Today’s modern family is evolving and ever changing and so too are their needs. Regardless of makeup, all families have a need and a right to be healthy and strong, which requires families to be able to live their truth.
Recently, the majority of the New York State Assembly Health Committee voted to move a bill forward that does not reflect healthy lives for adopted people or their extended families. The bill, A05036B, creates a cumbersome and potentially costly system of unnecessary checks, balances and permissions for adopted people who wish to access their original birth certificate (OBC). Most of the language in A05036B flagrantly disregards research and best practice guidelines and instead continues to place adopted people in a separate class of people who are not entitled to know their full background. The irony is not lost on us that a committee charged with promoting the health of NY constituents believes A05036B, which promotes secrecy, shame and stigma, is a healthy solution for individuals and families. Denying adopted people the right to access their OBC dehumanizes them. It is not healthy. And it is a practice that must be stopped.
Many people are unaware that the majority of adopted people in the United States live a legal fiction from the moment their adoptions are finalized in court, an action which seals their OBC from them in perpetuity. The majority of states continue to deny adopted people full access to this vital record even when they become an adult. However, research conducted by The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) demonstrates that when the public is made aware of this inequity, the majority support an adopted person’s right to access his/her OBC.
One common misperception of those who oppose adopted people accessing their OBC focuses on the falsehood that birth parents were guaranteed lifelong anonymity from their child when they surrendered their parental rights. Although there is no evidence of such legally protected promises, nor can anyone’s anonymity be guaranteed in today’s advanced DNA and social media technologies, this outlandish belief persists.
It is also seemingly irrelevant to some lawmakers that for many decades now, adoption has been practiced within a spirit of openness, which means birth and adoptive families stay connected over time in various ways. Closed and secret adoptions shifted to open ones many years ago because researchers, practitioners and families realized it is always healthier for families to live their truth.
There are other reasons opponents offer to rationalize denying an entire class of people access to their birth document. Yet none of these reasons are based in fact. None of these reasons are borne out in the research. None of these reasons reflect the true experience of adoption — or for that matter any human being. It’s not so hard to understand that a person naturally desires to know his/her full background. In fact, websites that offer genealogical research tools and companies that provide DNA testing flourish precisely because people have an innate need to know their past. This is a human need — not an adoption need. Yet it is only those of us who are adopted who have to defend this need and continue to be denied this right.
Are some people suggesting that the needs and rights of adopted people are “less than” the needs and rights of other human beings? Because the solution offered in A05036B is implying exactly that.
The truth is that adopted people are just like every other human being. The fact that we were adopted after we were born does not negate this. Policies like A05036B deny this reality and prevent adopted people from knowing their truth. If lives begin in a place of secrecy and falsehood, how can we set individuals and families up for strong and healthy lives?
Following the vote in the Assembly Health Committee the NYS Assembly Codes and Rules Committees reported out A05036B and the bill is now scheduled for a vote on the assembly floor. We urge the New York State Assembly to vote NO on A05036B. Policy decisions must be made that uphold the truth all people — including adopted people — have a right to know.
The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) is proud to have partnered with Voice for Adoption (VFA) and the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) in an article discussing the need to ensure child welfare policies focus on the best interest of children and not the personal convictions of professionals. In “Texas Law Prioritizes Child Welfare Providers Over Children,” VFA, NACAC and DAI lay out concerns with a recent bill that passed in Texas that would allow agencies that serve foster children, children awaiting adoption and adoptive families to be protected from legal challenges if they assert their “sincerely held religious beliefs” into practice decisions.
Laws such as this limit opportunities for children awaiting foster or adoptive placements and they send a message of discrimination and intolerance. Given the ever-growing need for qualified foster and adoptive homes, all states should be creating pathways to increase their pool of qualified parents, not closing doors to potentially qualified families. It is critical that all of us stand together in opposing any law, policy or practice that treats families unequally and harms children.
Last week, The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) launched the initial phase of a new project called OBC 2020. This is a multi-phase project that has an overarching goal of supporting states without campaigns in developing active, OBC access campaigns by 2020. To reach that end, DAI is seeking to work in collaboration with adopted people and their allies in creating an online space that can provide, among other areas, resource development, advocacy tutorials, fundraising capabilities, current news and research, virtual meeting capabilities and other technological tools with one main goal in mind: creating greater unity throughout the United States as a means of supporting state-led campaigns for unrestricted access to OBCs (original birth certificates).
