When President James Polk and his wife, Sarah, adopted their daughter (shown above with her adoptive mother at the turn of the century) in the 1800s, adoption records were totally open to the public. Although many states began enacting adoption statutes in the late 19th century (Illinois enacted its first adoption laws in 18671 and its first Adoption Act in 1876), adoptees continued to have unrestricted access to their original birth certificates and court documents until well into the 20th century.

By the mid 1920s, though, things had begun to change. Social workers, whose ranks had been slowly growing since the turn of the century, feared that stamping the original birth certificates of babies born out of wedlock with the word "illegitimate" was a practice that could unnecessarily stigmatize these children, and urged the Illinois General Assembly to enact the Uniform Illegitimacy Act (UIA) in 1921. The new law not only ended the practice of branding the birth certificates of those born out of wedlock with the word "illegitimate," but it also banned the use of the "i" word and "any words referring to the illegitimacy of the child to be adopted," on both the petition for adoption and the final decree of adoption. Like many of the well-intentioned "social reforms" that followed it, the UIA was adoption's first step onto a dark, secretive path from which it has yet to return.

   Although adoption arrangements had often been shrouded in a certain degree of secrecy (for the outside world, anyway), Illinois law was silent on the subject until the mid-1940s. But, by the end of World War II, rapidly changing sexual mores, wartime infidelity, rising divorce rates, a housing shortage and a sluggish post-war economy had all contributed to a doubling of Illinois’ adoption rate in five short years. Nineteenth century laws on the books at the time—such as an 1874 adultery statute which primarily targeted cohabitation and "unlawful intimacy," or a "Bastardy" law which hailed all the way back to 1872 (and limited a biological father’s legal obligation to support his child to $100/year for the first ten years of the child’s life)—did their best to maintain the status quo, but to no avail. Out-of-wedlock birth rates continued to climb during the first half of the 1940s.

By June of 1945, the Illinois General Assembly had decided that something would have to be done.  There had to be a way to protect children from the "stigma" of illegitimacy, to shelter adoptive parents from the "embarrassment" of infertility, to shield birth mothers from the "shame" of their reckless ways.  And so, it was in this particular social and historical context that Illinois legislators drafted a brand new adoption act which, for the first time in Illinois history, allowed "all records relating to (an) adoption proceeding…(to be) impounded by the clerk of the court upon motion of any party to the proceeding"2 (click here to see the "Confidentiality" provisions introduced in 1945).

Interestingly, the law did not say these records HAD to be impounded—it merely gave the adoptive parents and their attorney the option of doing so, upon request. It was an option. And, for the next forty years, the question of whether to seal or not seal an adoption record was left up to the adoptive parents and their legal representatives.

 

















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