Until the 19th century almost all adoptions were handled informally. If a young woman was pregnant and wanted to place her child, she did, with whomever she wanted. Usually it was done with the advice and consent of her parents, and generally, the child was placed with a family member or someone from her local town. There were no agencies, counselors, attorneys, or facilitators. No legal papers were ever filed, the government didn't get involved, and no one but the birth mother and her parents were ever consulted as to the welfare of the child.
In the late 19th century, closed adoption was born. The Victorian era had arrived to the detriment of our children. Children considered illegitimate were locked up and hidden away. Birth mothers became the scourge of society. They were labeled misfits, outcasts, bad girls, and were secretly whisked away to give birth to their children in nunnery's and secret hospitals across the nation. Such women were considered immoral, disallowing them the freedom of choice given to them and their families in the past.
Agencies soon had complete power over the child, and birth mothers had little, if any, rights to their newborn babies. Infants were torn from their mother's arms and taken to orphanages where adoptive families picked out babies and children with no known background or medical history. During the 19th century, this was purely a reflection of societal change. Laws making adoption secret were not passed until the late 1940's and 50's. Most baby- boomers grew up with the idea that a closed adoption is normal. In fact, it isn't normal, and, it isn't right.
The moral backlash in the 60's and 70's, brought about by society's rigid standards, began the push towards open adoption. Unmarried women giving birth were no longer considered bad, and they began to demand the right to pick who might parent their children. As the children of the closed adoption era grew older, they, in turn, began to demand the right to their personal histories.
By the 80's and 90's, the change from closed adoption evolved into what is now considered open adoption, something that is much healthier for both the birth mother and the child. The federal government and the states began to hear the children of closed adoption and to understand and appreciate their plight. Laws are still changing today as adopted children, birth mothers, and adoptive parents demand the rights that belong to them.
But there are still issues with open adoption that need to be addressed. Birth mothers are not legally entitled to have contact with the children they place for adoption. The Ongoing Contact Agreement is simply an agreement between two parties, the birth parent and the adoptive parents, to allow informal ongoing contact. If the adoptive parents choose to change their phone number, move across country, or ignore letters from the birth mother, they can legally do so. In this author's opinion, when an adoption is finalized, the ongoing contact plan should be a legally binding contract.
Furthermore, each state has its own set of rules and laws regarding adoption. Some states have made facilitators illegal even though they are the proponents of open adoption. As far as the federal government goes, they too have their own sets of laws regarding adoption. The adoption laws in the United States are as clear as mud. Adoptive parents must have the consent of the sending state as well as the receiving state before they can bring their children home, and birth mothers have varying time restraints as to when they have the right to reclaim, depending on where they live.
It is time to do something to change the adoption laws of this country. Both open and closed adoptions need to be legally allowed and respected by all. All states and the federal government need to engage in open dialogue to bring the adoption laws up to a single standard, thereby decreasing the worry, stress, and pain, of the adoption community.
How to Help
There are many adoption support groups on the Internet, and many people you can contact to help to change the adoption laws of the United States. See ETHICA for additional information or donate to Lifetime Adoption Foundation to help educate, clothe, feed, and assist birth mothers and adoptive families in need of financial support. Your financial contributions and individual efforts help keep open adoption alive and well in the United States.