II. A History of Sealed Records in the United States
Adoption records and original birth certificates have not always been sealed. Sealing records is, in fact, a relatively recent development in our nation’s history. Birth certificates themselves only came to be required in the first decades of this century. Because they were marked “legitimate” or “illegitimate” in most states and because of the stigma associated with illegitimacy, they were sealed to the public, but were available to the adoptee upon majority. The amended birth certificate, which names the adoptive parents in the place of the birth parents, was first proposed by two Registrars of Vital Statistics in 1931 and was utilized by most states by the end of World War II. In the decades leading up to World War II, court records and original birth certificates were sealed to the public, the explicit reason given being to protect the adoptive family from exposure to embarrassment or even blackmail regarding the illegitimate origins of the adoptee, or in cases where the adoptee had not been told of the adoption to keep that the prerogative of the adoptive parents. Many states sealed adoption records to birth parents as well, fearing their interference in the life of the adoptee. Nowhere in any of these original statutes is there is any reference to the protection of birth parents’ privacy.
Records were sealed to all parties in most states after World War II, largely on the recommendation of professional social work organizations and adoption agencies. These statutes, however, usually included the provision that records could be opened by court order, and in fact many states still have provisions on the books allowing release of records such as the adoption decree to the adoptive parents, or allowing the records to remain unsealed at the adoptive parents’ request. Even in states where this is not officially codified, many adoptive parents routinely obtain records with the names of the birth parents on them at the time of the adoption, or can obtain them by request. There are a number of reasons for this sealing. Social workers lobbied for greater “confidentiality” as a way of increasing their own power and boosting the prestige of their profession. The postwar demographic boom in single pregnancy saw a change in the demographic composition of birth mothers from primarily married or divorced working-class women who relinquished their usually older children for economic reasons, to younger, more broadly middle-class unmarried women who relinquished their children in infancy. The paradigm of the unwed mother had changed from her being congenitally feebleminded to being neurotic and therefore curable; it was deemed best for there to be a complete and early break between mother and relinquished child for the sakes of both. The child was no longer seen as innately tainted by its illegitimate origins, but as a blank slate ready for the adoptive parents to write upon. The new, amended birth certificate and the permanently sealed original 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. It was assumed that “well-adjusted” adoptees would have no interest in their origins.
While most states sealed their records in the 1940s and 1950s, 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 adoptee 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, with the full support of the Governor and Lt. Governor, a unanimous vote in the House and only two dissenting votes in the Senate, 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.