Prior to the 1980s, it was common practice to keep adoptions closed. Oftentimes, women facing unexpected pregnancies would temporarily move to another location, have their babies, and return home. The doctor or a child-placing agency would then find an adoptive family, unbeknownst to the birth mother. Clearly, this led to various complications in each of their lives, especially for the adopted child.
Many adopting parents in non-private adoptions would apply to a local, state licensed adoption agency. The agency may be a member of the national Child Welfare League of America (CWLA).[2] The CWLA and many adoption agencies 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.
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Adoptive parents should remember that an open adoption is not just a relationship, but a promise that families make to birth parents. Parents should always do their best to honor their contact agreement as time passes. For many, this is not an issue; in fact, may adoptive families develop strong relationships with the birth parents of their children and even come to view them as extended family members.
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.
If anything, openness appears to help kids understand adoption; relieve the fears of adoptive parents; and help birth mothers resolve their grief, according to researchers Harold D. Grotevant and Ruth G. McRoy. “Many of the fears about open adoption do not seem to be a problem,” said Grotevant, a professor at the University of Minnesota and co-author with McRoy of Openness in Adoption: Exploring Family Connections.
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.
Semi-open adoption is the practice in which information, generally non-identifying, is shared between adoptive families and birthmothers. Usually semi-open adoption consists of the exchange of letters, photos, and emails, either directly or through a third party. It is not unheard of to have some pre-birth, face-to-face meetings or for the birthparents and adoptive parents to spend time together at the hospital during and after the birth.
Before the 1980s, most adoptions were kept closed. This is because women who go through unexpected pregnancy simply relocate while pregnant, give birth and then return to their homes. The doctor or an agency then looks for an adoptive family for the child without the mother knowing. This kind of setup can bring about a lot of complications and confusion within the adoptive family, particularly on the adopted child.

Although pre-birth openness is becoming routine in newborn adoptions there are more variations in the years following the birth, after the adoption has been completed.[15] Some birth mothers want to get to know the adoptive parents before the birth, but then wish to go "their own way" in life thereafter. Getting to know the adoptive family gives her confidence in the placement and the knowledge she can feel secure in the child's future with the parents (or single parent) she selected. The birth mother may feel that future contact with the adoptive parents, or the child, would be emotionally difficult for her.[18]


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.


“Although I’m very open, [his birth mother] drops into and out of our lives as she needs to,” Miller said. After one long absence, when her son was nine years old, she paid for his birth mother to fly from Colorado to California and stay with them for ten days. Miller doesn’t give up, she said, “because I think we need to honor the pieces that we didn’t provide in the makeup of the child.”
These are just some of the possible scenarios that fall under an open adoption. For older children and teen adoptees, their adoptions are almost always open because they already have spent a good deal of their life with their birth parents. Therefore, they most likely will have some sort of identifying information about their birth parents or other members of their family, such as their siblings who might have been placed separately.
Birth and adoptive families are counseled about the importance of honoring one’s word in open adoption agreements through American Adoptions. If, for some reason, contact is lost and one party is unable to reach the other, we’ll hold any correspondence intended for them for up to 18 years in case they notify us and request to receive that communication and want to get back in touch.
Although open adoptions are thought to be a relatively new phenomenon, most adoptions in the United States until the twentieth century were open. Until the 1930s, most adoptive parents and biological parents had contact at least during the adoption process. In many cases, adoption was seen as a social support: young children were adopted out not only to help their parents (by reducing the number of children they had to support) but also to help another family by providing an apprentice.
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. 

Many birth mothers do more than just meet the adoptive parents once before the birth.[16] If they live close enough to each other it is not uncommon for the birth mother to invite the adoptive mother (or adoptive father too if the birth mother wishes) to come to her doctor appointments. This may allow all parties to the adoption a chance to bond. Adoptive parents may be present for the delivery if that is the birth mother's wish.[17]
Most open adoptions lie somewhere in the middle, according to Grotevant and McRoy, exchanging letters, pictures, and phone calls, and having face-to-face meetings once or twice a year. Whatever their situation, many families report that relatives and friends condemn openness, and voice fears that the arrangement will make the birth parent want the child back.
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