - Alaska, Kansas and South Dakota - closed records to adult adoptees.

Why were states closing their records even before 1960, when the reasons being advanced were all about protecting adoptive families, and not birth parents? The historical record suggests that birth mothers were in fact seeking a measure of confidentiality. What the mothers wanted, however, was not to prevent the adoptive parents and the children they had surrendered from discovering their identities, but to prevent their families and communities from learning of their situations. A powerful reason for the earliest closings of birth records to adult adoptees may simply have been that it was consistent with an emerging social idea about adoption: that it was a perfect and complete substitute for creating a family by childbirth, so the adopted child had no other family and would never be interested in learning about any other family.

Once most states sealed records for everyone except adult adoptees - and many states foreclosed access even to them - the record-sealing laws themselves may have helped foster the notion that lifelong secrecy is an essential feature of adoption. Adult adoptees increasingly felt discouraged from seeking information about their birth families, and those who did were viewed as maladjusted. By the 1970s, legal comments and court opinions started to talk about the reason for permanently sealed records in terms of birth parents' rights to lifelong anonymity. And states continued to pass laws foreclosing adult adoptees' access to birth records.