Historical essay
Buried Secrets, Living Children: Secrecy, Shame, and Sealed Adoption Records

Buried Secrets, Living Children: Secrecy, Shame, and Sealed Adoption Records

Between 1945 and 1973, single mothers in the United States gave birth in an era of secrecy and shame that historians of adoption call the Baby Scoop Era (BSE).1 During this time, millions of unwed mothers gave birth to children who they often unwillingly relinquished for adoption. Although precise numbers are elusive, as many as four million single mothers relinquished their children to adoption agencies, state child welfare departments, or directly to adoptive parents through private adoptions.2

The nuclear family ideal of the post-war era reflected new gendered and racial ideas about social stability and cultural conformity. To help the nation return to normalcy after the war, single white women were expected to perform traditional gender roles to uphold family honor. Most importantly, they were expected to wait until marriage to have children.3

Medical practitioners helped define appropriate behavior for young women. Doctors and psychiatrists diagnosed out-of-wedlock birth as tangible evidence of social deviance and pathology. Psychiatrists pointed to “illegitimate” births as a sign of the mother’s psychological neurosis. Psychiatrists at Harvard University characterized unwed mothers as “psychiatric problems” and as “victims of … severe emotional and mental disturbance.”4 Social workers also drew on the medical language of the idea of pathology to promote adoption as the ideal scientific solution to the problem of unplanned pregnancy and child welfare.

White baby in a stroller ca. 1970.
Youngster in a Stroller Awaits His Family (National Archives / Flickr)

Young single white women who strayed from these ideals threatened new social norms of family respectability. As a result, they were ostracized and shamed for their transgressions. Some families threw their pregnant daughters onto the streets out of fear that friends might find out. Others quickly shipped them to maternity homes and told the neighbors that their daughters were “visiting a sick aunt” for several months.

Social workers, doctors, families, and clergy pressured, bullied, and coerced unwed mothers to relinquish their children for adoption as quickly as possible, often despite their pleas to keep their babies. The wishes and rights of fathers of relinquished children rarely mattered.5

As a result, secrecy became a cornerstone of modern adoption practice. Surrendering a child erased all evidence of an unwed mother’s sin and sexuality, but required secrecy to facilitate the charade of unsullied female purity and family honor. Maternity homes in distant cities and states allowed mothers to wait out their pregnancies and give birth far from the prying eyes of friends, families, and nosy neighbors.

After relinquishing their children, adoption professionals instructed mothers to return home and behave as if their children never existed or had died. Adoption agencies often promised mothers that no one would ever find about their greatest shame. Many mothers never revealed the existence of their surrendered children to anyone, never speaking of them again.

Responding to social mores and cultural concerns about the stigma of illegitimacy, states first began sealing adoption records in 1917, the majority after 1945. All states, with the exception of Kansas and Alaska, eventually followed suit. After adoption, the adopted child was issued an amended birth certificate with a new name, and the names of the adoptive parents listed as the child’s parents as if they had given birth to the child. The child’s original birth certificate was legally sealed from everyone, including the adopted child, even after reaching legal adulthood.

Sealing records facilitated the creation of a new legal family of genetic strangers that resembled a “natural” family. Closed adoption records gave adoptive parents the power to choose whether to even tell adopted children the truth about their origins and entry into the family. Adoption professionals and courts believed that sealed records would “normalize” adoptees, giving them no choice but to embrace the adoptive family as their own.

PDF cover says "In nearly all States, adoption records are sealed and withheld from public inspection after an adoption is finalized. Most States have instituted procedures by which parties to an adoption may obtain both nonidentifying and identifying information from an adoption record while still protecting the interests of all parties."
Child Welfare Information Gateway’s most recent edition of Access to Adoption Records policies and procedures. (ChildWelfare.gov)

Adoptees were expected to make a clean break with their supposedly pathological birth mothers and shameful origins. Sealing birth records of adoptees left them with no legal option to recover information about their original families and made the idea of searching for them unthinkable and nearly impossible.6

Closed records and secrecy in adoption remained the norm until the 1990s. Today, secrecy in adoption seems outdated. Cultural and social norms have shifted, making single motherhood a more acceptable choice. Many people have families that seem far from the nuclear family ideal of the BSE, including families with same-sex parents, half-siblings, and family members of different races. Ninety percent of adoptions are “open,” meaning that birth and adoptive families know each other.

