Direct access to birth parents and history has advantages of answering identity questions ("Who do I look like? Why was I placed?") and lessening fantasies (birth parents are "real"). There are also disadvantages. There is no clean break for assimilation into family, which some feel is necessary. There is also the potential for feelings of rejection if contact stops, or for playing families against each other.
Even in an open adoption, the birth parents' legal rights of guardianship are terminated, and the adoptive parents become the legal parents. In some jurisdictions, the birth and adoptive parents may enter into a binding agreement concerning visitation, exchange of information, or other interaction regarding the child. Far more common are informal agreements, which may change over time as each set of parents' lives progress. As legal guardians, the adoptive parents are responsible for implementing contact arrangements in the child's best interests and hold final decision-making authority.
All States allow an adoptive parents to nonidentifying information of an adoptee who is still a minor. Nearly all States allow the adoptee upon reaching adulthood to nonidentifying information about birth relatives. Approximately 27 States allow birth parents access to nonidentifying information. In addition, many States give such access to adult birth siblings.
Identifying information is any data that may lead to the positive identification of an adoptee, birth parents, or other birth relatives. Nearly all States permit the release of identifying information when the person whose information is sought has consented to the release. Many States ask birth parents to specify at the time of consent or relinquishment whether they are willing to have their identity disclosed to the adoptee when he or she is age 18 or 21.5. If consent is not on file, the information may not be released without a court order documenting good cause to release the information. A person seeking a court order must be able to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that there is a compelling reason for disclosure that outweighs maintaining the confidentiality of a party to an adoption. In Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Kansas, New Hampshire, and Oregon, there is no requirement to document good cause in order to access their birth certificates. Some groups, such as Bastard Nation, One Voice, and Origins USA, campaign for adoptees' automatic access to birth certificates in other US states.
By the 1980s, as the social stigmas had decreased and benefits of openness became better understood, openness in adoption became much more common.
Although open adoptions are thought to be a relatively new phenomenon, in fact most adoptions in the United States were open until the twentieth century. Until the 1930s, most adoptive parents and birth parents had contact at least during the adoption process. In many cases, adoption was seen as a social support: young children were adopted out not only to help their parents (by reducing the number of children they had to support) but also to help another family by providing an apprentice.
Adoptions became closed when social pressures mandated that families preserve the myth that they were formed biologically. One researcher has referred to these families, that made every attempt to match the child physically to their adoptive families, as 'as if' families.