Confidentiality and Sealed Records

Source: Viola W. Bernard Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Augustus C. Long Library, Columbia University

The International Soundex Reunion Registry was founded in 1975 by Emma May Vilardi of Carson City, Nevada. Through voluntary registration, members of birth families separated by adoption might locate one another years later. As a practical matter, this innovation challenged policies of confidentiality and sealed records only in cases where all the parties were actively seeking to locate one another. But the registry also helped to normalize search and reunion, advancing the general cause of adoption reform.



The fact that adoption information has been both highly regulated and extremely controversial is one of the hallmarks of modern adoption. At first sketchy and incomplete, data contained in the adoption records of early twentieth-century courts and agencies was available to anyone curious enough to search it out. The same was true of uniform birth records, which were products of state efforts to standardize birth registration during the first third of the twentieth century.

In 1917, the Minnesota adoption law was revised to mandate confidential records, and between the world wars, most states in the country followed suit. Confidential records placed information off limits to nosy members of the public but kept it accessible to the children and adults directly involved in adoption, who were called the “parties in interest.”

Confidentiality was advocated by professionals and policy-makers determined to establish minimum standards in adoption, decrease the stigma associated with illegitimacy, and make child welfare the governing rule in placement decisions. In practice, confidentiality placed a premium on adoptions arranged anonymously, without any identifying contact between natal and adoptive parents. Confidentiality also meant that when courts issued adoption decrees, states produced new birth certificates, listing adopters’ names, and sealed away the originals, which contained the names of birth parents, or at least birth mothers.

Many adopters, especially those whose infertility made them long for exclusive parent-child ties, surely preferred anonymity as well. Confidentiality made it possible for some of these parents to avoid telling their children that they were adopted at all. The relatives of many unmarried birth mothers also favored confidentiality. Especially during the postwar baby boom, when more out-of-wedlock births occurred in middle-class families than had been the case earlier in the century, mortified parents argued that their daughters should have a second chance to lead normal, married lives. Maternity homes proliferated to shield non-marital pregnancies from public view and helped to make adoption a topic of embarrassment and shame.

Anonymity and new birth certificates were both consistent with matching, which set out to make new families “as if” they had been made naturally. Confidentiality was converted into secrecy only after World War II. Secrecy meant that even adult adoptees, to their great surprise and frustration, could not obtain information about their births and backgrounds. The intentions behind confidentiality were benevolent, but sealed records created an oppressive adoption closet.

Even though sealed records were recent inventions, rather than enduring features of adoption history, they were largely responsible for the adoption reform movement that gathered steam in the 1970s. New York housewife Florence Fisher set out to find her birth mother and inspired adoptees around the country when she founded the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association, a pioneering reform organization that called sealed records “an affront to human dignity.” At the time, few adoption activists realized the newness of the policies they sought to overturn by opening sealed records, facilitating search and reunion, and advocating open adoption. Records activism attracted great sympathy but achieved relatively few practical victories and sealed records continue to provoke heated controversy today. Many states have established mutual consent registries, which aim for compromise between the rights of adult adoptees to obtain birth information and the assurance that many birth mothers were given that their identities would remain confidential. Sealed records are also the target of militant activism by such groups as Bastard Nation, which succeeded in passing Ballot Measure 58, an open records law, in the state of Oregon in 1998.

Until 1945, however, most members of adoptive families in the United States had perfectly legal access to birth certificates and adoption-related court documents and most agencies acted as passive registries through which separated relatives might locate one another. Disclosure—not secrecy—has been the historical norm in adoption.


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Page Updated: 2-24-2012
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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
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