Since we released an initial overview of OBC 2020, we have received numerous comments via email, social media and signups. Close to 100 people have taken our online survey in less than a week. We are buoyed by the conversations that have commenced, and welcome all perspectives, including from those who have questions about our background, motives, perspectives and ideas.
We encourage this dialogue about OBC 2020 and are always happy to have conversations surrounding DAI’s work. DAI is committed to ensuring our communications are public; our plan for OBC 2020 has been to release a series of updates about the various phases of this comprehensive project and would be doing so as different aspects are completed and ready for launch. However, in order to answer some of the questions from our community that have arisen so quickly, we are happy to provide some more details at this juncture.
Who We Are
Since 1996, The Donaldson Adoption Institute has worked to improve the lives of children and families across the country through research, education and advocacy. Unencumbered by facilitating adoption placements, DAI has investigated the issues of greatest concern to birth families, adopted people, adoptive families, the people who love them and the professionals who serve them. DAI’s pioneering work has ranged from access to original birth certificates for adopted people and how to eliminate barriers to adoptions from foster care, to the impact of the Internet on adoption, and also perceptions and policies surrounding expectant and birth parents.
To be clear, DAI is an independent think tank that aims to educate and use what we know to inform policies and practices surrounding adoption and foster care adoption, champion what works and do everything we can to offer innovative solutions for what doesn’t. Our motivation is the well-being of children, the adults they become, and the strength of the extended family of adoption. That includes families of origin, families of experience and professionals who may become like family. Our leadership includes adopted people, our board members represent all members of the extended family of adoption, and our advisory councils are also comprised of individuals with both personal and professional ties to adoption.
Who We Serve
DAI has always been a multi-focused organization committed to serving all members of the extended family of adoption, including birth parents, adopted people, adoptive parents, extended family members and allied professionals. We have been clear that we believe family preservation is optimal. We do though respond to the reality that adoption occurs and so there are many people who live this experience and need support and resources. Ignorance to that reality does not negate its existence. We do not deny the complex societal issues at the root of all of this and we are well aware that there are not simplistic or one dimensional solutions to these intricate realties. Our goal is to ensure that research, policies and practices all serve the health and well-being of adopted people, birth and adoptive parents, extended families, foster youth and alum, foster families and the professionals who work with or alongside these individuals.
What We Do
For far too long, adoption was treated as a one-time transaction which has caused harm in many ways for many people who live most closely to this experience. DAI has a long history of providing educational resources that ideally will provide professionals and family members with information and tools surrounding the need for ethics, transparency and honesty in all areas of adoption and inspires an understanding of adoption that focuses on this experience as a lifelong journey.
DAI is not new to work in the advocacy arena — a fact that is easily uncovered by even a cursory peruse of our website. Because we are a multi-focused organization, this work has extended throughout states as well as at the federal level in a variety of areas that focus on ethics, equitable practices, equality, safety and other key areas related to the well-being of children and family. Among other areas, we were lead amici on a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of marriage equality; we also provided information to the U.S. Government Accountability Office to inform better regulations and practices in response to the crisis of unregulated child custody transfers (aka “rehoming”).
We have released whitepapers that clearly demonstrate our position that unrestricted access to original birth certificates is the needed solution to the problem of adopted people being denied this information. Because DAI cannot be everywhere at once, and because we firmly believe that advocates in their own states know their contexts best, we perceive our role as providing needed support to those doing the work on the ground. We provide this support by issuing research-backed statements that support unrestricted access to OBCs, which includes at times enlightening states about the harm of developing bills with solutions that are not supported by research or best practices.
For those who take the time to explore our numerous research articles, our positions on a variety of key areas central to the adoption experience and practice are easily discernible. We have released studies surrounding the transracial adoption experience, openness, best practice in serving expectant parents, identity, developing better practices for serving waiting children in foster care, access to original birth certificates, the need for greater controls and regulation of the Internet and much more. The central message of these papers and studies always contains themes of the need for greater transparency, stronger regulations, rigorous ethics, and enhanced standards in areas relevant to foster care and adoption.
The overwhelming majority of the work we conduct is offered free to those who wish to download it and use it to inform their practice, advocacy work or to enhance their understanding of the complexities of the adoption experience.
DAI’s interest in supporting advocacy for access to OBCs is that we believe this is the foundation of ethics and transparency in adoption. If the adoption experience is begun in such a way that vital records can be altered from reflecting the truth, and that truth is then subsequently withheld in perpetuity from adopted people, we are beginning at a place of dishonesty. This has numerous negative implications in a variety of realms and fundamentally places adopted people in an unequal class.
