A History Of Open Adoption In The U.S.

Written by on February 12, 2014 in Family - No comments | Print this page


adoptionThe world has undergone radical transformation in the last 40 years. We’ve entered a digital age with information that is readily available to us at the touch of a button.

But the advent of the personal computer and the introduction of the Internet is not the only change of the last few decades. Adoption policies in the U.S. have undergone no less of a revolution in the last several decades.

Like the other changes our world has seen, those involved in adoption also have access to a wealth of information. Adoption has gone from the standard closed adoption, where biological parents and adoptive parents did not even know each other’s names, to a new standard of openness, in which birth parents maintain regular contact with their children.

So how did adoption undergo such radical transformation in a relatively short time? Let’s take a look at the history of open adoption.

In the early 1900s, social mores were much different than they are now. The great poverty of the age meant that many children were available for adoption. However, because the parents of many of these children were not married, they were considered “unsuitable” for proper society.

In addition, any background of alcoholism or drug abuse in the children’s future made people hesitant to adopt them. To combat this trend, social workers (a new profession of the age) began sealing children’s records and placing them with families.

Because adoptive families did not know the children’s backgrounds, it was easier to dismiss any claims that they were not decorous additions to a family. The standard begun by social workers soon became a legal standard, as well; by 1950, most states had passed laws requiring sealed adoption records.

In the 1970s, social norms began to change; single motherhood became far more acceptable, and fewer women chose adoption. In fact, by 1980, less than 3% of non-married mothers under age 25 were putting their children up for adoption.

Those who did, however, were doing so with the request that significant changes be made in adoption procedures, and adoptees were demanding change, as well.  As Kathleen Silber and Phylis Speedlin, authors of Dear Birthmother: Thank You for Our Baby put it:

                           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.

However, closed adoption had been the norm for so long that some were resistant to change. Debates as to the merits of open adoption continued into the 1990s. By the end of the 90s, however, the debates had been silenced, and it was widely recognized that open adoption was truly in the child’s best interests.

In 2012, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute conducted a study of adoption and found that open adoption was overwhelmingly the norm for domestic infant adoption in the U.S. The report showed that completely closed adoptions make up only about 5% of the total domestic adoptions in this country.

In almost all of the open adoptions, birth parents choose the adoptive family, and the two sets of parents meet – usually several times – before the adoption takes place. Mothers who choose open adoption and continue to communicate with their children throughout their lives feel less guilt and grief and are more at peace with their decision. The children also report a greater sense of self-identity and benefit more pragmatically from access to family and health records.

In the last 40 years, the world has not only seen the dawn of the “digital age,” it has also seen the dawn of the “age of open adoption.” And while some would argue that the world was friendlier, more stable, and more communicative before computers came to dominate everyday life, hardly anyone would argue that the world was better off when adoptions were secret and children had no knowledge of where they came from.

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Jeffrey A. Kasky, Esq. is a Florida adoption lawyer and Vice President of One World Adoption Services, Inc., a Florida-licensed not-for-profit child placing agency. Jeff’s diverse career experiences include co-authoring the book, “99 Things You Wish You Knew Before … Choosing Adoption” with Robert A. Kasky, Florida-certified law enforcement officer, and involvement in the autism community, including a TV show focused on helping families with legal issues related to autism called “Spectrum at Law” on The Autism Channel. A practicing attorney since 1995, he has worked on more than one thousand adoption cases.


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