The History of Open Adoption vs. History of Open Adoption Records

I think it's so important to learn about history, especially the history of something that I personally am connected with.  Seeing what happened in the past helps us evaluate the present and make changes for the future.  No more interesting to me is the history of OBC access as well as the history of openness in adoption.  These histories are not widely known; I would hazard to say that they're not even widely known within the larger adoption community. 

OBCs (Original Birth Certificates)
The groups that oppose OBC access rely on two main tactics to do so: (1) adoption stereotypes and (2) selective representation of adoption history, where the history of "Confidential Adoptions" is intertwined (or one in the same) as the history of records access.  The current view by many of these groups is that confidential adoption, which included the sealing of the OBC, was preferable because it allowed an original mother to live her life free of the stigma of unwed motherhood, the adoptee free from the stigma of illegitimate birth, and the Adoptive Parents a child whose past was sealed neatly away.

This summary intertwines the record closures with the state of openness (or lack thereof) in adoption.  But when you look at the actual history, it doesn't fit.  In fact, open adoption vs. open records in adoption have opposing historical trends.  As adoption practice has become more open, records pertaining to an adoptee's pre-adoption history have legally become more closed.

In actuality, amending and sealing began as a way to hide  the "illegitimate" and "bastard" labels that, up until the 1960's, most states were still checking/writing/stamping/placing where the father's name should go, on the birth certificates of children born out of wedlock.  Especially decades ago, the title "bastard" was a defining label and could follow the person for a lifetime.  Adoptees often could access their OBCs until more closures started happening, this time to appeal to Adoptive Parents by enforcing the severance of ties with the Original Family by making the OBC unavailable even to the Adult Adoptee.

To learn more about that history, I recommend the many works by Dr. E. Wayne Carp, Dr. Katrina Wegar, and Professor Elizabeth Samuels.  To learn more about the history of illegitimacy, I recommend "The Sins of the Fathers" by Dr. John Witte.  Ricki Solinger is a leading Historian in Women's Rights and has researched and interviewed surrendering mothers.

I think the codes stating the reasons closures happened that have been found, the actual legal process of amending and sealing, the ads in the newspapers listing a surrendering mother's name (seeking the putative father), and the fact that all adoptees (step-parent, kinship, customary/tribal, etc.) regardless of whether or not they are raised by their natural parent(s) or relatives also have their birth certificates sealed, speaks for itself that OBC access being closed did not have anything to do with concern for whether or not original mothers actually wanted to be anonymous.

Confidential vs. Open Adoptions
As for the history of Confidential vs. Open Adoptions, my reading has lead me to believe that this is completely separate from OBC access.  Foremost, because throughout history, birth records have gradually become more closed (except for the few states that have recently been reformed) while adoptions have gradually become more open.  If they were one in the same, one would think the pattern would be the same.

You  might recall that I wrote about adoptees and their invisible history; how we have foremothers and forefathers who have gone before and fought for our rights.  BJ Lifton, whom our community recently just lost, was one of them.  But original mothers have pioneers in mother's rights too.  I have too often seen these mothers criticized for speaking out.  However, I believe it is the voices of these women that played a large part in why there is more openness and information sharing today.  If it weren't for the mothers who share their stories and spread awareness for change, how much progress would we have made?

And I in no way mean that to assume that adoption is perfect now.  It is far from it.

I was reading a study on openness in adoption, from 2003.  It does confuse OBC access with Confidential Adoptions when giving the historical background of openness in adoption.  Other information in the study was interesting to me, especially because it involved so much history.  The study included history in its literature review but was based on history itself, interviewing adoption agencies in 1987-89, 1993, and 1999 to gather their perceptions of the shift from closed adoptions to more open adoptions in the U.S.
  • Large numbers of Adult Adoptees and original mothers were returning to agencies asking for information (p.3).
  • Organizations supporting Adult Adoptees and original mothers (e.g. ALMA and CUB) began advocating for adoption reform (p.3)
  • These individuals and groups sharing their voices helped bring awareness that openness could be healthy--a concept that was often abruptly rejected before (p.3).
  • The decreased stigmas of unwed motherhood, the decreased amount of babies being placed for adoption, as well as the availability of more reproductive choice gave a new platform by which expectant mothers could speak (p. 3)
  • Some agencies began to realize that it was important to offer open adoptions because of the benefits to the child.  While other agencies may have disagreed with this, the gradual shift towards openness spread.  This was due to the fact that, without complying to the demand that there was for openness, they would not have been able to stay in business (p. 4).
  • During the first interview period '87-'89, 87% of the agencies were offering mediated/confidential adoptions and only 36% offered a "fully disclosed adoption" (p.8). 
  • During the second interview period 1993, both open and closed adoptions were widely offered and only 53% of adoptions were closed.
  • By the final interview period in 1999: "[n]ot a single agency at Time 3 offered only confidential adoptions" (p. 8).
  • Consistent with the historical overview of openness in the study's literature review, agencies from all three time periods stated that the trend toward openness was because mothers demanded it (p.11).
Historically, a lot of poor stereotypes have been spread about adoptees of closed adoptions who sought to open their records or essentially "open" their adoptions by reuniting.  Research consistently credits these adoptees and original mothers who did the same for the existence of open adoptions.  Socially, they changed the "norms" where now surrendering mothers and adoptive parents would not choose adoption unless there was openness.  Agencies had to adapt to the changing social norm.  They were also responding to the closed adoption adoptees themselves who went back to them and said, "this did not work."

The militant mother and adoptee activists from decades ago, whose words are so often hard to hear?  Thank them for open adoption.  They are the reason that it exists.

Things are absolutely not perfect--we still need people sharing their views and experiences.  While the trend toward increasing awareness of both mother's rights as well as openness in adoption was largely due to mothers and adoptees speaking out that the closed system had not worked for them, expectant mothers being able to voice their demands, and increasing societal awareness that things needed to change.....change is still needed.  Openness may be encouraged in the best interest of children but most openness is still not legally enforceable.  A mother who wants an open adoption may surrender with the impression her adoption will be open only for it to close.  Openness in adoption may be used to mislead mothers considering adoption--and this isn't right.  Mothers continuing to speak out about their experiences is vital to spreading awareness and promoting the rights of mothers.  Likewise for adoptees.  Hearing the voices of women and families is vital to understanding what is needed to preserve families.

Thank you, to all who have and are, fighting for the rights of adoptees, women, mothers, children, and families.

Henney, S., McRoy, R., Ayers, L., & Grotevant, H. (2003). The impact of openness on adoption agency practices: a longitudinal perspective. Adoption Quarterly, 6(3), 31-51. Retrieved from Social Work Abstracts database.

"Never depend upon institutions or government to solve any problem. All social movements are founded by, guided by, motivated and seen through by the passion of individuals. " — Margaret Mead