Child Welfare League of America, “Proposal for Analysis of the Sealed Adoption Record Issue,” 1973

Guidelines for dealing with issues raised by the sealed adoption record controversy are needed by the field of adoption and do not now exist. . .

In 1917, the first state adoption law providing safeguards to protect the adoptive process and the adopted child was passed in Minnesota. This law provided for, among other things, the protection of court records from public inspection and the revision of birth certificates. Gradually, other states began to follow suit until today all states have adoption laws that safeguard the adoption and the child, and nearly all states number among the safeguards the sealing of adoption records.

The emphasis on protection of the adoption and of the interests of the child and the guidelines for implementing these principles were derived largely from the adoption agencies that emerged during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. These agencies, in turn, were greatly aided and influenced by the United States Children’s Bureau and the Child Welfare League of America. In 1938, the Child Welfare League issued a set of minimum safeguards for adoptions. These included the provisions that the birth record be revised to shield an adopted child from unnecessary embarrassment in the case of illegitimacy and that the identity of the adopting parents be kept from the natural parents.

The field of adoptions was growing and practice was evolving so rapidly that in 1948, 1951, and 1954, the Child Welfare League conducted nationwide surveys and workshops on adoption practices. In 1959, the first CWLA Standards for Adoption Service, developed by an interdisciplinary committee, was published by CWLA. The anonymity of all parties, the confidentiality of agency records and of the adoption proceedings, and the sealing of court adoption records and original birth certificates were all supported in that document and reaffirmed in 1968, the date of the most recent revision of the adoption standards.

These principles are based on the assumption that intervention of the natural parents after the child’s adoption is not conducive to the child’s well-being or to development of the new parent-child relationship. They assume also that the natural parents, having relinquished parental rights and responsibilities, should be free to pursue their own lives without fear of intrusion by the relinquished child or the adoptive parents. . .

Adoption agencies have long stressed the importance of telling children they were adopted, of not trying to preserve a family secret that would slip out in some sudden, harmful way. The Standards encourage the agency to furnish the adoptive parents information needed to understand the child and to deal with the child’s curiosity about his natural parents. It was not anticipated that learning of one’s adoptive status would lead to a desire to meet one’s natural parents. It was assumed that a loving adoptive home would answer a child’s need for identity and security and that involvement with the natural family might jeopardize that identity and security. Furthermore, in past years the typical adoptee was an infant born out of wedlock to a young woman, who, in the context of societal disapproval, did not want this fact known. Again, it was not anticipated that the mother might wish to have contact with the relinquished child at a later point.

But times have changed. The basic assumptions underlying the guarantees of anonymity and confidentiality are undergoing challenge from both legal and psychological perspectives. . .

Many adoptees and others claim that, regardless of their reasons and regardless of the outcome, they have a right to know the full details of their past, including the identity of their natural parents.

There is a groundswell of support for this position. The media have embraced it. New legislation has been or is being proposed in many states. Court cases including class action suits seeking to strike down laws that seal the records or birth certificates are in process. In our society greater emphasis than in the past is being placed on the right of all people to know the contents of various records kept about them and on the civil rights of previously overlooked groups. All of these factors make the time ripe for a reexamination of earlier established policies and practices. . .


Source: Child Welfare League of America, “Proposal for Analysis of the Sealed Adoption Record Issue,” 1973, pp. 1-5, Child Welfare League of America Papers, Box 8, Folder: “Institutional Care and Adoption,” Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota.

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3118
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