OBC 2020 is in its initial stages of development. Our goal in releasing a preliminary announcement last week was to begin generating the momentum needed to move what will ultimately be a comprehensive project forward. The initial overarching goal of OBC 2020 is to work with states who do not have an active advocacy campaign to develop one while also supporting states who are still working on the issue of advocating for unrestricted access to original birth certificates. Our materials and guidance will always focus on the solution of unrestricted access to original birth certificates. We agree that equality cannot exist on a continuum and that human rights are something you either have or do not have. We appreciate the feedback that our reference to a “gold standard” could be perceived as suggesting lesser solutions uphold a human rights perspective. We agree that they don’t.
DAI prides itself on working with adopted people and their allies on this issue. We will never turn our backs on advocates who strive to reach the goal of unrestricted access to OBCs yet are stymied by a variety of contextual factors that have made this challenging in many ways. We choose not to be ignorant to the complications that exist, respond with support, and seek to work in encouraging ways with our brothers and sisters in adoption to provide tools that can aid advocates in reaching the goal of unrestricted access. There is enough bullying going on in the world these days; the adoption community need not participate as this only further complicates the work that we all so deeply believe in.
Development of OBC 2020 has been in the works since early Fall 2016. Each month, DAI receives dozens and dozens of emails and inquiries from individuals who want information about OBC access, how to advocate for it, and the need for supports in doing so. We also have received numerous feedback both in our 2015 public opinion research as well as from our recent OBC survey. People have been clear with us that they desire greater unity and a collaborative spirit as a way to generate momentum in this work. Although this issue is one that is about the adopted person and must be adoptee led, like-minded allies from the extended family of adoption and myriad professionals have and can augment our work. OBC 2020 will also have an advisory council of adopted people with knowledge of this area of work as well as other individuals who have knowledge and experience in equality-based advocacy. We not only plan to release these names but are excited and proud to do so. We are in the process of finalizing our council, and once completed, an announcement will occur. We anticipate this within the next few weeks.
The OBC 2020 project also reflects on the need for upgrades in the advocacy space surrounding this issue. More innovation, better use of technology, and aggregating resources and supports to be able to reach a wider audience of advocates are all elements that we believe can enhance this work. Similarly, given that our research has demonstrated significant lack of societal awareness about key issues impacting the adoption community, including lack of access to OBCs, it is important to introduce various branding materials as one way to educate and increase much needed awareness.
Many individuals have come to DAI asking for more leadership from us in using our resources to partner on this issue. We recognize that not everyone will wish to join this space or collaborate alongside us and others. Yet, we still want to respond to the needs expressed to us by so many to provide resources that can help support this difficult work. Our plan will continue to be to do this work in collaboration with the community. This is why our social media platforms are open to the public; we only block users that post comments that are racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise discriminatory. When we receive commentary, we respond and welcome further conversation. Unfortunately, many times our harshest critics disregard our outreach for further discussion.
We believe that we are better as a community if we can stand together in unity about the issues that matter most to us. Disagreement is a normal part of human exchanges and there is value in spirited debate. Even if we don’t necessarily agree, DAI always learns something from our interactions and it helps us as we move forward with our work.
What is the OBC 2020 campaign NOT about? It’s not about DAI riding into the sunset on our “Unicorn” as the hero that single-handedly releases sealed OBCs from the dusty cabinets of vital records offices throughout our country within a few scant years. This is a complicated issue. We are realistic about the challenges before us and we view our role as using our resources to provide leadership and augment the work of advocates on the ground who desire to collaborate with us.
We believe that with solidarity, unity, organization, pooling of knowledge and resources, healthy dialogue, and the creation of a free, technologically advanced online hub, we can support and enhance the work of advocates throughout the country. We believe that by 2020 we can create the momentum needed so that all states without access have active and robust campaigns that seek unrestricted access to OBCs while also supporting states that have tirelessly advocated for many years.
If this positive energy means we’re perceived as riding along on the unicorn, well, we’re happy then to saddle up! DAI prefers to engage in a work with a positive view for what we believe is possible and we have the motivation, spirit and professionalism to do so. We welcome all people joining us in this effort. We believe in you and we believe that together, we have the ability to rally the energy needed to take OBC access campaigns to the next level.
50 States. 1 Movement. Restore Adoptee Rights!
When a person is adopted, his/her original birth certificate (OBC) becomes sealed and a new, “amended” birth certificate is issued. The amended birth certificate alters essential facts of the adopted person’s birth. In most states today, the OBC continues to be sealed and adopted people are denied unrestricted access even when they reach adulthood. This is a human rights violation that creates inequality for an entire group of people. Everyone should have the right to know the truth of his or her birth. It is essential that we move forward together in one united effort to restore adoptee rights in all 50 states.
