Last week I was talking with an mom who had recently adopted her child. Somehow it came up in the conversation that most adult adoptees in the US don’t have access to their original birth certificates or names of their birth parents. She was floored.
For just a second I want you to try to imagine what it would be like for something you really need or want to be sitting in a file somewhere, but you aren’t allowed to see it. It exists; others can see it, just not you. Let’s further imagine that you are an adult (or as my 20 something daughter likes to say—you’re a grown _ss woman). Maybe this information is important for your health; maybe it’s important to your child’s health; or maybe it holds a piece to your past that you need to know in order to move forward with your future. This information exists, it’s just sitting there, but you, the person who needs/wants it the most, are forbidden.
How would you feel? Frustrated? Angry? Scared? That you are being treated like a child?
Those of us who are adopting now in this age of open adoption often have a hard time imagining that this is the reality for thousands upon thousands of adopted adults.
Adult Adoptees Don’t Have Access to Birth Certificates
Only 12 states give adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates.
Take the case of Maureen Sheridan. Several years ago, she had a medical scare and her doctor suggested she get more family medical history to aid in treatment and future care. The problem was that Sheridan was adopted in a closed adoption. In order to get her biological family history, she needed to know her biological mother’s name—and this name is locked away in a file in NYC and the laws of New York, and most other states in the US, prohibit her access.
Sheridan is now 38 with two sons, both of which have medical issues. She wonders and worries that her biological family medical history might be helpful for their health and treatment.
Two Sides to Opening Adoption Records
Opponents of opening adoption records argue that doing so would violate a promise made to pregnant women years ago when they relinquished their child for adoption. They further argue that many of these women have not told their family and opening adoption records would be the equivalent of “outing” them without their consent.
They argue that in many states, adoptees are protected when information on birth parents is truly necessary by allowing them to petition the court to unseal original birth certificates and adoption records for “good cause”, with a judge making the final decision.
Further, many states and adoption agencies have some version of a mutual consent registry, where identifying information is shared if both the adoptee and the biological parents register giving permission.
Has Medical Science Shifted the Balance
We are living in the era of genomic medicine where medical diagnosis, treatment, and risk assessment will increasingly be based on genetics and family history. Knowing your genetic history will not be necessary for many, maybe even most, people, but it will be absolutely crucial to some. And this “some” will include many adopted people. Should these medical advances change old laws?
Wouldn’t it be possible to create a law that would allow adoptees access to their original birth certificates while allowing biological parents to state whether they wish to be contacted directly, through an intermediary or not at all, and to file updated medical information in case their children ever seek it?
Why yes, actually it would be possible. In fact several states, including New Jersey, Illinois, and Connecticut, have recently passed such legislation. Under this legislation, some adopted people would still not have access to identifying information since it would allow birth parents to block their names if they want to. Of 10,421 original birth certificates issued in Illinois since they passed this law, however, only 53 birth parents have asked for their names to be removed.
It’s hard to balance the rights of all parties, but when in doubt, aren’t all decisions in adoption supposed to be made in the best interest of the child? As Ms. Sheridan said.
“I didn’t have a choice 38 years ago. Why is the choice all on one side and not the other?”
What do you think? Should the sealed adoption records be changed to allow adult adoptees access to birth parent names?
Image credit: Nicholas Horne