Adoptee Rights Day-A demand for access to sealed records

ARRGGGG. I wrote a really kick ass post on this subject. But an unfortunate flub (accidentally selected all, then hit delete, followed by the untimely "save now" feature kicking in before I could hit undo) has left me starting from scratch.

I'm warning ya--it's lengthy. If your attention span can't hold on, I won't be offended. But please roll to the bottom of the page before you leave and read the super important part!


I can recall the first time I saw my birth certificate. I was about to get married. I thought I knew exactly what would be on it and assumed it would be pretty straightforward. My mom's name. My birth father's name. And my name.

But when I saw my adopted dad's name on that slip of paper, it surprised me. Like most people, I had no idea that when I was adopted (read about that here) my original birth certificate was altered, removing all traces of my birth father. In my case, that was a good thing. But it's still strange to have your history rewritten by the law.

The issue 
For the roughly 6 million adoptees in the United States, their original birth certificates and all information pertaining to their birth history is permanently sealed upon the completion of their adoption. Once sealed, those records are not accessible.

Adoptees records include:
  • the adoption document
  • details about birth parents and their histories gathered during pre-adoption interviews 
  • the original birth certificate

The law hasn't always worked this way. Adoption records were open until the 1940s. Previous to that, birth certificates were not altered, and all the names of the people in the adoption were part of the public record.

But in the 40's, the social perception of adoption began to change. Adoption began to be secretized (for lack of a better word I just made up my own). It became more commonplace, and was seen as the alternative way to getting that idillic life of 2.5-children-a-dog-and-a-white-picket-fence for those who could not conceive. In order to fit into that squeaky clean life, they cleaned up the adoptive child's not-so-pretty past.

At the suggestion of social workers and adoption agencies, the courts moved to seal records. Supposedly this move would protect the adoptive parents from possible interference from birth parents and protect adoptees from the cultural stigmas attached to being adopted. (It seems there was nothing worse at that time than to be considered a bastard child or illegitimate. "Illegitimate" was actually stamped on their birth certificate! Adoptees records were changed to reflect their new, non-bastard status.)

And don't forget the protection for the birth parents, who, once the records were changed, could not be legally traced to an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy.

Fast forward to today. In the 70's the active adoptee networks began pushing for unsealing records. The movement has been slowly gathering steam. In the beginning the push for opening records was downplayed. (I surmise it was by people who never knew the pain of not having access to their personal histories.) They saw the request for records as disrespectful toward adoptive parents, or as spiteful moves from adoptees who's adoptions "didn't work out".

Why should I care?
The Man and I have had discussions about this and it's a complex issue. Although much of this debate does not pertain to us since we are doing international adoption, we can still empathize and understand the pain that not having access to records can cause adoptees.

Adoptive parents should care about this issue because it's important to our adopted children. It's perfectly natural to wonder where you come from, a family history and why you were put up for adoption. This is actually a part of healthy adaptation to the concept of self for an adoptee. I can't think of a better way to show love for our child than to support them in their effort to understand themselves and their adoption. Yes, it might be painful, but aren't there lots of painful aspects to doing the right thing for your children?

The debate
This is the hottest issue in adoption right now. Sealed records are generally the exception around the world. Scotland, England, Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, and South Korea, to name a few--they all have open records. Most industrialized nations do. The U.S. is one of the last hold outs on this.

 There are basically 3 camps in this debate:

The adoptees: Right now, there are only seven states in the U. S. that allow full or partial access to adoptees records. (Please give a big hand to Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Kansas, Maine, Oregon and Tennessee.) If you aren't lucky enough to be born in one of these six states, you are shit out of luck.

Without access to their original records, in some states adoptees are only given non-identifying information about their birth families. This information may include hair color, the age of the birth parents at the time of birth, reasons for adoption, and perhaps a health history if they are lucky. They often have to prove to the courts that there is a "good cause" for wanting this information. Curiosity is not enough.

Adoptees consider this restriction of information as a civil rights violation. By not allowing them to obtain the original government documents pertaining to their adoption, they feel they are discriminated against. Everyone, except adoptees and people in the federal witness protection program, have access to their records.

