Closed adoption (sometimes called “confidential” or “secret” adoption) is pretty much the opposite of open adoption. In a closed adoption, no identifying information is shared between the birth parents and the adoptive parents. A medical history of the birth mother (and father, if possible) is usually collected, but their name is removed before that information is shared with the adoptive parents. No contact of any kind occurs between the birth parents and adoptive parents.
Despite what many people think, closed adoptions were really only popular in the United States in the last 100 years. In the early 1900s, most states passed laws which sealed adoption records, keeping nearly all information about the birth parents secret. When the adoption of an infant was finalized, some states would issue new birth certificates with their birth parents’ names removed and in some cases with their adoptive parents listed as if they were the child’s biological parents.
Most modern adoption services encourage open adoptions. A service will still respect a birth mother’s wishes if she desires a closed adoption, but the will likely suggest that she consider a semi-closed or semi-open adoption before she makes her final decision. This is because studies have consistently shown how beneficial even a little contact can be for the birth parents, the adoptive parents, and the adoptee.
Having some form of communication benefits the birth mother by giving her as sense of closure, knowing that her child is thriving in his or her placement. Birth mothers who choose closed adoptions may struggle more with grief or guilt over their decision because they assume their child hates them or isn’t doing well.
Adoptive families often struggle with the limited medical history the receive for their child, especially because new medical concerns that appear in the child’s birth family may not be communicated to them. Because they don’t know the birth mother’s intentions, adoptive families also sometimes fear that their child’s birth mother will change her mind and ask for the child back.
The adoptee in a closed adoption often struggles with questions of identity because he or she knows very little about his origins and heritage. Children placed in closed adoptions may feel disconnected with the world, not knowing where they fit into culture and society.
There are still lots of reasons that a birth mother might choose a closed adoption. She may be afraid of explaining why she chose adoption for her child or she may be embarrassed about the circumstances of the child’s conception. Adoptive parents might prefer a closed adoption because they fear that the birth family will be unstable or otherwise problematic and so wish to avoid contact. Adoptive parents may also be afraid that their child would be confused if the birth parents are involved or that the birth parents would try to interfere with their parenting.
Every situation is different, of course, but in most cases it is possible to have some level of contact between the birth parents and the adoptive family while still respecting these kinds of concerns, such as with a semi-open adoption. Everyone enters into an adoption with the same understanding of the level and kinds of contact they wish to have before and after the adoption is finalized. If necessary, communication can happen through an intermediary, such as an adoption service or an attorney.
It is also possible to “open” a closed adoption in some circumstances. Most states will allow a judge to open the record of an adoption if there is good reason, such as a pressing medical concern. In many states there is an adoption registry where birth parents and adoptees (and sometimes their family members) can list their information to try to connect with each other.
Choosing the type of adoption she wants for her child is one of the most important decisions a birth mother makes. Often the more contact there is between a birth family and an adoptive family, the better it is for everyone involved, especially the child, but circumstances vary from adoption to adoption. An experienced adoption coordinator can help you weigh the pros and cons of different levels of contact and develop an adoption plan that is tailored to your needs.