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.

“A lot of birth parents went into it thinking it was a privilege to them,” said Brenda Romanchik, executive director of Insight: Open Adoption Resources and Support, an adoption education and support organization in Royal Oak, Michigan. “So when things got tough, they thought, this isn’t working for me, so I’m going to leave. They didn’t take the child into account.”


Conversely, if they want a confidential adoption, they should not feel unduly pressured into agreeing to an open adoption. Adopters who agree to an open adoption against their wishes may later find it difficult to fulfill their side of the agreement (for example, sending the birthmother letters and photos). This is terribly unfair to both the birthmother and the child. Agreeing to an open adoption when they don't want one is also unfair to the adopters themselves.
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.
Conversely, if they want a confidential adoption, they should not feel unduly pressured into agreeing to an open adoption. Adopters who agree to an open adoption against their wishes may later find it difficult to fulfill their side of the agreement (for example, sending the birthmother letters and photos). This is terribly unfair to both the birthmother and the child. Agreeing to an open adoption when they don't want one is also unfair to the adopters themselves.
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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.
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.
Unfortunately, there are situations where an open adoption is either not an option or is not the best choice for the child. Some birth parents do not want an open adoption because they are afraid that the ongoing contact will be a constant reminder of the painful decision they made at a difficult time in their life. They may believe that a closed adoption will better allow them to emotionally heal. Other birth parents have not shared the fact of their pregnancy with their family or community and they may fear that an open adoption will undermine their desire for confidentiality. Finally, there are times when open adoption is not in the child’s best interest due to the birth parents’ circumstances.
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.
Oftentimes the birth and adoptive parents will sign a Post-Adoption Contract (sometimes called an Open Adoption Agreement), putting in writing any promises regarding contact after the adoption is finalized. Even in those states which do not expressly have laws in this area, these agreements can usually be prepared if the parties desire to formalize the agreement. In an increasing number of US states, courts will find these agreements legally enforceable, as long as they serve the best interests of the child. It is not unusual for these agreements to be more like "handshake" agreements, although they offer less protection to a birth parent if the adoptive parent's promises were not honored.[22]
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Parents may also wonder how to react when kids start voicing their preferences regarding birth parent contact. Letting a young child call the shots in an open adoption is probably a bad idea. (After all, small children don’t get to decide when to visit grandparents or other relatives.) But a child of 12 may be ready to make some decisions about whether or when to meet with birth parents. “The older a child gets, the larger the role they should have,” Grotevant advised.
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.

“The challenge we have is getting the media and people outside our immediate family to understand that open adoption is the best choice we’ve ever made,” said Jill Dillon, a resident of southern Oregon, whose daughter, Carly, is eight years old. “We feel that it’s a healthy, safe way for our child to grow up, knowing her birth family and her ‘real’ family, as we think of ourselves.”


There are sometimes problems concerning birth mothers and adoption agencies who neglect to make sure the proper paperwork is done on the birth father's part. It is crucial to remember that no child can be relinquished legally without the birth father's consent, except in Utah. He must be given the chance to claim custody of the child. For this purpose, many states have established a Putative father registry, although some adoption activists see these as a hindrance rather than a help.[22]

We have learned valuable lessons regarding the resilience of children, and they continue to astound and inspire us. We have also been humbled by many birth parents who have been able to successfully resolve the grief of lost opportunities to parent their children through sheer grace that is involved in their healing relationships with their children and their adoptive family members through the years.
The short answer is, yes. It was once believed that openness in adoption would undermine adoptive parents’ ability to feel entitled to parent their children, that children would be confused about the roles and rights of their adoptive parents in light of contact with their birth parents, that adoptive parents would lose all sense of control or that birth parents would not be able to successfully resolve their grief and loss in reference to their decision to place their child for adoption. What thirty-plus years of open adoption has taught us is that children are not confused about the roles of the people in their lives who love them. Adoption specialists now believe that openness can be a great gift — not just for the children — but for all who are involved in the story of adoption.

