THE HISTORY OF SEALED ADOPTION RECORDS IN THE UNITED STATES
Adoption records and original birth certificates have not always been sealed. In fact, the practice is a relatively recent development in our nation’s history. Sealed records is the “radical experiment,” not open records.
In the first half of the 20th century, most states marked birth certificates “legitimate” or “illegitimate.” Because of the stigma associated with illegitimacy, original birth certificates were sealed to the public but were available to the adoptee upon majority. In the 1930’s, adoption records were sealed to the public in most states, the explicit reason being to protect the adoptive family from exposure to embarrassment or even blackmail regarding illegitimacy. The child of adoption would therefore not be tainted by the stigma of illegitimacy.
After World War II, states rushed to seal their adoption records largely on the recommendation of the Child Welfare League of America and other professional and social work organizations. The paradigm of the unwed mother had now changed from her being congenitally feebleminded to being neurotic and therefore curable. The social work professions deemed it best for there to be a complete and early break between mother and relinquished child, for the sake of both.
An amended birth certificate is issued upon a decree of adoption in order to give the baby a “clean slate,” a “fresh start.” This amended certificate names the adoptive parents in place of the birth parents. The advent of amended birth certificates and the permanent sealing of original birth records fostered the illusion of a brand-new family with no prior or potentially disruptive future connections to the birth family; a “selling device” for agencies to attract adoptive parents.
While most states sealed their records to adoptees in the 1940’s and 1950’s, some states did not do so until much later, with Pennsylvania sealing original birth certificates only in 1984 and Alabama in 1991; by 1998 only Kansas and Alaska still allowed unconditional access. In November 1998 the voters of Oregon approved the Bastard Nation-inspired ballot initiative, Measure 58, which made Oregon the first state to open unconditionally previously sealed records to adult adoptees. After a series of unsuccessful court challenges, the law finally went into effect on May 30, 2000. Also in May 2000, Alabama reversed its 1991 sealed records law and granted unrestricted access to original birth and adoption records to that state’s adult adoptees. This was accomplished through the lobbying efforts of Alabamians Working for Adoption Reform and Education (AWARE), with the support of Bastard Nation and other adoption reform organizations. Since then New Hampshire (2005), Maine (2008) and Rhode Island (2012) have restored the right of birth certificate access. In those campaigns Bastard Nation worked closely with New Hampshire activists and advised activists in Rhode Island. We congratulate Maine, and continue to work in other states across the country.
Sealed records foster shame in adoption. Things which are shameful are kept hidden and secret. It is time to end state-sanctioned shame in adoption in the rest of North America.