Search and reunion is not the intent of every adoptee who wants this information. Just having access to this information is enough for some.
 In a study of American adolescents, the Search Institute found that 72 percent of adopted adolescents wanted to know why they were adopted, 65 percent wanted to meet their birth parents, and 94 percent wanted to know which birth parent they looked like. --American Adoption Congress

The parents:  The law, as it exists now, seems to put the rights of the birth parents over the rights of the adoptees. The folks in this camp believe birth parents have a right to privacy. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to understand why birth parents might object to unsealing the records. But even if they are contacted by an adoptee, they still have the right to refuse interaction with them if they choose.

Surprisingly, research has shown that most first parents are open to being contacted.
Ninety-four percent of non-searching birthmothers when contacted by their adult birth children were pleased, according to a recent British study. (“The Adoption Triangle Revisited: A Study of Adoption Search and Reunion Experiences,” British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2005)
And lest we forget the adoptive parents in this debate. A major reason courts have given to keep records sealed is to protect the adoptive parents who might be hurt or threatened if their children want to know more about their first families. And again, research does not show this point to be true. 
Adoptive mothers were more in favor of opening adoption records than fathers: 83 percent of adoptive mothers and 73 percent of adoptive fathers felt that adult adoptees should be able to obtain a copy of their birth certificates; only 9 percent of adoptive mothers and 11 percent of adoptive fathers felt they should not have access.--Adoptive family study by Rosemary Avery, Cornell associate professor of consumer economics and housing and a specialist in family policy and foster care.

The adoption vs. abortion group: These folks are against unsealing records because they allege that without anonymity, women will choose the abortion option. However, in countries and states that have redacted the sealing laws, this has not proven to be true. In fact, the numbers do not seem to change at all.
Workers at pro-life centers such as Birthright report that young women today will only choose adoption if they are assured of updates or contact with the adoptive family. Gretchen Traylor, Birthright counselor in Minnesota, says, "When adoption  is under consideration, the young woman’s overriding concern is that she will be unable to contact her child later in life, and that the child will not be able to find her as well. Pregnant women tell me that if such contact is NOT available, they would rather abort."--American Adoption Congress

So what are the options?

There seem to be three options on the table at this point.

  • Pro unrestricted access to records--Adoptees must apply and will receive their information.
  • Against unrestricted access--
  • Compromised access--Access would be allowed, but birth parents would be contacted first and have the right to accept or veto the adoptee's access to the information. This group of supporters believes this minor change in the law is better than nothing. This process would tack on a large expense for adoptees to get access to their information.

The whole point of this post
 OK. So it was a long introduction, but here's the point. There is a large protest rally happening July 25 in Kentucky at the Annual Summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Rallies have been held in past years and made significant progress but there is much work to be done!

If you cannot attend the rally, you can join the cause. Spread the word through social media and blogs. (Feel free to link to my post as a way to spread the message) Or pick up a snazzy badge to display on your blog HERE.

Or participate in a letter writing campaign to let your state legislators know how you feel. Find your legislators by going HERE and send them a letter by July 19.

Of course donations are a great way to help the cause.

And there are other suggestions about what you can do HERE.

But the main thing is that we get involved. Think about your child. Think about the questions he will ask. Think about what's important for her emotional and psychological health. Think about what YOU would want to know, and then speak out to make it possible.

Here's some more places you can learn about the cause:

The Adoptee Rights Demonstration

Green Ribbon Campaign for Open Records

The Basic Bastard: Open Records
The Basic Bastard: A History of Sealed Records in the US

A brief history of adoption records-Part 1
A brief history of adoption records-Part 2
A brief history of adoption records-Part 3


  1. Domestic adoptions are more open than ever before so I think a birth mother could choose the parents based on the amount of openness she wants. In the end it's *her* choice who parents her baby. This doesn't necessarily address what the birth certificate says, but if she chooses the parents she feels most comfortable with presumably she'll have the access to them that she wants. And if there is a level of openness to the adoption then the baby will grow up knowing her or at least the details of her. If she chooses a closed adoption, when the child becomes an adult I think they have a right to know who she is via records. Of course a happy reunion might not take place, but at least the exchange information is available.

