Closed adoption (also called "confidential" adoption and sometimes "secret" adoption) is a process by which an infant is adopted by another family, and the record of the biological parent(s) is kept sealed. Often, the biological father is not recorded—even on the original birth certificate. An adoption of an older child who already knows his or her biological parent(s) cannot be made closed or secret. This used to be the most traditional and popular type of adoption, peaking in the decades of the post-World War II Baby Scoop Era. It still exists today, but it exists alongside the practice of open adoption. The sealed records effectively prevent the adoptee and the biological parents from finding, or even knowing anything about each other (especially in the days before the Internet). The International Association of Adopted People does not support any form of closed adoption because it believes that closed adoption is detrimental to the psychological wellbeing of the adopted child. However, the emergence of non-profit organizations and private companies to assist individuals with their sealed records has been effective in helping people who want to connect with biological relatives to do so.
Reunion registries were designed so adoptees and their birth parents, siblings or other family members can locate one another at little or no cost. In these mutual consent registries, both parties must have registered in order for there to be a match. Most require the adoptee to be at least 18 years old. Though they did not exist until late in the 20th century, today there are many World Wide Web pages, chat rooms, and other online resources that offer search information, registration and support.
A 1996 study reported in Child Development found that all the children studied “reported positive levels of self-esteem, curiosity about their birthparents, and satisfaction with the openness situation” regardless of whether their adoptions were closed, semi-open, or open. What this seems to mean is that the child's sense of security in his adoptive family is more important than contact with the birth family.
Decades ago, virtually all adoptions were closed. A closed adoption means that there is no contact whatsoever between the birthparents and the adoptive parents and child after the adoption takes place. In fact, there may also be no contact before the adoption. Nowadays, however, the trend in the United States is toward open adoptions, in which all the parties to an adoption meet and often remain in each other's lives.
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In all adoption searches, it is uncommon to find both the birth mother and father at the same time. A separate search, if desired, can be done afterwards for the father. Since males seldom change their surnames, and the mother might have additional information, it is usually easier than the initial search for the birth mother. In many cases, adoptees are able to do this second search for their birth father by themselves (or they try before paying for assistance).
Many open adoption relationships have a warmth that comes from having shared a common struggle – allowing yourself to be vulnerable to another human being, responding to that person’s vulnerability, and being committed to a common goal that centers around the best interest of the child. Like all relationships, open adoption will inevitably have peaks and valleys; yet, as people overcome each hurdle, there are opportunities to learn what to expect from each other and ultimately gain confidence in a collective ability to make the relationships work. When it is safe to create meaningful connections for a child, openness in any adoption — however limited — can be a great gift.
For children in open adoptions, the toughest challenge may come when a birth parent who’s been visiting or calling suddenly vanishes or drifts away. The trigger can be a move to a new job, a marriage, or a personal problem, such as drugs or alcohol. In some cases, a birth mother may not feel worthy of contact, or she may get the message from the adoptive parents that she’s not welcome.
Many adopting parents in non-private adoptions would apply to a local, state licensed adoption agency. The agency may be a member of the national Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). The CWLA and many adoption agencies are still in operation today, but with an expanded and somewhat different agenda compared to past decades, as the government has largely taken over some of their previous responsibilities.
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.
To be sure, open adoption gets rave reviews from the many social workers and families who champion it. Since the mid-1970s, open adoptions have been widely accepted as more compassionate and enlightened than the secretive adoptions of a previous generation. Indeed, the confidentiality that once defined adoption is no longer the norm. While international adoptions remain mostly closed, as do many public agency adoptions, domestic adoptions increasingly involve contact between adoptive parents and birth parents.
Like any relationship, open adoption relationships evolve over time. Post-adoption contact may increase or decrease, or the nature of the contact may change along with people’s changing lives. However, even in the most open adoption relationship, the birth parent is not a co-parent but rather another very important person in the child’s life. The child’s adoptive parent(s) are his or her legal parent(s) and they have all rights and responsibility for the child. Most importantly, when birth parents and adoptive parents set out to forge their relationship, the child’s needs must always be paramount.
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.
We have learned valuable lessons regarding the resilience of children, and they continue to astound and inspire us. We have also been humbled by many birth parents who have been able to successfully resolve the grief of lost opportunities to parent their children through sheer grace that is involved in their healing relationships with their children and their adoptive family members through the years.
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In 2013, the film Philomena based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, opened in cinemas worldwide. It tells the true story of Philomena's 50-year-long search for her forcefully adopted Irish infant son, who was sent to the United States. She is eventually assisted by BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, which takes up the majority of the film. Starring Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as Sixsmith, it was nominated for four American and four British Academy Awards.
Only a court order allows closed adoption records to be unsealed, which was quite uncommon prior to the early 1990s. A few cases have surfaced in which records were thought to have been sealed but were not—either by mishandling or misunderstanding. Although rare, a small number of people have been prosecuted over the years for violating the confidentially of sealed adoption records. In 1998, Oregon voters passed Measure 58 which allowed adoptees to unseal their birth records without any court order. Some other states which used to keep closed adoption records sealed permanently by default have since changed to allowing release once the adoptee turns 18. However, these laws were not made retroactive; only future adoptions subsequent to the laws' passage apply.
This idea can be scary at first. Most women considering adoption are totally unfamiliar with how open adoption works. But, after understanding the idea better, it’s something that many prospective birth mothers are eager to choose. In fact, more than 90 percent of adoptions today involve some level of openness — and it is entirely up to you to decide what that looks like for you and your child.
Some (not many) agencies encourage a complete disclosure of identities between birthparents and adopting parents, as well as an ongoing close relationship. Agencies that support fully open disclosures believe that an open adoption is a better way for both adoptive parents and birthparents—as well as the children. Agencies that don't support open adoption feel just as strongly that continued contact is not a good idea for any of the parties.