Why are adoption records sealed? What would happen if adoption records were opened? In the last 160 years, adoptions in the United States transitioned from informal placements to sealed-record contracts. When Massachusetts enacted the first adoption law in 1851 there was no legal precedent and as adoption law developed, states began sealing adoption birth records. Later in the 1960s and 70s, birth control pills, legalized abortion, and single parent families reduced unplanned pregnancies, increased single parent households, and made illegitimate an obsolete label. As baby-boom adoptees matured, they called for open birth records and were met lawmaker and social worker fears of lower adoption rates, higher abortion rates, and loss of anonymity. Despite these fears and reservations, research shows that open records may not cause privacy loss, decrease adoptions, or increase abortions.
Although the codes and laws of ancient civilizations include adoption, the Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act of 1851 is held as the first modern adoption law. Joan Hollinger (1993) in her book Adoption Law and Practice asserts that American adoption law was unprecedented and "purely a creature of the statutes which have been enacted in this country since the mid-nineteenth century.” Early adoption law “was usually employed to provide male heirs to childless couples, to maintain family lines and estates” “and any benefits to the adoptee were secondary.“ (Hollinger 1993) Nor was there precedent in English common law which did not mention adoption and only in 1926 did England enact its first adoption law. (Sokoloff 1993) English custom accommodated orphan and indigent children by giving them to craftsmen as apprentices or families as indentured labor. Even after 1851, America continued English custom by sending children to frontier families to exchange labor for food, shelter and clothing as in the orphan trains of 1854. (Sokoloff 1993) In the meantime, the Massachusetts law not only strove to codify and provide judicial oversight, it also broke with custom and required that the wellbeing of the child be considered.
In the 22 years after Massachusetts enacted its law, “…16 additional states passed acts which provided for judicial supervision over adoption, and by 1929 all states had enacted some form of adoption legislation. Virtually all statutes emphasized the best interests of the child as the basis for adoption.” (Sokoloff 1993) In a Golden Gate University Law Review article, Jason Kuhns (1994) says Minnesota introduced secrecy with the passing of the “nation’s first sealed records law closing adoption files from inspection by adult adoptees, their birth parents, and the general public.”
Other sealed-record-laws were few until 1938 when “the Child Welfare League of America began promoting secrecy in adoption as official policy. By the end of the 1940's, most states had followed suit.” (Kuhns 1994) All these laws sealed original birth...