This is as applicable today as it was in 1976:
Sealed Adoption Records and the Search for Identity
The following is testimony offered in regard to sealed adoption records and the search for identity. This testimony was given in 1976 to the New York State Commission on Child Welfare by Vincenette Scheppler. It is still pertinent today.
My testimony today is based on my experience as a psychiatric social worker who has provided therapy for adolescents, many of whom were adopted. I have also been involved for seven years as a director of adoption programs. My work has been with unwed mothers and fathers, adoptive parents, adoptive children and adult adoptees. While all of this experience has convinced me of the need for open records as a contribution to the mental well-being of adoptees, nothing has persuaded me more than the testimony of my own adopted children.
Although the original sealing of adoption records was perhaps understandable on the basis of an earlier lack of knowledge, what we have since learned makes the concept today truly inexcusable.
For a long time it was a rather generally held view that only the disturbed and/or unhappy person would want to seek out his biological parents. It was honestly believed adoption created a totally new life for a child and there was no need to seek out information about his biological heritage. Now we know this is simply not so. Every adopted child has to face what I have chosen to call the adoption dilemma. The essence of this dilemma is in the fact that every adopted child has two sets of parents. He must somehow come to know them both and to settle for himself what his relationship is to be with each. Although some of this may be beyond his control, he will try. Knowledge of his biological parents may be actual, it may be by way of information that is enough to satisfy him, or, if neither of these is possible, it will be imaginary. But know them he must if he is to resolve his dilemma and thus free himself to be all he is capable of being.
All humans, in order to grow and become mature adults, must resolve their relationship with their parents. By daily contact they learn the reality of that relationship and grow in their ability to move away and become independent individuals. This task is complicated for the adopted child who has two sets of parents. Some may tend to deny one set or the other, but this is often accomplished at a very high emotional cost. Let those of us who have some authority to act not be responsible for further complicating this difficult task by keeping from adult adoptees information the rest of us accept as a matter-of-course. Let us not force them to waste valuable time, energy and emotional stamina better used for the building of a creative, productive life. Spare them the necessity of obtaining this vital information in an illegal, frustrating and perhaps unsuccessful search.
The social work profession, undoubtedly composed of dedicated, sincere workers who certainly want what is best for all parties concerned, must now face the fact that the sealing of records has been responsible for much unnecessary heartache for everyone involved in adoption. Let us consider some of the reasons for this sealing.
Perhaps the most frequently given reason is the respect for confidentiality. This is based on the myth that parents who surrender their children do, indeed, want to be protected from them. The fact is that at the time of the signing of a surrender, parents have had to be convinced the only way they could provide a home for the child was to completely relinquish their right to any future knowledge of it’s existence. Many have written frequently to ask about the child’s well-being. Others, believing they could not obtain any information, have agonized in silence. Most have generally acknowledged they cannot play the mother role, but they wanted to make their peace between themselves and their offspring – hardly a sinister motive. For those rare few who may be truly unable or unwilling to acknowledge their children, a statement to that effect might be made a part of their permanent record.
Another argument against open records has been the felt need to protect the adoptee from unpleasant information. There are, in truth, no happy circumstances that lead to adoption. The very fact that a child needs to be placed in an adoptive home tells us something unpleasant has already happened to him. He may have been born of unmarried parents who were not prepared to take on the responsibility of caring for him. He may have been the product of rape or incest or an extra-marital affair. He may have been forcibly removed from his parents by the courts because of neglect or abuse. He may have been abandoned. To try to protect people from such information is truly naive. The unknown frequently holds far more horror than any truth. Both social workers and adoptive parents have been guilty in the past of fostering a vague, meaningless ‘explanation’ to all adopted children that has, in effect, left all with the feeling there is no way to learn why their placement was necessary. Your mother gave you up because she loved you, we told them all, as if that made any sense whatsoever. She wanted what was best for you so she gave you to an agency to make sure they found the best possible home for you. And now adults who were adopted as children are telling us that such answers will not suffice. Their message is clear. they must work out their dilemma. . . their own dilemma. This is a very personal matter and can best be accomplished when the adoptee is able to understand the reason for his placement.
All of this has led to society’s continually treating the adult adoptee as if he were perpetually a child. It is certainly possible the adult adoptee who seeks out his past may encounter rejection and unpleasantness. This possibility – not probability – is in no way a justification for denying adults their right to know. The idea that some adults can decide for other adults what part of their own person they can be allowed to know is reprehensible. Every individual has a right to come to grips with his own past.
Finally, there is the objection that open records invade the rights of adoptive parents. Surely, while children are still minors, adoptive parents and children need to be protected from custody suits. This argument can no longer hold when those children become adults. The parent-child relationship which has grown over the years need not be threatened because the adoptee now seeks to explore that other part of his being. The parents who understand the need for their children to work out their dilemma will recognize it is in no way a repudiation of them.
Some adoptees argue they feel no need to seek out information about their biological background. That is their right. But hopefully this will not be a basis for denying equal rights to those who do.
The question arises, how to make information available. Some have suggested third party mediators. If adoptees have the right to grow and handle their own problems as mature human beings, free of the need for continual parenting and protection by all of society, we must accept the fact mature people can make their own arrangements without third party involvement. Indeed, one of the most tragic aspects of adoption as we know it rises from society’s unwillingness to recognize we are not speaking of children.
In closing, I would like to share with you the words of my twelve year old son. When he learned I was coming to this hearing, Tom said, Mom, please make them understand. We don’t want to run away. We just want to know.”
– Vincenette Scheppler, M.S.W.