- No Access: There is currently no specific mechanism for adopted people to apply for and receive a copy of their original birth certificate outside of the possibility of obtaining a court order.
- Partial Access with Restrictions: Adopted people born and adopted during a certain time frame may apply for a copy of their original birth certificate. However, information may be redacted or release may be denied.
- Partial Access: Adopted people born and adopted during a certain time frame may apply for and receive a copy of their original birth certificate.
- Access with Restrictions: Adopted people may apply for a copy of their original birth certificate. However, certain restrictions may apply, such as identifying information being redacted or a birth parent being able to deny release.
- Access: Adopted people may apply for and receive a copy of their original birth certificate just like non-adopted people.
Advocating for equality is never an easy task. It requires organization, commitment and passion. It also requires unity. When individuals come together as one over a shared belief in human rights, the power generated can be immense. There are countless examples in history where justice and equality prevailed due to tenacious advocates who were not daunted by the difficulty that often is a part of this work. In adoption, reformists first began organizing themselves in the 1970s, largely led by adopted people and birth parents, and joined over time by other members of the extended family of adoption, professionals and allies. The Adoption Reform Movement predominantly focused on restoring to adopted people the fundamental right to hold a copy of their own original birth certificate. Although many states have updated their laws to allow an adopted person’s access to this vital record, too many more continue to deny adopted people full access to their OBC.
A birth certificate has long since been considered a vital document. It holds both practical and personal meaning, and when we deny any person the right to access this record, there are serious practical and personal consequences. A lack of accurate knowledge surrounding genetic history leaves people at a serious disadvantage medically. People may not know their true ethnicity. Moreover, this human rights violation denies adopted people the right to construct a complete identity. It leaves adopted people to constantly play catch up as they navigate the story of their lives without the undeniable benefit of a first chapter. The impact of this extends beyond the adopted person to the generations that will come after them as well.
The tangible negative consequences of denying adopted people their OBC are numerous and sobering. Yet the most severe outcome rests in the fact that a fundamental human right is being denied to an entire group of people. There is no other circumstance in which we forbid people the right to know the truth of their origins, except for those who were adopted after they were born.
Restoring this right to adopted people gives them the same rights as their non-adopted peers — the right to know all the parts that make them who they are. It also allows all members of the extended family of adoption to live their truth in a way that is transparent and authentic. Laws that continue to seal OBC’s in perpetuity reflect antiquated ideas that forced all members of the extended family of adoption to live in secrecy and shame. Undoing these laws is one critical way we can work to change perceptions and ensure that all members of the adoption community can live with the honesty and openness necessary for any family to truly thrive.
We must now renew our focus as a united community in supporting advocates throughout the country as they strive to restore adoptee rights. This requires us to collaborate in ensuring the tools necessary to create and sustain active and robust campaigns for OBC access.
As a leader in adoption research, education and advocacy since 1996, DAI has ample experience in providing resources and education in a comprehensive, cohesive and approachable manner to all in the extended family of adoption including professionals and policymakers. We are driven now to extend our work in the area of OBC access via our new program — OBC 2020. The overarching goal is to create an organized advocacy campaign to empower needed change and ensure that all states without access have an active and robust OBC access campaign in place by 2020. DAI will work with our national network of professionals, academics, social workers and members of the foster care and adoption community to:
- Create national momentum to improve state-level outcomes.
- Augment existing reform efforts to support the community.
- Create an educational platform that reframes this issue as a matter of human rights.
- Activate strategic partnerships with influential human rights, advocacy and family-focused organizations.
- Create an advisory board of experts on advocacy and equality.
Learn more about the key goals of OBC 2020 and take our survey, which will help us as we create a centralized online hub which will serve as the touchstone of the OBC 2020 campaign. The online hub will act as a resource for a states-rights issue that makes the critical connection to a national movement. The hub, which will be launched in phases, will ultimately contain an interactive OBC map, fundraising functionality, virtual meeting space, and provide the latest national news, social conversations, research and resources for professionals, advocates and the adoption community.
The path to justice is never easy and rarely smooth; yet when we unite our efforts and work in collaboration towards our shared goals, the journey will culminate in justice and equality. We must come together in unity to ensures all adopted people have access to their past in order to move forward into a clearer and brighter future. We hope you will join us in our work.
Restore Adoptee Rights!
