Missing Pieces
Missing Pieces by Lisa Ritter Starr


by Lisa Ritter Starr

Part One: Herstory: The History of Adoption Secrecy Laws

Note: This is the first part in a three-part series exploring the legal and emotional origin of American domestic adoptions, and the ongoing lobby for legal and emotional change in how adoption is dealt with today.

Not too long ago, a young woman went to the hospital and gave birth to a son. This woman had a caesarean section and woke up from the anesthetic in a room alone - that is, without a baby or any family near her. When a nurse came in, she asked to see her baby. "No," she was told, as was the custom in those days when a woman was to place her child in an adoption.

Determined to see her baby anyway, the woman found her way unnoticed down the hall and to the nursery. There, she saw several babies in their cribs, on the front of which were colored plackets with the babies' names. Then she saw one baby with a blue sign on his crib, the familiar logo of the adoption agency she went through to find a home for her child, and a sign that read, "DO NOT ANNOUNCE" (101).

Such has been, to varying extent, the prevailing sentiment throughout the relatively short history of American domestic adoptions. Laws in the United States have both followed changing social attitudes and, more recently, created their own attitudes about adoption. These attitudes can change and, thankfully, are changing. Whether or not it is happening fast enough is unclear.

The reasons for adoption have basically remained the same - a pregnant woman is unprepared or unable to care for her baby, or a child is parentless and needs a home. It wasn't until 1850 that states began to enact laws specifically stating that adopted children have the same legal treatment as biological children (63). By 1929, all states had some provision for adoption on record.

Secrecy in adoption was a reaction to the early 20th century belief, due in part to the burgeoning acceptance of the field of psychology, that social misbehavior or mistfortune was always biologically inherited. The son or daughter of a drunk/gambler/wanderer/troublemaker, therefore, was fated to become a drunk/gambler/wanderer/troublemaker. The first state secrecy law was passed by Minnesota in 1917. After a national child welfare organization endorsed secrecy 20 years later, the other states quickly followed suit.

Since there were far more purportedly "unwell" children and fewer couples willing to adopt in those early days, it was the job of the increasingly professionalized social workers to find as many homes as possible(63). Not only did the children need guardians, but the state-run orphanages and tax-payers who supported them needed help. It is interesting to note that this was also the time of eugenics, or the manipulating of human bloodlines in order to prevent certain weak or "tainted" families from procreating.

By the 1940's and 1950's, the idea behind eugenics fell out of favor with the public, especially after having been cited as an influence by the Nazis in their quest for creating a master race. The social stigma connected to adoption then shifted heavily to the "sin" of being pregnant and unwed. The secrecy laws already in place still worked, seen now as protection for all adoption triad members: the birthmother, the child, and the adoptive parents.

Protection for the Birthmother

Because it was so terrible to be unwed and pregnant, people assumed that the birthmother would not want to be revealed to anyone. This resulted in the now-almost-mythical practice of sending the girl away to "visit Aunt Ruth's farm," which was either a real place or was actually an anonymous maternity home far enough away from the girl's hometown that no one would know her.

When she gave birth, the girl was not to see her child. This was both because she was viewed as irresponsible and untrustworthy - she may try to keep the baby - and because many people believed that she was a bad person and therefore did not care about the baby. One teenage birthmother, when she asked the nurse if she could see her baby, was asked (rhetorically, of course), "Why the hell would you care?" (66).

Protection for the Child

If unwed mothers were so shameful, it was viewed as best to protect the child from this hurtful information. After all, "What you don't know, can't hurt you." Adoption books of the 40's and 50's actually advised adoptive parents to learn as little about their child's birthfamily as possible so that they would never have that information to pass on, either purposely or accidentally. It could render the child's delicate self-esteem irreparable to discover their origin was shameful and possibly physically or mentally inferior (64). Why cause any (more) damage?

Protection for the Adoptive Parents

Although it was not necessarily so before, this has likely become the biggest reason for secrecy today. First, protection from an untrustworthy social misfit like an unwed pregnant woman was deemed necessary. No parents want to fear that their child will be taken away from them. Yet, adoptive parents were the legal and emotional parents of the child. Whether this fear came from an actual distrust of the birthmother or the adoptive parents distrust of their roles as "real" parents is unclear (64).

Adoptive parents of then and now often go through painful infertility issues that can scar their own self-esteem. One adoptive mother who relied on the utmost secrecy in her child's adoption had gone through three miscarriages and gave birth to one stillborn child before she adopted her daughter. Throughout the years, she fearfully discouraged her daughter from finding her birthfamily. She would show her daughter every newspaper story she could find of adoption reunions that had gone badly. Even when her daughter grew up and moved out, the adoptive mother said of the birthmother, "I'm still afraid of that woman" (70).

Dealing with Ghosts

Like the woman above, dealing with ghosts is often much scarier than dealing with real people. If she knew her daugher's birthmother, she would likely have nothing to fear. Likewise, adoption secrecy laws still in place mainly deal with the ghosts of problems past, rather than the real problems of today, propagating more fear than is necessary. First of all, the stigma of unwed mothers is far less in this age of women's power and prevalent single parenting. We have even created state assistance such as welfare, paternal child support, and earned income tax credit.

This alone need not prove there is little need to protect adopted children (and adults) from information about their biological heritage. The already vast and growing search and reunion movement is proof enough that the need to know far outweighs any triad member's need for secrecy. As the search movement naturally expands and progresses, as it has in recent years, more and more information shows that birth mothers want to know about their relinquished children's lives.

And perhaps most importantly, adult adoptees have shown that they do, in fact, want information about their biological heritage, whether or not it is what they want to hear. They feel the need to have the same access to their full histories as other adults, believing that anything other than equal treatment in such civil liberties of an American citizen would be - and is now - an injustice.

Part II, "The Lobby for Change in Closed Records and Adoptions," will discuss the search and reunion movement, past and present.

Work Cited:

Lindsay, Jeanne Warren. Open Adoption: A Caring Option. Morning Glory Press: Buena Park, CA, 1987.

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