Nevertheless, the legacy of the era of shame lives on through records that are still legally sealed today. Only seven states allow adopted adults legal access to their adoption records. In over forty states, adopted adults are still legally prohibited from accessing or even seeing their original birth certificates.

Although birth mothers and adoptees have long pressured legislators to change state laws to open adoption records, these efforts have been painstakingly slow. Many lawmakers and adoption professionals reflexively argue that opening adoption records may cause irreparable psychological harm to the mothers who never told anyone about their relinquished children.7

These arguments portray women of the BSE as fragile, vulnerable, and in need of laws to protect them from their lost children. Arguments for keeping adoption records sealed also imply that adopted people cannot be trusted with information about their origins, as they may stalk or harm their birth parents. Adopted people, meanwhile, argue that factual knowledge of one’s origins constitutes a fundamental human and civil right.8

Black and white photograph of a white man and white woman standing with a stroller between them, with a baby in the stroller.
Baby with adoptive parents. (Kennuth/Flickr)

States have often tried to skirt around the issue of sealed records by cobbling together clunky compromises that claim to “balance” the rights of mothers and adoptees. Many closed records states provide mutual consent registries, although many people remain unaware of them, which hinders their effectiveness. Other states attempt to bridge this issue through expensive confidential intermediary (CI) programs. CI programs charge adoptees (or searching birth mothers) a fee to open their sealed records and perform a search on their behalf.

If found, intermediaries make initial contact with the person being sought and ask if the person would welcome contact from either their birth parent or relinquished child. All communication then must take place through the intermediary. In some states, non-refundable fees for a single search can cost upwards of $800.9 Confidential intermediaries are prohibited from disclosing any information about birth records to either adoptees or birth mothers.

Legal scholar Elizabeth Samuels examined seventy-five surrender documents from twenty-six different states. Her analysis shows that in most cases, surrender documents did not make promises of lifelong anonymity to birth mothers. In fact, she found the opposite: that birth mothers were often made to promise that they would never interfere with the adoptive family or search for the adopted child. She argues that the paternal language of “protection” for the identities of birth mothers reinscribes the earlier culture of shame.10

Although sealed records have protected mothers’ identities, they intended to protect the integrity of the new adoptive family. Closing adoption records assured adoptive parents that remorseful birth mothers could not find their children or interfere with the newly created legal family. States seal records upon adoption, rather than relinquishment.

In other words, until adoption by a new set of parents, adoptees have full legal access to their original birth certificates and identifying information about their families of origin. Only after adoption do adoptees lose their legal claim to the identities of their birth parents.

Finally, outdated, sealed records laws reinforce the unequal relationship between women and the state, mirroring gendered inequalities. They position the state as the paternal arbiter of truth, supposedly protecting women of the BSE from the mistakes of their shameful pasts. Closed record laws insert the power of the state into personal relationships between mothers and children, effectively making their identities state secrets.

Closed record policies also treat adopted people like perpetual children, too irresponsible to understand the truth of their pasts and identities. Allowing women, rather than the state, to make decisions about their pasts threatens state control over women’s lives, giving them the power to make decisions about how to reconcile the painful injustices of the past. Sealed records policies also disregard the wishes of the majority of mothers of the BSE who want to know what happened to their lost children.

Where there is secrecy, there is shame.

Further Reading

Amy Wang, “New Oregon Law Makes Adoption Records Easier to Access than EverThe Oregonian, December 12, 2015.


