“Since I was five, I’ve known I was adopted, which is a politically correct term for being clueless about one’s origins.”
– Jodi Picoult, from Handle with Care
Prior to the mid-1940s, adopted persons in the United States had access to their original birth certificates. According to the University of Oregon’s Adoption History Project, “Disclosure, not secrecy, had been the historical norm in adoption.”
In 1917, Minnesota became the first state to revise its adoption laws and mandate that birth and adoption records be sealed from public view. They were, however, still accessible to the parties involved—the birth parents, adoptive parents, and the adoptee. The intention behind sealing records was to protect a child from the stigma of illegitimacy—which often carried life-long, negative implications. As adoption laws further developed, they gave the added benefit of making an adopted child a legal heir of his or her adoptive parents.
By 1939, the U.S. Children’s Bureau, in an attempt to standardize adoption practices, recommended that all states seal records for the purposes mentioned above. Many states followed suit and sealed original birth records from public view. Tennessee, however, pursued a different path beginning in 1928.
By way of an informal agreement between the state’s Vital Statistics Bureau and an adoption practitioner named Georgia Tann, Tennessee began sealing records to the public and to all parties involved in the adoption. As Barbara Bisantz Raymond details in her illuminating 2007 book, The Baby Thief, Tann argued that sealing the records would offer children greater protection from societal stigma, though it was later learned that her charitable adoption organization doubled as a black market adoption ring.
Shortly after WWII, in the late 1940s, the U.S. Children’s Bureau recommended states move from privacy to secrecy. During the baby boom, the desire for secrecy grew stronger, in large part due to the tremendous increase in out-of-wedlock births.
The secretive practices offered something valuable for each party involved. Adoptive parents avoided the shame and stigma of infertility, birth mothers had a second chance for a normal married life free from scorn, and the children were spared the “illegitimate” label. Birth certificates from that era were often stamped with that word, and the children were casually and commonly referred to as “bastards.”
Over the next four decades, like falling dominos, 48 states enacted adoption laws that prohibited original birth certificates from public view and made them inaccessible to all parties involved in the adoption. Amended birth certificates were issued stating that the adoptive parents had given birth to the child. In this closed adoption process, the original, factual birth certificate is sealed away and not legally recognized as valid.
Kansas and Alaska never adopted such practices and remain open-access to this day. The laws in the remaining 48 states, however, created an enormous group of Americans who—depending on their birth state—had and have vastly different rights to their origins, ancestry, and, in many cases, updated medical histories.
Since 1999, nine states have reversed course and granted adoptees restored access. Four others have passed partial access legislation, which allows adult adoptees access to their records, if they were born within certain years. For example, as of December 5, 2007, Massachusetts made original birth certificates available to those born prior to July 14, 1974. According to this Massachusetts Department of Vital Records update:
“Beginning January 1, 2008, the following additional individuals may also apply:
The adoptive parent of a child (under 18 years of age) born in Massachusetts on or after January 1, 2008. Beginning January 1, 2026, the following additional individuals may also apply: An adult adoptee (18 years or older) who was born in Massachusetts on or after January 1, 2008.”
Those born in the intervening years in Massachusetts may only access their records through a court order.
Today, the remaining 35 states vary considerably in terms of which years, and the number of years, worth of adoptee original birth certificates are sealed. Details on each state’s current status and requirements can be found on our Discover Your Rights page.
To find out even more about why and how the records were sealed, read “An Examination of the History and Impact of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates,” published by the Donaldson Adoption Institute as part of their Policy Perspective, titled: “For the Records II.” July 2010.
Image credit: Secret Sons & Daughters