National Committee for Adoption, “About Adoption and Privacy of Records,” 1982

This document defended confidentiality and sealed records by arguing that privacy, including a woman’s right to surrender a child anonymously, was a cherished American value under attack by adoption activists. The text is drawn from a draft pamphlet that Bill Pierce, National Committee for Adoption (NCFA) founder and open records opponent, circulated for comment. By the early 1980s, access to records was the overriding concern of the adoption reform movement, including organizations like the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA) and Concerned United Birthparents, both mentioned here. This fact contrasts sharply with the view, also expressed here, that only a small number of maladjusted birth parents and disgruntled adoptees were actually interested in search and reunion.

There’s a revolution underway in adoption, with many aims but one major opening goal: to unseal confidential adoption records and files.

The movement includes many organizations at the national level, and several hundred local affiliates. It started, most agree, with Jean Paton, creator of an organization called “Orphan Voyage.” A book by that name and Paton’s 1953 book, The Adoptee Breaks Silence*, are credited with being the founding documents of the search movement.

It’s called a search movement because people working with it say:

“Our specific need is to help us find one another; to open communications between us; to support one another and by sharing our experiences, thus help others to search, find and contact their surrendered children. . . ours is strictly an underground operation so we may feel free to express ourselves with no guidelines or restrictions of any kind. We encourage you to share your stories of search—and hopefully of finding and contacting—your child, EVEN IF UNDERAGE. We will offer help and suggestions, even if your child is underage.”
Marsha Riben, Find and Seek, Vol. 1, No. 1.

Perhaps the destructiveness and intrusion exemplified by this approach is what bothers most Americans. They question the fairness of knocking on the doors of minor children, of disrupting the lives of couples who adopted with the guarantee that they’d be protected from such outrageous behavior, that they have a right to mental peace and tranquility—to privacy.

Just as some biological mothers assert the right to intrude into the lives of minor children, so also do some adults who were adopted as children. The most famous of these is Florence Fisher, the president and founder of the most influential of the adult adoptees’ search groups, Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA). Fisher does not believe that a woman has a right to plan a confidential adoption:

“To perform a sexual act that brings another human being into the world is to render oneself accountable to that child for all time. It is indefensible for the adoption agency to indemnify the natural mother against the accountability by granting her anonymity from her own child. It is unconscionable for the agency to influence the natural mother to root her “new life in a lie built on the grave of her child’s human rights to save her own skin.”
New Jersey hearing, Dec. 9, 1981, p. 10.

A third group, ORIGINS, should also be mentioned. This is the group which was involved with a state employee, providing “middle-man” services between the employee and those who wanted to buy sealed, confidential adoption records. NBC-TV exposed the scheme by taping the actual “sale.” Although illegal, the man’s only punishment for selling hundreds of confidential files was the loss of his job and a $1,000 fine—paid for by his supporters among the search groups.


These three examples illustrate what’s at the center of the revolution in adoption: a willingness to disrupt not only the lives of adoptive parents but even of minor children; rejection of a woman’s right to plan a private and confidential adoption for her baby; a claim that illegal acts are justified.

Who’s behind this movement and the various groups? The three examples given above help tell us. The woman who believes in intruding in the lives of underage children has been a member of ALMA. She is currently a member of ORIGINS and the largest organization of biological parents (birth-parents is the preferred term of the search group), Concerned United Birthparents (C.U.B.). Most experts believe that individuals like this woman, with memberships in several anti-privacy groups, account for the hard core of activists—probably less than a thousand—who’ve made adoption so controversial.

One thing is certain—the groups are working together for common goals, share common members and even have their own national network called “The American Adoption Congress.”

Yet, most agree—the complaints about confidential adoption are coming from a tiny, unhappy minority for whom adoption did not work. Unfortunately, that loud but tiny group of individuals, with nearly 10 years of unchallenged activity, have hurt many. . . .


There is a better way. Thanks to the work of hundreds of adult adoptees, adoptive parents, biological parents, agencies and others over the past two years, a model law has been written which, if passed by a State, would allow people who want to have contact to do so. . . .

The registry works on a simple principle: voluntary, mutual consent. If all of the people involved—the adopted person grown to adulthood, the biological mother and the biological father—register their interest in contact, a trained and sensitive social worker will work with them to achieve as much contact as they want.

Unlike other attacks on privacy, the registry recognizes the sanctity of the contract—or promise—made at the time adoption was planned. . . .

* * *

* The title of Jean Paton’s book was The Adopted Break Silence. It was published in 1954.


Source: National Committee for Adoption, draft of pamphlet “About Adoption and Privacy of Records,” 1982, Viola W. Bernard Papers, Box 158, Folder 5, Archives and Special Collections, Augustus C. Long Library, Columbia University.

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
Site designed by:

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
About the Project and the Author
© Ellen Herman