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Note: This article refers mainly to closed adoption in the United States. If you have further information on closed adoption in other countries, or international closed adoption (e.g. South Korea -- USA) please help the Psychology Wiki by contributing.

Closed Adoption (sometimes called "secret adoption") is the process by where an infant is adopted by another family, and the record of the natural (birth) parent(s) is kept sealed. (Often, the natural father was not recorded -- even on the original birth certificate.) An adoption of an older child who already knows his or her natural parent(s) cannot be made closed or secret. This formerly was the most traditional and popular type of adoption. It still exists today, but its use is rapidly declining in favor of open adoption. The sealed records effectively prevent the adoptee and the natural parents from finding, or even knowing anything about each other (especially in the days before the internet).

Background and procedureEdit

Historically, the three primary reasons for married couples to obtain a child via closed adoption have been infertility, asexuality, and having concern for a child's welfare (i.e. would not likely be adopted by others). Occasionally, it has been used to ensure the sex of the child, such as in a family with five girls and no boys, for example. In 1917, Minnesota was the first U.S. state to pass an adoption confidentiality and sealed records law. [1] Within the next few decades, nearly every state had a similar law.

Most adopting parents in non-private adoptions would apply to a local children's home society. These organizations, which are a direct descendent of American orphanages closed long ago, are usually run via a state-wide network. They might also be a member of the national Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). [2] The CWLA and many children's home societies 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.

Prior to adoption, the infant would often be placed in temporary foster care for a few weeks until the adoption was approved. This would also help insure that he or she was healthy, and nothing was overlooked at the time of birth. Nowadays, this practice is discouraged, as it prevents immediate bonding between the mother and child. With the high demand to adopt infants, there is usually no reason the adoption cannot be initiated prior to birth.

After spending a few weeks or months with the adoptive parents, a local judge formally approves the adoption. The infant then is issued a second, amended birth certificate that states the adopting parents as the actual parents (as if they were the child's biological parents). The hospital may be omitted, especially if it primarily serves only unwed mothers, such as the Salvation Army hospitals. (Many were named after its founder William Booth.)

By the end of the 1970s, all of the Salvation Army hospitals in the USA had closed due to high costs and the reduced need for secrecy. It was no longer considered shameful to have a child out of wedlock in America. More and more mothers were either raising their child as a single parent (often with the help of the newly created institution of government welfare), or having an abortion (which was legal everywhere in the USA by 1973).

Searches and reunionsEdit

Though they did not exist until late in the 20th century, today there are internet sites and physical registries (by postal mail) designed so adoptees and their natural parents can locate one another at little or no cost. (Many require the adoptee to be at least 18 years old.) Of course, both must have registered in order for there to be a match.

Should these types of registries fail, recent laws in many states of the USA have made it possible for one party to contact the other via a confidential intermediary. This person petitions the court to view the sealed adoption records, then conducts a search similar to that of a private investigator. This can be either a search for the natural 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 natural mother or female adoptee has both moved to another address and married or remarried resulting in a change of their 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 natural mother (or adoptee), they are informed that their adopted child (or natural mother) is inquiring about them. Should this party indicate that it does not want to be contacted, by law, the information would not be given out to the inquiring party. In practice, this seldom happens, and most often the natural mother and the adoptee are very happy to finally know one another. Upon the completion of the search in which the natural 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 is still confidential, however.

It is uncommon to find both the natural mother and father at the same time, and often a separate search can be done afterwards for the father. Since males seldom change their surname, and the mother might have additional information, it is usually easier than the initial search for the natural mother. In many cases, adoptees are able to do this second search for their natural father by themselves (or try before paying for assistance).

The cost for a confidential intermediary and related court fees is around US$500, but varies by state and agency. Most agencies charge a fixed fee which includes everything, and only in the most extreme and unusual circumstances ask for additional funds. If the adoptee is unable to locate (or would prefer to use a third person) to find his or her natural father, often the same confidential intermediary can be used for an additional fee.

Females have statistically been somewhat more likely than males to search for their natural parents, and far more likely to search for their adopted children.

Legal mattersEdit

Normally, only a court order allows closed adoption records to be unsealed, which was extremely rare until the early 1990s. Although rare, a few 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.