The month of May is an opportunity to raise awareness, provide education and engage in advocacy work surrounding foster care and foster care adoption. This May, National Foster Care Month is focused on strengthening and empowering families. As a community, it is critical that we support this laudable goal. The most current statistics demonstrate that 427,910 children live in foster care with 111,820 children awaiting the permanency of adoption. More than 20,000 children exited foster care without a permanent and stable family arrangement, and 53,549 children were adopted from foster care. It is imperative that we join together as allies in generating solutions that create pathways for children and families to be healthy and strong.
Children and families deserve to thrive. In today’s modern world, the landscape of family is ever-changing and the needs of families are equally as diverse. Today’s family is built in many different ways, including through fostering, adoption, donor origins and assisted reproduction. The new normal in today’s family includes a blend of cultures and ethnicities, single moms and two dads, and countless configurations. As family dynamics continue to evolve, it is critical that solutions which ensure their strengths are created in a way that celebrates this diversity and, more importantly, meets families where they are in distinctive ways. For families that come together through fostering and adoption, solutions need to affirm their reality and celebrate their uniqueness. When we can provide a context of support and validation, we can increase opportunities for children awaiting a permanent family environment and also sustain families who come together through fostering, adoption and other modern family building possibilities. Real solutions for these families require us all to collaborate in a variety of areas to ensure services and supports are accessible and appropriate given unique needs.
Providing the right services and supports requires that we first understand the unique needs of today’s families. According to public opinion research conducted by DAI, more than half of the adoption community and the general public surveyed support increased public funding for pre- and post-adoption services. Adoption community members identified a variety of key areas of support needs including with trauma, loss, identity development, transracial adoption and openness in adoption among other areas. Generating research allows us to influence practice and create services that are informed by the realities of today’s family experience. Research that explores needs as well as studies that generate insight into families who are thriving are all key components in keeping up with the modern-day landscape of today’s family.
We know that stigma, stereotype and misunderstanding have plagued the experience of adoption and foster care for far too long. Often, it is the dramatic fairytale or the cautionary nightmare that headline the news in this area. The reality is the majority of families who come together this way dwell in the many shades of gray rather than the black or white framework that is frequently propagated. Yet, DAI’s research has demonstrated that members of the adoption and foster care community experience a variety of latent stereotypes. Ignorance about the needs and realities of modern families makes it all the more difficult to influence needed changes. Further, it can have a particularly profound effect in discouraging potentially qualified families from exploring fostering and adoption from the child welfare system. This is why it’s more important than ever that we join together as a community and ensure realistic perceptions of adoption, foster care and what it means to be family in today’s world. This includes making sure that allied professionals, such as schools, therapists, and medical providers, are well versed in being able to meet the unique needs of families who live adoption and foster care.
Although there is no “typical” family today, discrimination continues to abound towards diverse families. In particular, there has been a renewed energy surrounding the development of “religious freedom” laws which essentially endorse discrimination under the guise of religious liberty and create inequality for families headed by LGBTQ parents. These laws have a deleterious effect on existing families and also serve to limit opportunities for the more than 100,000 children awaiting adoption from foster care. We must all stand together in opposing any law, policy or regulation that treats families unequally and harms children. In addition to advocacy in this area, families today have other needs that would benefit greatly from changes in policy. Among other areas, this includes ensuring access and availability of quality pre- and post-adoption services and making certain that openness and transparency are the foundation of adoption and foster care practice. This advocacy work must be led by those most closely connected to these experiences and their allies in order to ensure the concept of empowerment is demonstrated in practice. Raising the voices of the community is an essential piece of creating an effective advocacy framework and translating the needs of families into a bill of rights we all must ensure and protect.
Along with the beauty of today’s modern family structure also comes complexity. The intricacies of each family experience are distinct and different needs will result; yet the foundation of any family requires love. This love must come from within the family as well as from the many different systems families interact with throughout their lives. Love is not a miracle antidote for all difficulties that are a part of any family’s experience; yet without love, the practical services, resources and tools that allow families to thrive will not be effective. As a community, we must affirm the beauty of today’s diverse families and celebrate the richness this brings to all of our lives. This will allow children to feel secure in their family environment and for families to develop a unique identity they can feel proud of and supported in building.
Throughout National Foster Care Month and beyond, let’s remember to re-commit ourselves to honoring and supporting the very real families of today. We can best do this by meeting families where they are at and generating solutions that reflect the diversity of the family experience, keep families strong and allow kids to thrive. Strong families build strong communities and this makes a better world for all of us.