The Open Records Debate

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Should Adult Adoptees Have Access to Their Original Birth Information?

The Issue - Summary

One of the hottest issues in adoption today, not only in the U.S., but around the world as well, is whether or not adoptees should have unrestricted access to their original adoption records when they reach the age of majority as defined by law in their state or country. In the U.S. and Canada, adoption law differs from state to state and province to province, and each jurisdiction treats this question differently.

In the U.S., currently 45 states do not allow adult adopted persons to receive or even look at a copy of their original birth certificate (OBC) (or any other uncensored original record), just by simple application, the way non-adopted persons can, although many who aren’t connected to adoption often assume that they can.

In all states in the U.S., when adult adoptees go through the same process as non-adopted persons* to request a copy of their birth certificate, they receive an amended birth certificate which shows their adoptive parents’ names only. This document contains no information about anything pre-adoption: biological parents’ names, their own birth name if one was given, etc.

(* In "open records states," there is a separate procedure for requesting a copy of the OBC.)

What You Need to Know

The Positions

For purposes of this article, "open records" refers to records access by adult adoptees only (not birth parents and/or adoptive parents).

The three major positions are:

  • In favor of unrestricted access by adult adoptees, i.e., apply and receive.
  • Against unrestricted access.
  • In favor of access by adult adoptees but willing to compromise and accept restrictions if it will help get laws changed.

Adoptees and Their Records

An adoptee’s "records" include:

  • the adoption decree
  • information about birth parents and their families gathered during pre-placement interviews
    the OBC

Open Records States

As of this writing, there are four states an adult adoptee whose adoption was finalized in that state with a copy of his/her OBC (and perhaps other information) on request, without restriction:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Kansas
  • New Hampshire
  • Oregon

Several states offer restricted access. Restrictions include vetoes, required parental permission even for adults, mandatory intermediaries, and open records for adoptees born in certain years. Proposals to change the laws being considered in several states.


Why Records Were Sealed

Until the early part of the 20th century, adoption documents were treated as public records. The practice of "sealing" these records away from the public eye and issuing amended birth certificates began during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Prevailing attitudes held that all parties named in the documents (adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents) needed to be protected from the social stigma associated with illegitimacy, infertility, poverty, mental illness, addiction, and any of the myriad of reasons that might have been associated with the reasons children were placed for adoption and the reasons children were adopted. "Sealing" these records was seen as an effective and necessary (at the time) means of "keeping the silence," and most states enacted laws to do this.

Changing Attitudes

In the broadest social arena, the second half of the 20th century saw an emphasis on equal rights of groups and individuals, a growing awareness of the importance of identity, and a widespread rejection of the "code of silence" observed by previous generations. Everyone began talking... about everything. The adoption community was not immune to these changes and the raised voices of this once-silent group have brought this issue (and others) to the fore. The Internet has served to bring similar-minded people together from geographically distant places, and the Web became the birthplace of the open records reform movement. It is here, on the Web, that adoption conservatives and liberals have come to continue the debate.

The Scope of the Debate

How many are interested in this issue? The number of adoptees in the U.S. alone is estimated to be around 6 million. Add birth parents and adoptive parents for each one, the other members of adoptive and birth families, adoption professionals, counselors, judges, attorneys, and corresponding groups in other countries, and it’s impossible to count the millions who are potentially interested in this debate.

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