For searches involving a confidential intermediary, the intermediary initiates obtaining the court order, and is paid to do so. However, once the court grants this, it is still confidential information to everyone except the intermediary until the other party agrees otherwise. (See the previous section.)

Many states, though, still keep this information sealed even after the adoptee and the natural parents agree to know and contact each other. A second court order would be required to have this information unsealed permanently. Also, permanent unsealing is well beyond the scope of the initial search, and what is covered by the payment to the intermediary. Should an adoptee subsequently lose his or her unamended birth certificate, a court order is required to obtain another one (even if a photocopy is submitted).

The probate laws of most states in the U.S. prohibit an adoptee from automatically inheriting from their natural parents. This applies regardless of whether or not the natural father participated in or agreed to the adoption. Had the adoption not of taken place, any son or daughter would be an heir upon their father's death -- regardless of who their childhood caretakers were. Should a natural parent include an "unknown" adoptee in their will, the probate court has no obligation to fulfill this type of request. Though allowed to inherit through a will, "known" adoptees may have the same status as non-family members.

Criticism of closed adoptionEdit

Closed adoption has been increasingly criticized in recent years as being unfair to both the adoptee and his or her natural parents. Some people believe making a child's parents quite literally a state secret is a gross violation of human rights -- even to be analogous to slavery. (Many African Americans have rejected the concept of adoption on this basis.) On the other hand, the natural mother may have desired the secrecy because of a premarital affair. Prior to the middle of the 1960s decade, this was considered socially unacceptable to most people. Any unwed mother would likely have been shunned from society if found out.

In virtually all cases, the decision is up to the adoptive parents regarding how to inform the child that he or she has been adopted, and at what age to do so, if at all. Although a non-profit adoption agency (if one is used) might mail newsletters and solicit funds from the parents, traditionally, it has been extremely rare for them to communicate directly with the child. Some adopted children have grown up with the false belief that their adoptive parents were, in fact, their natural parents, when this was not so. Oftentimes, they eventually learned the truth from an older family friend, neighbor, or relative who may or may not have known about the parents' wishes to keep the adoption a secret.

Several studies on adoption report that healthy children adopted as infants have a much higher risk of becoming emotionally disturbed, and that adoptive parents are more likely to be abusive than in more traditional families . Though all parents make mistakes, adoptive parents may be less likely to consider the possibility that they are doing something wrong, and blame the child's heredity instead. The parents may even compare their adopted child to a near-perfect, genetically-related "fantasy" child. This enables them to blame ordinary problems which all parents face on their child's supposedly "defective" genes. Thus, what could easily be a resolved problem, can go unresolved in families with adopted children. [3]

Other difficulties include the lack of a genetic medical history which could be important in disease prevention. Sometimes the adoptee's relationship with his or her adoptive parents goes bad, and it's forbidden to find their natural parents. The natural mother might often think of the child she had given away, but could not contact him or her -- even if they had passed the age of majority (usually 18).

For many years in New York State, adoptees had to obtain the permission of their adoptive parents (unless deceased) to be included in a state-sponsored reunion registry regardless of the age of the adoptee. In some cases, older adults or even senior citizens felt like they were being treated like children, and required to obtain their parents' signature on the form. In a broader sense, they felt it could be inferred that adopted children are always children, and thus second-class citizens subject to discrimination. The law has since been changed. [4]

Organizations and mediaEdit

Most states have an independent non-profit organization which helps adoptees and their parents initiate a search, and other related adoption support. Confidential intermediaries also work with these organizations, and are recommended or assigned to those beginning a search. To make the task easier, oftentimes the intermediary closest to the location where the adoptee was born is chosen. In some states, the children's home society in which an adoption took place may also provide assistance.

Starting in the late 1980s, many adoptees and their parents first learned about the possibility of reunion on the NBC (later CBS) television program Unsolved Mysteries hosted by Robert Stack. Reruns of the program (with a few new segments and updates) were also aired on the Lifetime Television cable network until mid-2006, but have since been suspended. On January 1, 2007, the program moved to Lifetime Real Women, which is only available on digital cable.


  3. The Adoption Triangle: Sealed or Opened Records: How They Affect Adoptees, Birth Parents, and Adoptive Parents ISBN 0931722594
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