  1. Historians of adoption generally periodize the Baby Scoop Era as 1945-1973. The term refers to the spike in pregnancies of unwed mothers and soaring rates of newborn adoption, which lasted until legal abortion became available in 1973. Adoption statistics are not exact, but those collected by the U.S. Children’s Bureau estimate 50,000 domestic, non-kinship adoptions in 1944 to a high of 175,000 in 1970. See Ellen Herman, Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). First mothers have also written about their experiences during this time. See the Baby Scoop Research Initiative. Return to text.
  2. Ellen Herman, “Adoption Statistics,” The Adoption History Project, University of Oregon, accessed August 23 , 2017. The practices I describe here are not unique to the United States. Irish adoption practices of the time were depicted in the 2013 film Philomena. Australia also practiced forced adoptions from the 1950s to the 1980s, for which the former Prime Minister offered a national apology in 2013. American Indian tribes in the U.S. and First Nations peoples in Canada also have been targets of forced adoptions, often couched in language of cultural assimilation. Return to text.
  3. Rickie Solinger and Elaine Tyler May, Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade (New York: Routledge, 2016), 1-19. Solinger argues that adoption policies directed at white unwed mothers reinforced racial differences, as unwed black mothers often kept, rather than relinquished their children. Return to text.
  4. Ibid, 87. Return to text.
  5. Ann Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade (New York: Penguin Press, 2007). Return to text.
  6. Ellen Herman, “‘Proposal for Analysis of the Sealed Adoption Record Issue,’ 1973,” Adoption History Project, University of Oregon, accessed August 24, 2017. Return to text.
  7. National Council for Adoption, “’Protecting the Option of Privacy in Adoption,’The Adoption History Project, University of Oregon, accessed August 23, 2017. Return to text.
  8. Ellen Herman “Bastard Nation, ‘Open Records: Why It’s an Issue,’ 1999,” Adoption History Project, University of Oregon, accessed August 24, 2017. Return to text.
  9. In 2013 in the state of Colorado, the cost for a confidential intermediary to conduct a single search on behalf on an adoptee was $875 with no refunds or guarantees of success. Additional searches were $200 each. Author’s personal experience. Return to text.
  10. Elizabeth J. Samuels, “Surrender and Subordination: Birth Mothers and Adoption Law Reform,” Michigan Journal of Gender and Law 20, no. 1 (2013). Return to text.

Lisa graduated from the University of Arizona in 2015 with a PhD in Latin American history. She has a long list of non-academic jobs, including being a Peace Corps volunteer (Guatemala, 2004-2006), a veterinary technician, a medical receptionist in a bilingual hospital office, a teacher, a study abroad assistant, and most recently, a crime victim advocate. She's lived in Guatemala and Mexico and is currently figuring out how to engineer her life to return there. She co-hosts the biweekly #withaphd chat on Twitter, where academics of all stripes can network and share with each other about life outside of academia. She's passionate about writing about Latin America, history, archaeology, science and pseudoscience, neoliberalism, critical thinking, writing, adoption, trauma, and the alt-ac life.

10 thoughts on “Buried Secrets, Living Children: Secrecy, Shame, and Sealed Adoption Records

    • Author gravatar

      I completely understand the era of which this happened. However, they need to move quickly now to fix the laws. Intermediaries are going to quickly be obsolete. I have found new cousins and family members quite quickly and easily by using Ancestry DNA. After about a month of intense searching and asking the right questions, my spouse found both birth parents within 24 hours of each other. No other outside help needed. The birth father never knew he had a son out there. And the birth mother was immediately moved to another state with a family member so that the stigma and shame of a baby out of wedlock would not hit the very conservative family and family circles. Technology is fast … so laws better quickly catch up!

    • Author gravatar

      I was part of this social engineering in the Sixties and I reunited with my daughter in the Nineties. She knew where I lived and who I was because her adoptive parents showed her the court documents in her teens. This does not upset me in relation to my daughter, I am so grateful that she knew where she could find me, however, the arguments of protecting the mother’s privacy were fully put forward when legislation was changed here in Australia to open the records.. There was no substance to this argument for the secrecy was one sided in terms of the mother not being able to find her child, not the other way around. Its all smoke and mirrors.

    • Author gravatar

      My half sister was placed for adoption and her mother never told our father she was pregnant and never told her own family either. My half sister found her birth mother in 1996. Her birth mother wouldn’t even speak to her. She didn’t even tell her what our fathers name was until this past August. only because my sister sent her an message on Facebook that she was doing Ancestry DNA and if she wanted to keep her fantasy life and secret she should tell her who her father is. She received a cold response say the least… Billy Wicks I think he’s passed I don’t know when.

      Thankfully my sister found me. I don’t like to refer to as half because I love her with my whole heart. She is my fathers child therefore she is my sister!

      We did ancestry DNA and it not only confirmed our match of being sisters it also revealed that we also have a brother by a different woman that also placed him for adoption. We match his DNA and I heard rumor of who our brothers mother might be so I contacted one of her relatives on Ancestry sure enough he was a match to her as well. Problem is our brother has not logged into ancestry in 3 years! There is no name attached other than Robinson.

      I encouraged my husband to do ancestry DNA because he didn’t know who is Bio father was his mom couldn’t remember the mans name. 45 minutes after his DNA was posted on the site. He was contacted by his half sister and found he had 2 more and a brother in addition to his FATHER! Without the DNA he would have never known him. So it doesn’t just help Adoptees.

