It wasn’t until I was in my late 40s and had undergone a breast biopsy that I fully grasped the ramifications of being an adoptee from the closed adoption era — a type of private adoption which prevailed through the 1980s until open adoption gained popularity. Once my twin sister and I, with whom I was raised, decided we wanted access to our biological background, it took us five years to own all of it. During this time, we learned firsthand just how restrictive state laws surrounding closed adoption can be.
Closed adoption was born out of society’s desire to hide the shame of children born to unwed mothers. It was also intended to protect the privacy of birth parents while preserving the rights of adoptive parents to raise their child without the distraction or interference from birth parents. To the adoptee, however, closed adoption is a legal magic eraser. It wipes out our personal history, and it nullifies our right to access that information.
In a typical closed private adoption, birth moms were not involved in the adoption process; the adoption agency called the shots. The agency matched babies with the adoptive parents without conferring with the birth parents. Likewise, the adoption agency did not share the identities, backgrounds or whereabouts of the birth parents with the prospective adoptive family. And once the birth mother signed off on her parental rights, she was prohibited from all future contact with her child. All documentation was then sealed into court records and adoption agency files.
In 1959, when my birth mom met with the adoption agency, closed adoption was her only choice. Abortion was illegal, dangerous and against her religious beliefs. At this time, society judged unwed mothers harshly. The social worker at the agency encouraged my mother to take an alias. A false identity protected her from anyone learning about her predicament. My birth mother’s alias appears on my original birth record, a detail that made it difficult for me to locate her when I needed my family’s health history.
During this period in adoption history, it was common for agencies to collect only basic information from birth mothers. When I requisitioned the non-identifying information from my adoption file, I learned my mother was in good health at the time of her pregnancy, and my birth father wore glasses. This was not exactly a roadmap for the early prevention of heart disease, breast and colon cancer that runs in my bloodline.
In addition, the adoption agencies facilitating closed adoption did not require that a birth mother reveal the identity of her baby’s father. This disregard of parental rights was entirely legal. With only one parent needed to surrender a child, the closed adoption process ran smoothly and efficiently. On my original birth record, in the space where my birth dad’s name should appear are the words: legally omitted. As astonishing as this is, it was common practice in closed adoption. To connect with my birth father and gather his medical history, I needed to first locate my birth mom.
Since my birth mom used an alias, I required a judge’s order to open the sealed records. Unlike some closed adoption adoptees, I was fortunate that the file held my birth mother’s true identity. Armed with this crucial information, a court-appointed intermediary contacted my birth mother. Months later when my birth mom agreed to speak with me, I asked her for my birth father’s name.
For various reasons, many birth moms fail to disclose the father’s name. This can be due to general uncertainty, the traumas surrounding unwed pregnancy or an unwillingness to resurrect the past. And while genetic genealogy, or DNA testing, continues to be a valuable tool to connect adoptees with biological relatives, success is limited to the quality of the DNA subscriber pool. In my case, a genealogist was instrumental in determining my biological father’s identity given the information my birth mom provided.
Because closed adoption erased my true heritage and ethnicity, I identified with the background of my adoptive family. I took on the customs and habits of my folks’ German and Irish ancestry. As a result of my adoption search, I discovered that I am both a descendant of a Messianic Jewish rabbi and a Chippewa princess. I still struggle to incorporate these revelations into my own self-concept.
To complete my search, which fanned out over five years, I utilized the services of a private search firm, my adoption agency, a private investigator, a confidential intermediary, a circuit court judge, a social worker and a genealogist. Had I been born 25 years later, my adoption would likely have been open, not closed, and then I would not have needed so many experts to reconstruct my personal history.
The closed adoption experience failed adoptees and continues to do so. Protecting the rights and privacy of the biological and adoptive parents does not need to come at the expense of the adopted child. By failing to collect and pass on adequate family medical histories, the closed adoption experience limits an adoptee’s ability to lead a healthy physical and emotional life.
If open adoption had been available to my birth mom, I’d have been spared the emotional and financial burden of searching for a woman who feared being found, and in turn, she might have shared my background with me long before I became a middle-aged woman with health issues.
Many states continue to restrict access to information that concerns health and well-being for adoptees like me. More advocacy work is necessary to ensure that every adoptee from the closed adoption era has access to their original birth records. Every individual should possess the right to access any information that concerns them.