Research: Institute Research


FOR THE RECORDS: RESTORING A RIGHT TO ADULT ADOPTEES

Author: Madelyn Freundlich
Published: 2007 November. New York NY: Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute
Document Type: White Paper (31 pages)
Availability: PDF Full Report | Executive Summary | Glossary of Terms | Web Page | Press Release

This publication, released in November for National Adoption Awareness month, represents the most comprehensive examination to date of one of the most controversial, emotional issues in the modern adoption world: whether adopted people, once they become adults, should have access to their original birth certificates. This report suggests that all states change their laws so that the answer is "yes."

This policy paper is the result of the broadest, most extensive examination to date of the various issues related to state laws governing adult adopted persons' access to their original birth certificates. The information and recommendations in this paper are drawn from a review and analysis of past and current state laws; legislative history in states across the country; decades of experience on relevant issues; and the body of research relating to sealed and open records on the affected parties.

Among the findings in the report, "For the Records: Restoring a Right to Adult Adoptees," are:

Based on its research and an analysis of its findings, the Institute's recommendations include:

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Executive Summary

"In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning; no matter what our attainments in life, there is the most disquieting loneliness."

-- Alex Haley (Roots)

BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY OF KEY ISSUES

Few questions are more heatedly debated in the world of adoption today than whether adult adopted persons should have routine access to their original birth certificates and other documents from their agency and court adoption files. In most states, they are legally prohibited from obtaining such information, except by petitioning a court for its permission. In only two states, Kansas and Alaska, have adopted persons - upon reaching the age of majority - always had access to their original birth certificates. In the rest of the country, at various times over the past 70 years, statutes have sealed these records and prohibited access to the information.

Since 1996, six states - Alabama, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon and Tennessee - have re-established adult adopted persons' direct access to their birth and/or adoption records. Principally, these new laws have provided individuals with access to their original birth certificates, which usually contain identifying information about their birthparents; fewer states to date have permitted access to information in the adoption agencies' and courts' records, which generally contain more detailed information about the birthparents and the circumstances of the individual's birth and adoption. These states' experiences, as well as those of states that have considered changes in their relevant laws but have not amended them to date, provide insights that previously were not available to inform policy discussions on this issue. The arguments of proponents and opponents of "opening" adoption records provide the basis for a synthesis of the key elements. In addition, states' experiences as they have implemented new access laws provide the foundation for a fuller examination of the impact of allowing adult adopted persons to obtain their birth certificates (and, sometimes, their adoption records). As a consequence, the policy debate can now advance from speculation about the appropriateness, wisdom and impact of such legal changes to a more-informed consideration of their personal, practical and social effects on real people's real lives.

This policy paper is the result of the broadest, most extensive examination to date of the various issues related to state laws governing adult adopted persons' access to their original birth certificates and/or adoption records. The information and recommendations in this paper are drawn from a review and analysis of past and current state laws; legislative history in states across the country; decades of experience on relevant issues; and the body of research relating to sealed and open records on the affected parties.

PRINCIPAL FINDINGS

This analysis highlights the key role that legal and social impact arguments have played in support of and opposition to statutory changes that provide adult adopted persons with access to their birth and/or adoption records. This debate and the experiences of various states reveal the following:

RECOMMENDATIONS

Much has been learned from the states that have reopened their records, as well as from those that have considered changes in relevant laws. Based on historical, social science and practice research, along with an analysis of the experiences of those states, the following recommendations are made to advance the development and implementation of sound public policy:

1. Amend every state's laws to restore unrestricted access for adult adopted persons to their original birth certificates.

States' experiences in providing this information make clear that there are minimal, if any, negative repercussions from taking this important policy step. Outcomes appear to have been overwhelmingly positive for adult adopted persons and birthparents alike; the predicted adverse outcomes, particularly for birthmothers, have not come to fruition.

To support states in amending their laws, it is recommended that:

2. Within three years of enactment, revisit state laws that create a "sandwich" situation in which some adult adopted persons are denied access to their birth/adoption information.

The experiences of states that have opened birth/adoption information to some but not all adopted persons should be examined to learn how implementation has affected birthparents, adopted persons and adoptive families. If there are minimal or no adverse consequences, as might be assumed based on the experiences of states that have fully reopened records to all adopted persons, these laws should be revisited and those who had been excluded should be provided unrestricted access to their information.

3. Conduct research to expand the understanding of the experiences of adopted persons, birthparents and adoptive parents in relation to the issue of access to records.

The following types of research activities should be implemented:

4. Build on the experiences of states that have restored access to original birth certificates to expand adopted adults' access to information in their adoption agency and court records.

Much is being learned from states' experiences following the restoration of adopted adults' access to their original birth certificates and from the experiences of the more limited number of states that have provided their access to information in adoption agency and court records. This knowledge base can provide a basis for policy changes that would provide adopted adults with full access to their personal histories. These experiences should be documented and utilized in ongoing policy development on these issues.

5. Develop education programs to provide accurate data and counter mythology and misinformation.

The debates on legislative proposals to change state laws on access to their birth and adoptive records have taken place not only in state legislatures, but also in the "court of public opinion." It is essential that information be developed to educate the public, the media and policy-makers about the key issues; create a more-accurate knowledge base; and counter the erroneous information and assumptions that can undermine a well-informed debate.

6. Focus attention at the national level on state law and policy approaches on the issue of access to birth and adoption records.

Although state law regulates access to birth and adoption records, ongoing attention to the relevant issues at the national level is essential - by including this subject on national organizations' policy agendas, offering presentations at national conferences, and providing information in national organizations' publications. Leadership in positioning this issue nationally is essential to ensuring that state policy decisions are supported by the most up-to-date, relevant, and accurate information.

CONCLUSION

Providing adopted persons with the same rights as their counterparts who are raised in their biological families is a matter of legal equality, ethical practice and, on a human level, basic fairness. Furthermore, it is an essential step toward placing adoptive families, families of origin, everyone connected to them - and, indeed, adoption itself - on a level playing field within society, without the stigma, shame and inequitable treatment they have experienced in the past.

One of these rights - access to birth certificates and other documents - has been heatedly debated for decades, including intense speculation about the repercussions of permitting adopted persons to obtain their information once they reach the age of majority. Today, the question no longer needs to be discussed in theory, because the knowledge base has grown substantially as a result of research, policy debates, and individual states' experiences in implementing new statutory approaches that restore access.

By synthesizing and analyzing the expanding body of knowledge, this policy paper by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute provides the necessary foundation for advancing sound public policy that recognizes the right of adopted persons to know their personal histories. There is no evident benefit to waiting any longer for statutory reform; the recommendations in this paper provide a blueprint for the critically needed next steps.