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.
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.
But closed adoptions meant that birth parents were left wondering if the child they placed for adoption had grown up healthy and happy with a loving family. They meant that adoptees had no medical history to rely on, nor any answers about the circumstances leading to their adoption. This lack of information made it difficult for birth parents and adoptive families to contact one another if they wanted to meet later on in life, and it made it more difficult for adoptees to form a positive self-identity.
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.
Likely the most common arrangement in open adoptions is for the adoptive parents to commit to sending the birth mother photos of the child (and themselves as a family) each year, and short written updates, until the child reaches the age of 18. Often these photos and updates will be sent more than just once a year, such as the child's birthday or other significant events. Sometimes an intermediary is selected to receive and forward the updates, and sometimes it is done directly. This can be through mail or email. Some adoptions are more open than just sending photos and updates and include face-to-face contact. The amount of contact can vary greatly from just once in the first year, to multiple times annually throughout the child's life. Some of the adoptees raised in open adoption are now in adulthood and are writing about the experience of growing up in an open adoption.
Many open adoption relationships have a warmth that comes from having shared a common struggle – allowing yourself to be vulnerable to another human being, responding to that person’s vulnerability, and being committed to a common goal that centers around the best interest of the child. Like all relationships, open adoption will inevitably have peaks and valleys; yet, as people overcome each hurdle, there are opportunities to learn what to expect from each other and ultimately gain confidence in a collective ability to make the relationships work. When it is safe to create meaningful connections for a child, openness in any adoption — however limited — can be a great gift.
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.