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.
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.
Closed adoption is experienced differently in every case. Communication is the most vital factor in the adoption process. As communication about wishes, desires, and expectations increases, the more comfortable everyone involved will be in the adoption process. In a closed adoption, this communication normally occurs through an adoption agency or adoption attorney.
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.
When adoptions are closed, the files are usually physically sealed. Nevertheless, most states have created procedures through which family members seeking to "open" a closed adoption may be able to access information about the other parties. However, the process and degree of access to information varies widely from state to state, with some states requiring a court order to reveal information that can be used to identify a party to an adoption.
Thankfully, as adoptive families, birth mothers, adopted children and child-placing agencies continued to see the negatives of closed adoption and the positives of open adoption, adoption as a whole began to evolve, and for the better. Today, most adoption agencies allow the birth mother to make most of the decision in the adoption, including how much contact she wants with the adoptive family and the child. It is then the adoption agency’s job to find the appropriate adoptive family for each adoption situation.
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.
A 1996 study reported in Child Development found that all the children studied “reported positive levels of self-esteem, curiosity about their birthparents, and satisfaction with the openness situation” regardless of whether their adoptions were closed, semi-open, or open. What this seems to mean is that the child's sense of security in his adoptive family is more important than contact with the birth family.
Some states have confidential intermediary systems. This often requires a person to petition the court to view the sealed adoption records, then the intermediary conducts a search similar to that of a private investigator. This can be either a search for the birth 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 birth mother or female adoptee has both moved to another address, and married or remarried resulting in a change of her 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 birth mother (or adoptee), she is informed that her adopted child (or birth mother) is inquiring about her. In the few states that have open adoption records, should this party indicate that he or she does not want to be contacted, by law, the information would not be given out. Upon completion of the search in which the birth 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 remains confidential, however.
It's equally important adopters understand that in a closed adoption little to no information will be exchanged with the birth parents, including their choice to arrange an adoption with the couple. This can feel like a distant business deal for some adoptive couples who want to know the nuances and personality of the mother of the child they're being placed with. Other adoptive parents may feel the separation of adoptive and birth parent eliminates possible instability an openly known birth mother's lifestyle may bring into a family dynamic. Also, in an open adoption, if communication is lost between the birth mother and adoptee, the child may become confused and hurt.