      I think that sealing the records is wrong and we should be able to find our families. It’s 2017 the stigma is gone!

    • Author gravatar

      Not only should all records be opened to adoptees, the altering of birth certificates & sealing of records needs to end entirely. It’s a record of birth, not a parenting certificate. Adopters need to get over themselves & accept the fact that they did not actually give birth to the child they are parenting & therefore do NOT belong on the child’s birth certificate.

    • Author gravatar

      Religion’s treatment of “unwed mothers” purported that, by surrendering their babies and ‘forgetting’ the whole experience, they would magically be restored to (implied) virginity. (Why else was secrecy so important if it wasn’t to deceive potential suitors?) So ‘Christian’ adoption agencies today fight to protect the illusions they crafted, fearful that their own deceitful practices will be exposed. In doing so, they perpetuate the shame that totally contradicts the religion they represent.

    • Author gravatar

      Very well written article. But it’s all still the same nothing has changed for any adult adoptees. We are still to this day being treated as children. Denyed our basic rights to know who we are and where we came from. Every government official who thinks adoption records should be closed or kept closed should be locked away behind bars. Who the hell gives you the right to say one individual had more rights than another. Adult adoptees are just that, ADULTS and we have a right to our lives, our whole lives in it’s entirety. After all it’s our lives not yours. Your are given a birth certificate because you were born. It’s a right not a privelege. Adult adoptees have hearts and believe it or not but when we are cut our blood is red not green. It’s time for the policy and law makers of every country to get the hell out of the stone ages and wake up. All adoption records should be opened, full opened. This is 2017 not 1940. Prisoners have more rights than adult adoptees and they do nothing to contribute to society. Perhaps it’s time to take away the rights of the non adopted, you know those who think adult adoptees are spawns of the devil. Wonder how they would like to go thru the rest of their lives never being able to talk to their families ever again. Never knowing where they are or what they are doing. Well that’s what every adult adoptee who’s records are closed or sealed goes thru every day. We know nothing and worse we have no idea of our vital medical history. Try getting life insurance when you can’t answer any questions, cause you simply have no idea. No non adopted person would ever last a day walking around in an adoptees shoes. It’s time to do what’s not only ethical but humane open our records.

      • Author gravatar

        As a mother of loss I could not agree with you more my son is now 51 years old and I have not seen him since he was an infant I fort like hell to keep my child in 1966 but the cards were stacked against me all they cared about was getting my son away from me I have been sick over this all of my life I hope and pray that in New York they open the records already as I am not getting any younger.

        • Author gravatar

          I was born in 1948 and adopted out through Catholic Charities. My adopted parents requested that I don’t search for my biological parents till they passed. Like you I met a lot of road blocks when searching. I had giving up the search when I was told “all records were destroyed in 911. However, my daughter was searching in Ancestry.com. for months and found my brother and sister. I sent in my DNA and bingo! I found my family. They had no idea that I existed. We got together this weekend and I must say it was the best day of my life. I’m fortunate that my new family accepted me as part of them. Don’t give up the search.

    • Author gravatar

      Great article, brings up a lot of stirring up! I was adopted in OKC @ 16 days. Let’s skip over my adoptive family (who told me all they knew when I asked @ 18). Spent 17 years on the hunt; had some evidence after nice lady in OKC sent me my original birth certificate mid-70’s for $50. Like I said it took 17 years and the help of many friends all female helping me, lot of info but no hits. In ’89 my girlfriend, also adopted, spent all day on the search and found her father and my mother. Well, I got the 2nd rejection (“Why is wanting to see me after all these years”) from my baptist mother. But I met all her sisters before they died. And Grandmere who would cry every time she saw me. And a great uncle and the fact that I had 5 step-siblings (met the oldest girl) and a coupla of hippy cousins, ladies about my age. This article, like I said, stirred me up and that’s alright I tell people as an adopted human being I had the Hole in the Soul. I have the Hole in the Soul which is a long story but it’s about a crazy life related to that feeling of rejection, abandonment and loss.

    • Author gravatar

      One correction is in order.

      “Legal scholar Elizabeth Samuels examined seventy-five surrender documents from twenty-six different states. Her analysis shows that in most cases, surrender documents did not make promises of lifelong anonymity to birth mothers.”

      Fact: There were NO cases in which promises of lifelong anonymity were made on surrender documents.

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