    International adoption seems like a different ball game entirely since much of the birth parent information would probably not even be here.

    And the abortion connection has completely left me scratching my head. Once again they don't give pregnant women the credit they are due! Their argument makes absolutely no sense at all. AND it completely ignores the fact that the birth mother can CHOOSE who parents her child! This isn't the 1950s. ARGH!

  2. Heather you are completely right! In my rush to get all this down (again!) I completely did not address that open adoptions are the exception to this and leading the way in the openness movement in adoption!

    And I misspoke about this process affecting our adoption much. We will only be given nonidentifying information about our baby's family and won't have access to the information either. Hopefully, because South Korea does not seal the records, our child will be able to find their first family's information when they are ready.

  3. this makes me sad and i hope our little guy will never feel that his rights are ignored or neglected. but, i wonder...what to do about that birth certificate, really? i've heard that it is so much easier to have a new one issued here once the child comes home because it is much easier to have a US issued one for purposes of registering for school, etc, etc. but i don't want choi boy to feel like we've hidden anything from him...hmmm...

  4. Wow, what a comprehensive explanation of the issue and various points of view. Personally, I think that every child should have access to documents pertaining to their adoptions. We thought quite a bit about this prior to adopting and we feel as APs we need to support our children's feelings and desires when it relates to birth family info and contact. Maybe they will want to pore over every piece of paper & try to contact their birth families. Maybe they won't be interested at all. However they feel is their right and we will support them completely. To me, denying my children this sort of information or supporting laws that limit this type of access, sends the message that adoption is shameful, something to be kept secret. That's not a message I ever want to send to my child.

    Thanks again for posting!

  5. Grace, you bring up a good point. Since our Korean adoptions are complete when we leave Korea, I'm not sure what names are on the birth certificates. I think re-adoption in the US is a good idea (imagine trying to get copies of a birth certificate from Korea 20 years later when your adult adopted child wants a passport--yikes) but I want to find out what the status is on the Korean birth certificate first. Seems that somewhere in my readings I saw that Korea has open records laws which means adults should be able to access their original birth record info, but I can't find any verification on that right now.

  6. 1) Not all international adoptions are closed.

    2) Even the adoptive parents of some international adoptions that are closed know more about the biological families than you might guess. Especially from Russia (where AFs routinely look over shoulders at paperwork) and Guatamala where there are actually some adoptions there where AFs have also been the Foster families to the children they ultimately adopted (one family was featured in Adoptive Families magazine).

    3) Re-adopting (the the commenter) in the U.S. is a good thing. They get U.S. b/cs and it is easier. And, if it gets lost all you have to do is write to that state's Beareau of Vital Statistics. If you tell your child is adopted, how is having a certificate to make their life easier "hiding" something? If you have a copy of their OBC from Korea (or wherever) they don't take it away.

    4) I understand your passion based on your life experience with open records, but be careful not to use a "broad brush" when classifying adoptive parents - remember you too will be one. And there are more out there supporting open records than you think. In fact, often, people choose domestic over international for exactly that reason.

  7. M, thanks for your insights. I am definitely not using a broad brush to classify APs and know there are many reasons for wanting/not wanting open records access. This post is my way of being involved and helping the cause--to spread the word and encourage other APs to get involved as well.

  8. The open records do not always apply to some international adoptions (Korea), but in others, the records are legally available (Taiwan).

    Even for those who do have legal access to their records, there are still many issues with adoption - not being able to speak the language, not interacting with those from the same ethnic background, not having your name match your face, constantly having your adopted background questioned.

    I've been back to my birth country, and even as an adoptee whose citizenship is legally recognized, that was the least of my worries. Having to relearn the language, restructure my brain, deal with the emotional impact of my blood kin, and not being able to connect with others of my background - that was far, far heavier.

  9. Mei Ling, yes, there are extreme challenges and difficulties for adoptees. I hope you've read some of my other blog posts and realize that those are issues that myself and other adoptive parents are concerned about as well. Sharing your insight is important to helping us know how to address these issues with our children. Thanks.


We'd love to hear from you but we aren't mind readers, OK? Just take a minute to share your thoughts and you'll make us really, really happy.