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History of Sealed Adoption Records

By Robin Elizabeth Margolis ; Updated June 13, 2017

If you are an American adult adopted child or adoptee, a birth parent or an adoptive parent born after 1940, you probably assume that state adoption records have always been closed. But prior to 1940 state adoption records were usually open to adult adoptees seeking their birth records.

Roman Empire Adoptions

In Rome, most adoptions were "open" adoptions, in which a family with no male heir would adopt a boy from another family. The boy would grow up knowing both families.

Authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman describe Roman "closed" adoptions on their "Children in Ancient History" web page. Romans who did not want a newborn child left the baby at a public place designated for this purpose. Adoptive parents would visit this area and select babies. The children who were not adopted were seized by slave traders or left to die from exposure or wild animal attacks.

Pre-1940 American Adoptions

When the Roman Empire collapsed, formal legal adoptions fell out of fashion in many parts of Europe. Medieval and early modern societies, such as colonial America, placed more emphasis on blood ties.

American adoptions prior to 1940 were usually open and informal. Children were simply turned over to adoptive parents. A Public Broadcasting System website, "The Orphan Trains," discusses how over 150,000 orphaned, abandoned and abused children were put on trains in East coast cities and sent to farming families between 1854 and 1929.

Closed Adoption Records

The first American state adoption laws began appearing after 1850. Open adoptions lost popularity, and adoption records were gradually closed. By 1960, out of the 48 then-existing states, 28 states had closed adoption records, unless a court order was obtained. Twenty states still allowed adult adoptees to request access to their birth records on demand. By 1990, only three states allowed adult adoptees to see their birth records on demand.

Reasons for Closure

In a 2001 "Adoption Quarterly" article, "The Strange History of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Records," Professor Elizabeth Samuels of the University of Baltimore School of Law attributes adoption records closure to post-World War II societal attitudes pushing women into marriage.

Unmarried mothers had been regarded as sinners throughout American history, and were seen, after 1940, as mentally ill and socially deviant. Some 1950s adoption authorities advocating placing illegitimate babies with married adoptive couples and then severing all connection between the children and their birth parents as the best option for the children.

Adoptees Oppose Closure

Ironically, while adoption experts pushed for records closure after 1950, groups of adult adoptees and birth parents, such as Bastard Nation and Concerned United Birthparents, began fighting state closure of adoption records, which hampered adoptee reunions with birth parents and prevented adult adoptees from learning about their backgrounds.

If you are an adult adoptee or birth parent seeking information about your state's adoption records laws, the federal Child Welfare Information Gateway maintains a web page with links to relevant state laws, "Access to Adoption Records." Only Alaska, Oregon, Kansas, Alabama, New Hampshire and Maine currently allow adult adoptees unrestricted access to their birth records.

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