Closed adoption, not to be confused with sealed records, is an adoption in which the adoptive family and the birthmother never meet and know nothing or very little about one another. With the advent of open adoption, closed adoptions have become the exception in domestic adoption rather than the rule. The term closed adoption is most often used in relation to post-adoption contact, whereas the term sealed records is related to the access of legal documentation surrounding the birth and placement of the adopted child once the adoption is final. It is entirely possible to have a closed adoption and unsealed records or an open adoption with sealed records. The two practices are not mutually exclusive.
In some states, (North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia) the city and county of the adoptee’s birth is changed on the amended birth certificate, to where the adoptive parents were living at the time the adoption was finalized. Often, the states will not give the adoptee the correct location of their birth. Some adoptees have been denied passports for having incomplete birth certificates. The hospital may also be omitted on the amended birth certificate, especially if it primarily serves unwed mothers. In the United States, many such hospitals were run by the Salvation Army, and named after its founder, William Booth. By the mid-1970s, all of these hospitals had closed due to high costs and the reduced need for secrecy, as the social stigma of having a child out of wedlock in America had decreased. More and more mothers were raising their child as a single parent (often with the help of the newly created institution of government welfare).
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Open adoption has slowly become more common since research in the 1970s suggested that open adoption was better for children. In 1975 the tide began to change, and by the early 1990s open adoptions were offered by a majority of American adoption agencies. Especially rapid progress was seen in the late 1980s and early 1990s - between 1987 and 1989 a study found only a third of agencies offered fully open adoption as an option; by 1993 76 percent of the surveyed agencies offered fully open adoptions. As of 2013, roughly half of US states consider them legally binding, however contact in open adoption is not always maintained.
Once the adoption has been approved, the agency transfers the infant from foster care (if used) to the adoptive parents. After the infant has spent a few weeks or months with the adoptive parents, a local judge formally and legally approves the adoption. The natural mother has until the final court hearing. The infant is then issued a second, amended certificate, sometimes stated to be a birth certificate, that states the adopting parents are the child's parents. This becomes the adopted person's permanent, legal "birth" certificate. In the post WWII era, laws were enacted which prevented both the adopted person and adoptive family from accessing the original, and the information given to them can be quite limited (though this has varied somewhat over the years, and from one agency to another). Originally, the sealed record laws were meant to keep information private from everyone except the 'parties to the action' (adoptee, adoptive parent, birthparent and agency). Over time, the laws were reinterpreted or rewritten to seal the information even from the involved parties.
It’s important to keep in mind that, while adoption relationships can change, it is more complicated to increase contact than to decrease it. If a birth mother starts with an open relationship and then decides later that she needs distance, she can do this at any time. However, if an adoption is closed and a birth mother wants more contact, then she has to come to an agreement with the adoptive family. Therefore, it is especially important that a birth mother choosing closed adoption is sure that it is what she wants.
In an open adoption, as I define it, the adopters and the birthparents both know each other's full names, both first and last names. (It is not open if only one side has identifying information about the other.) They may agree to exchange photos and letters directly, without using the agency or attorney as a middleman. Sometimes a semi-open adoption later becomes an open adoption, if both parties decide that they want it that way.
Like any relationship, open adoption relationships evolve over time. Post-adoption contact may increase or decrease, or the nature of the contact may change along with people’s changing lives. However, even in the most open adoption relationship, the birth parent is not a co-parent but rather another very important person in the child’s life. The child’s adoptive parent(s) are his or her legal parent(s) and they have all rights and responsibility for the child. Most importantly, when birth parents and adoptive parents set out to forge their relationship, the child’s needs must always be paramount.
The nature of adoption has changed greatly over the years, and open adoptions are one of the many ways that birth parents can take charge of their adoption plans. Instead of having to wonder whether or not they chose the right family or how their child is doing, they will always know. In an open adoption, birth parents have the opportunity to get to know the family they have chosen for their child, which puts many people at ease and makes the difficult decision of adoption much easier.
Sue Heinzman’s enthusiasm for openness was echoed by virtually every family interviewed for this story. Even Kim Felder, whose empty mailbox made her son so sad, would not have it any other way. Robbie is one of four children adopted by the Felders since 1987, all of them involved some form of openness. And Kim knows the pain of closed adoption firsthand: she placed her son, Jim, for adoption 24 years ago, reuniting with him when he was 18.
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