Reunion registries were designed so adoptees and their birth parents, siblings or other family members can locate one another at little or no cost. In these mutual consent registries, both parties must have registered in order for there to be a match. Most require the adoptee to be at least 18 years old. Though they did not exist until late in the 20th century, today there are many World Wide Web pages, chat rooms, and other online resources that offer search information, registration and support.

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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.
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For many years in New York State, adoptees had to obtain the permission of their adoptive parents (unless deceased) to be included in a state-sponsored reunion registry regardless of the age of the adoptee. In some cases, older adults or even senior citizens felt like they were being treated like children, and required to obtain their parents' signature on the form. In a broader sense, they felt it could be inferred that adopted children are always children, and thus second-class citizens subject to discrimination. The law has since been changed.[6]
“It removes the mystery, but it doesn’t remove the grief,” said Claude Riedel, a psychologist and family therapist who co-directs the Adoptive Family Counseling Center in Minnesota. “The reality is that, at certain stages, it’s normal to have questions: why did you choose not to parent me, not to keep me? And there may be complexities: have you kept your other children, but not me?”
Unfortunately, there are situations where an open adoption is either not an option or is not the best choice for the child. Some birth parents do not want an open adoption because they are afraid that the ongoing contact will be a constant reminder of the painful decision they made at a difficult time in their life. They may believe that a closed adoption will better allow them to emotionally heal. Other birth parents have not shared the fact of their pregnancy with their family or community and they may fear that an open adoption will undermine their desire for confidentiality. Finally, there are times when open adoption is not in the child’s best interest due to the birth parents’ circumstances.
For those who do not want a completely open adoption, there is the option of semi-open adoption. Semi-open adoption is a great option to create an adoption relationship that meets the needs of a particular situation. Every adoption relationship is different, and semi-open adoptions can take many forms; a typical semi-open adoption involves communication without exchanging identifying information, along with sending pictures and letters on occasion.

In a closed adoption, the adoption professionals involved will usually choose the adoptive family for the child. It is important to remember that having a closed adoption does not guarantee that once a child reaches the age of majority in your state he or she will not seek out and reunite with their biological families or that the biological family will not seek and reunite with the child that was adopted. The closed or open adoption agreements made between the parties of an adoption at the time of the child's birth only stay in force until the child reaches the legal age in which he or she can make decisions for his or her own self.


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.
While a closed adoption does eliminate any risk of a rocky relationship, it also eliminates the possibility of a fulfilling, positive relationship. Moreover, birth mothers cannot reclaim their children under any circumstance, and adopted children are often less confused about their adoption when they know their birth mothers, who can answer their questions.
Over the past few decades, we’ve found that the majority of prospective birth mothers are looking for an adoptive family they can have a personal relationship with before, during and after the adoption process is complete. Therefore, we require our prospective adoptive families to be open to the kind of communication most of these birth mothers are looking for, including:
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.
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.[3][4][5] 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.[citation needed] As of 2013, roughly half of US states consider them legally binding,[6] however contact in open adoption is not always maintained.
There are also private search companies and investigators who charge fees to do a search for or assist adoptees and birth mothers and fathers locate each other, as well as to help other types of people searching. These services typically cost much more, but like search organizations and search angels, have far greater flexibility in regards to releasing information, and typically provide their own intermediary services. However, they may not circumvent the law regarding the confidentiality process.

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Adoptive parents may be less likely to consider the possibility that they are doing something wrong, and blame the child's heredity. The parents may even unfavorably compare their adopted child with a near-perfect, genetically-related "fantasy" child. This enables them to blame ordinary problems which all parents face on their child's supposedly "defective" genes. Thus, while non-adoptive parents are focused on nurture, some adoptive parents are solely focused on nature (i.e. heredity) instead. This results in what could have been an easily resolved problem, going unresolved in families with adopted children, possibly accompanied by child abuse.[5]
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.
Reunion registries were designed so adoptees and their birth parents, siblings or other family members can locate one another at little or no cost. In these mutual consent registries, both parties must have registered in order for there to be a match. Most require the adoptee to be at least 18 years old. Though they did not exist until late in the 20th century, today there are many World Wide Web pages, chat rooms, and other online resources that offer search information, registration and support.

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.
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