Louise Wise Services, Sealed Records in Adoption, 1975

It is possible to see in these meeting minutes how one group of agency professionals responded to the search and reunion movement among adoptees in the mid-1970s, a moment of pivotal transition in the debate about confidentiality and sealed records. Adult adoptees who demanded that agencies help them identify and locate their birth parents challenged standards of practice that most professionals had not only enforced, but championed as necessary to the protection of child welfare. As of January 1, 1977, Louise Wise Services, located in New York, reversed its earlier policy. The agency began offering adoptees information and facilitating reunions whenever adoptive parents and birth parents consented.

This is a most controversial subject. There is a group of adoptees who feel they have a right to find their biological parents. The number of articles would make it appear that a very large group are seeking the right to have their records opened to them. Mrs. Kreech said that the number is actually quite small when related to the large number of adopted people in the United States. People who are hunting their biological parents have a great need and we cannot minimize what this means to them. Some of our staff have been in conflict about this, and feel that people who are determined to search will do so with or without the help of agencies. Might it be better for agencies to have a role in this? On the other hand, staff is aware that any change in our procedures would necessitate changes in the law and could stir up a tremendous amount of anxiety and hurt for people who did not have this interest. We have to keep in mind the very large number who would be affected—biological parents and adoptive parents, as well as the adoptees. . . .

In conformity with the law, our agency in talking with grown adopted children who turn to us in their quest for information about their origins, makes clear that we cannot give them identifying information. Some of these people are satisfied and go no further; others feel strongly that they have a right to specific and identifying information.

In the past four or five years, a good deal of publicity has been generated by an organization of adopted people called ALMA or Adoptees Liberty Movement Association. Their goal is to change the laws in all the states that seal adoption records since they believe that they have a right to know who they are, including the right to meet their original parents. (Arizona, Alabama, Connecticut and Kansas do not seal records.) ALMA’s ability to secure publicity is surprising in the light of its size. Our information is that it has around 1,800 members of whom about one-third are mothers who surrendered children.

In the light of this controversy we were interested in reading two papers published by The Association of British Adoption Agencies reporting on the experience in Scotland and Finland. In these countries adopted people can obtain information about their original families from official records. . . .

In the [Scottish] group studied those who wanted to meet their original parents were those whose relationship with their adoptive parents had been disappointing and unsatisfying. Their hope was to develop a relationship, especially with the original mother, that would make up for what they had missed. Many in the group learned of their adoption in adolescence or later and resented having facts about their original family, and about why they were adopted, withheld by their adoptive parents.

The report from Finland has a different quality in that follow-up with adoptive families and parents who surrender is handled by the agency which is now responsible for arranging almost 50% of the adoptions in the country. Very few mothers return for information or meeting with their children. It has been found that when they do, it is at a time of crisis, and often they can be helped to recognize that the request in relation to the child is inappropriate or irrelevant to their problem. Similarly requests from adopted children are fully discussed and often withdrawn. Meetings between mother and child can be arranged if the child is 20 or older and if both child and mother wish it. The paper stresses with great sensitivity the need for the caseworker to prepare both very carefully if the meeting is to be at all meaningful. In the agency’s experience permanent ties are seldom established.

Mrs. Asch stated that she read many articles and studies regarding a number of adopted adolescents and young adults who have been struggling with identity problems and a need to find out more about their geneological background. Some adults as well are requesting information and are in the process of searching out clues and facts that might lead to a meeting with their birth parents. . . .

Florence Fisher in her book, “The Search for Anna Fisher,” her TV and radio appearances and in her interviews with the press, has attracted the most attention. She is now on a promotional tour on behalf of ALMA and her book and to tell people that “secrecy is evil.”

A research project on Sealed Records has been completed in California by Arthur Sorosky, M.D., Annette Baran, M.S.W., and Reuben Pannor, M.S.W. They have lectured, authored many of the articles in professional journals and have written extensively in lay periodicals. Their findings are that adoption agencies must begin to reevaluate their position in regard to the sealed record. In addition they feel that open access to information would create a more wholesome environment for parent and child. These and other findings are being prepared by them for a book to be published in late 1975. The list of current articles show that most of them are written by one of the members of this team. This would or could lead people to believe that this whole topic is more wide spread than it is in reality. . . .

The literature that Mrs. Asch reviewed, with the exception of very few articles, want the law to be changed and they want the child care agencies to review their thinking about Sealed Records. . . .

Mrs. Asch feels that if one of the original purposes of the Sealed Record was to protect the child from an illegitimate status, then the lack of stigma attached in today’s society accounts for much of the current change in the attitude of some people. However, it is important to consider the Pandora’s Box that could be opened by unsealing the records. This could have adverse effects on millions of lives of adoptees, adoptive parents and the natural parents. . . .

Mrs. Miller said that she had seen most of the people who came back to the agency in the past 10 years. In 1973 Mrs. Miller saw 30 people who returned asking about themselves. The youngest was 15 and the oldest 60 years of age. In 1974 there were 45 such people. LWS has placed over 7,000 children in the history of the agency; therefore 75 people in a two-year period is a very small number. Mrs. Miller does not have figures on the number of unmarried mothers returning for information about their children but she believes this was even a considerably smaller number. There is a common theme in many of these requests. . . . Many of them [their problems] are not related to being adopted; many will accept Mrs. Miller’s suggestion for referral for help outside of the agency. In spite of the agency’s efforts to help adoptive parents to discuss adoption with their children, some of these young people were not told they were adopted; they found an Adoption Order and became curious about the secrecy maintained in the family. What these young people seem to be looking for is not their identity. There is enormous relief when they are told that their natural parents could not do for them what they wanted to and that they were not just abandoned. There is great yearning to know who they look like. The stigma of being born out of wedlock is gone for most of these young people. They are helped to realize that some young people are not prepared to be parents. . . .

After the presentation Judge Polier asked Dr. Bernard for her comments. Dr. Bernard said that she feels we should have an open mind and not be rigid in our position. . . .


Source: Louise Wise Services, Board Minutes, March 5, 1975, Viola W. Bernard Papers, Box 155, Folder 5, Archives and Special Collections, Augustus C. Long Library, Columbia University.

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