Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Attempting to Legislate Perpetual Childhood for Adopted People


I recently read a study from 1984 that focused on opening birth records in New York.  I like to read articles from the past because it shows me the reasoning behind why things are the way that they are and the reform efforts through history.  This study is no exception.  Interviewed were 42 adoptive parents on their perceptions of opening up birth record access to adult adoptees.

Why were Adoptive Parents being asked?

Per the literature review and historical overview in the article:
"Confidentiality has been the traditional hallmark of adoptions carried out by social agencies.  Social Workers and adoptive parents were influential in promoting legislation in the 1930s and 1940s to insure this policy through legal means.  In 1939 "about one third of the states provided for safeguarding the records of adoption from public inspection, and nearly one third made no mention of keeping the records at all' (study's author is quoting Brooks & Brooks, 1939, p. 132).  By 1950 most states had passed adoption legislation sealing adoption records.  The chief reasons given for sealing adoption records focused on issues surrounding the stigma of illegitimacy, the need for anonymity of persons involved in adoption, and the need for completely severing adoptees' ties to the birth parents (study's author is referencing Watson, 1979)."
The literature and historical review also noted that the ideal at the time was that the biological family was the superior family form and confidentiality and severance of ties to the Original Family was paramount in allowing the Adoptive Family to appear as a biological family (p.1).

So, how did adoptive parents respond now, after the records had been sealed for 40-50 years?  Almost 98% were against measures that allowed adult adoptees no access; about 58% disagreed with no access so long as there was medical need.  About 52% agreed with adult adoptee access so long as the First Parents and adoptive parents gave consent (p. 5).

The study attempted to find a correlation as to why adoptive parents in 1979 would feel one way or another about records access.  They determined that fear of being rejected by the adoptee had the strongest correlation with an adoptive parent's disagreement with adult adoptee access to their birth record.  The author of this study noted a prior study where it was found that most adoptees who initiated "genetic searches" felt positively about their relationships with their adoptive family, for the purpose of refuting the stereotype that adult adoptees with interest in their origins were doing so as an affront to their adoptive family.

This study records a piece of important history in the Adoptee Rights Movement.  It reminds us of a dominant argument against access that we no longer hear about--how adoptive parents might not want adoptees to access their original birth certificate.  This argument has fallen to the wayside as social norms and adoption culture has changed.  It's true that birth records were sealed to begin with, both to hide the illegitimacy of the adopted person but also to guarantee the original family could not locate the adoptee and interfere with the adoptive family  The idea that original mothers were promised anonymity is a relatively new objection to this movement.

When both objections, objections based on adoptive parent preferences and objections based on original parent preferences, speak to the underlying theme that has always been present: controlling social norms for adoptees.  Our culture has not quite let adoptees free from the "child role."  Therefore, in 1984 and prior, and even now, it is acceptable to make decisions for adult adoptees as though they were children in adoption law.  Often times without even giving adoptees a place at the table in doing so.

References:
Geissinger, S. (1984). Adoptive Parents' Attitudes Toward Open Birth Records. Family Relations, 33(4), 579.