Although, adoption has been around for a long time, sealed records are a somewhat recent phenomenon. Adoptions in the U.S. were usually open and informal before the 1940’s.
Between the 1930’s and 1950’s, birth records of adopted people began to be sealed by social workers. The rationale in doing this was due to the attitudes of the time. Secrecy surrounding adoptions was supposed to protect all members of the triad (adoptee, birthfamily, and adoptive family). The birth mother would be protected from the shame, the ostracization and humiliation of an unwed pregnancy.
The inventors of the secrecy were intending to “rescue” the children. The adoptee would be protected from the stigma of illegitimacy. Secrecy would somehow also prevent conflict and confusion later on if a reunion happened.
The adoptive parents would be protected from publicly dealing with their infertility issues and maintain the conservative views of, as well as what the community viewed, “family”. This would also give protection from any interference by the birth family.
Records were sealed in two steps - first from public scrutiny of the general public and then later from those named (birth parents and child) in the records. Sealed records were originally meant to “pretend” there were no differences and to make adoptive families appear as if they were the true birth family.
The desire by Adoptees’ to gain access to birth records is not new. This has truly been an emotionally opinionated and politically charged topic for the past 25-30 years.