It’s important to keep in mind that, while adoption relationships can change, it is more complicated to increase contact than to decrease it. If a birth mother starts with an open relationship and then decides later that she needs distance, she can do this at any time. However, if an adoption is closed and a birth mother wants more contact, then she has to come to an agreement with the adoptive family. Therefore, it is especially important that a birth mother choosing closed adoption is sure that it is what she wants.
When adoptions are closed, the files are usually physically sealed. Nevertheless, most states have created procedures through which family members seeking to "open" a closed adoption may be able to access information about the other parties. However, the process and degree of access to information varies widely from state to state, with some states requiring a court order to reveal information that can be used to identify a party to an adoption.
Oftentimes the birth and adoptive parents will sign a Post-Adoption Contract (sometimes called an Open Adoption Agreement), putting in writing any promises regarding contact after the adoption is finalized. Even in those states which do not expressly have laws in this area, these agreements can usually be prepared if the parties desire to formalize the agreement. In an increasing number of US states, courts will find these agreements legally enforceable, as long as they serve the best interests of the child. It is not unusual for these agreements to be more like "handshake" agreements, although they offer less protection to a birth parent if the adoptive parent's promises were not honored.
A closed adoption is the type where there is totally no contact between the birth parents and the adoptive parents as well as the child. There is also no classifying information shared between families about each other, thereby effectively cutting possible contact between the two. Before the child joins the family, the adoptive parents are provided with non-identifying data about the child and his or her birth family. Once the adoption is concluded, all records are sealed. These sealed records may or may not become accessible to the adopted child once he or she turns 18, but this is dependent on the signed paperwork and local law.
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Some states have confidential intermediary systems. This often requires a person to petition the court to view the sealed adoption records, then the intermediary conducts a search similar to that of a private investigator. This can be either a search for the birth mother at the request of the adoptee, or vice versa. Quite often, in the many years which have passed since the adoptee was born, a birth mother or female adoptee has both moved to another address, and married or remarried resulting in a change of her surname. While this can make the search difficult and time consuming, a marriage certificate may provide the needed clue as to the person's whereabouts. If and when the intermediary is able to contact the birth mother (or adoptee), she is informed that her adopted child (or birth mother) is inquiring about her. In the few states that have open adoption records, should this party indicate that he or she does not want to be contacted, by law, the information would not be given out. Upon completion of the search in which the birth mother agrees to be contacted, the intermediary usually sends the adoptee the official unamended birth certificate obtained from the court. The adoptive parents' application to an adoption agency remains confidential, however.
Likely the most common arrangement in open adoptions is for the adoptive parents to commit to sending the birth mother photos of the child (and themselves as a family) each year, and short written updates, until the child reaches the age of 18. Often these photos and updates will be sent more than just once a year, such as the child's birthday or other significant events. Sometimes an intermediary is selected to receive and forward the updates, and sometimes it is done directly. This can be through mail or email. Some adoptions are more open than just sending photos and updates and include face-to-face contact. The amount of contact can vary greatly from just once in the first year, to multiple times annually throughout the child's life. Some of the adoptees raised in open adoption are now in adulthood and are writing about the experience of growing up in an open adoption.