Open Adoption History

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Open adoption has become the norm in the U.S. for infant adoptions. The closed procedures that dominated adoption in the past required that there be no exchange of information or contact of any kind between the adopting and biological parents. All decisions about who adopted which baby were made solely by agency social workers. Most of us have grown up accepting closed adoption as the norm, but those procedures were anything but normal. First, Americans are very suspicious of any type of government secrecy. Second, we do not respond very well to the government (agencies) making crucial decisions for people, instead of letting them decide for themselves. What could be more important than who adopts what child?

Adoption was not always a matter of secrecy, nor did laws always seal adoption records. In Colonial days, adoption could be accomplished by merely recording the transfer of a child, much like we now transfer the deed to our homes or title to our cars. Early laws, such as those passed in Texas and Vermont in 1850, were intended to make this type of informal adoption more secure. All court records, however, were open to the public.

The origin of secrecy and the practice of sealing records has to be understood in the light of a different era, the early 1900s. Social work as a profession was just developing. Unlike today, there were many destitute children available for adoption, but few potential adoptive parents. It was largely believed that such social ills as poverty, sexual promiscuity, alcoholism, and crime were passed on to children in the genes. For that reason, middle class family members feared taking to their hearts a child of questionable parentage. The risk was just too great that the maturing child would exhibit the sinful attributes of the criminal or perverted parents.

In order to sell the public on adoption as a viable means of caring for large numbers of children, social workers needed to establish themselves as experts in matching children to families. They thus assumed the status of a third party between prospective adoptive parents and birthparents. The pressures of trying to recruit adoptive parents led social workers to give assurances that the child was without physical, emotional, or mental defect.

The selling job that this profession mounted involved legislative protection as an essential element. Sealed records evolved, in effect concealing the background of the child. In addition, the child's birth certificate no longer was stamped with the fact of illegitimate birth. Later, replacement birth certificates began to be issued, listing names of the adoptive parents as if the child had been naturally born to them. This practice of issuing new birth certificates was termed a "legal rebirth" for the adoptee. What started as a process to make adoption more attractive and to protect the child from being forever haunted by his illegitimate birth became linked with the idea of rebirth and the mandate of secrecy. By 1950 most states had laws forever sealing original birth certificates and court records, not only from the public but also from the adoptive parents and the adoptee.

Pressure for change mounted in the l970's and increased in the l980's and l990's. When adoption was the sole alternative to a lifetime of shame, a birthmother had little choice but to accept closed adoption. However, as the social mores against unwed motherhood disappeared, so did young people's tolerance of these attitudes. Soon few women were choosing adoption for their child (by 1980, less than 3% of non-married women under 25 years of age). Adults who were adopted as children started demanding the right to know their genetic histories. Birthmothers from past years began clamoring for change. Just as other non-traditional alternatives emerged in those decades--from the civil rights movement to alternative schools--so, too, did open adoption.

Evidence of the destructive impact of closed procedures mounted. In American society secrecy is associated with shame. The shame and stigma of closed adoption left many children feeling that there was something terribly wrong with their own biological heritage. With no information about their birthparents, many adopted children believed that they were just thrown away or that they were given away because they were 'bad' or ugly.

Contrary to popular opinion, closed adoption has been more, not less, prone to failure than open adoption. People get the opposite impression only because the failures of closed adoption are hidden from public view by the very secrecy of the process. When a birthmother with a closed adoption experiences the sense of loss and grief that can accompany choosing adoption for her baby, she has little to counterbalance that pain. She has no idea of where her child is going, nor can she experience firsthand the new parents' excitement and gratitude for her gift to them.

Surprisingly, much of the original impetus for openness came from adoption attorneys. Since they were not social workers, they had neither the long history of closed adoption nor the indoctrination that was common in the social work profession about closed adoption. With many agencies refusing to change, by the late 1980's attorneys began to dominate infant adoption. But few attorneys could handle the emotional issues inherent in adoption, and the failure rate increased to 25% or more in California. Fortunately, there was growing pressure on adoption agencies to offer what the attorney's could not: careful screening of prospective parents and comprehensive counseling, now in the context of open adoption.

Agencies that refused to change simply did fewer adoptions or stopped providing adoption services. After all, for most prospective birthparents deciding between open vs. closed adoption is a "slam dunk." Would they choose a system that treated them as pathological, gave them no choice about who got their baby, and told them to pretend their child was dead? Or would they choose open adoption, where they were respected, even appreciated, had a say in who adopted their child, and could know how their child fared over the years? For adoptive parents, working with a closed adoption agency could easily mean waiting seven to ten years to adopt a child.

Some pioneering agencies led the movement for change, beginning in the 1970's. They included Lutheran Social Service in San Antonio, Texas under the direction of Kathleen Silber, a program by Jim Gritter's Catholic agency in Michigan, and the nationwide Independent Adoption Center. And change came. In the early 1990's, annual meetings of the National Federation for Open Adoption (formed by the IAC) were still debating the merits of openness. By the late 1990's, that question was no longer relevant; the issues at hand were best practices in open adoption, not whether it was correct or not.

Today, 80% or more of domestic infant adoptions are open adoptions. Adoptive families now take for granted the 'normalcy' of open adoption. As an example, few of our (the Independent Adoption Center's) nearly 4,000 families can even imagine adopting any other way. In practice, the amount of contact between birthparents and child varies a great deal. Sometimes there is considerable contact between the adopted child and his/her birthparents. In other cases, perhaps for the mundane reason that everyone lives far apart, the contact is minimal. Always the basic principle stays the same: caring contact between adopted children and birthparents is like any other normal, healthy relationship in our society, not something about which to be ashamed. In fact, the birthfamily is part of the adoptive family's extended family because they are related to the child. This model of the birthfamily as extended family is the core of open adoption.

Today, people still talk about open and closed adoption. Within a few years, those terms will have lost their meaning. Openness will be the rule (with a few exceptions, of course) and what we now call open adoption will just be called adoption.

Kathleen Silber, MSW, ACSW, is the Independent Adoption Center's Clinical & Associate Executive Director. She is a nationally regarded expert, has written numerous groundbreaking books including Dear Birthmother and Children of Open Adoption, and has advocated extensively for open adoption. As IAC's Clinical Director, Ms. Silber provides IAC with clinical oversight and IAC's staff with clinical supervision

Excerpt from Kathleen Silber & Phylis Speedlin, Dear Birthmother: Thank you for our baby, Corona Publishing, © 1982, 1991, 1997