According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute’s FOR THE RECORDS: Restoring a Legal Right for Adult Adoptees (Nov 2007):

Kansas and Alaska are the only two states that have always allowed adult adoptees to request their original birth certificates. As of November 2007, Alabama, Delaware, Maine, New Hampsire, Oregon and Tennessee have also re-established access. 42 states still do not allow access.

  • Adopted persons are the only individuals in the United States who, as a class, are not permitted to routinely obtain their original birth certificates (emphasis mine). This prohibition on access to one’s personal information raises significant civil rights concerns, particularly given the growing understanding of the need to know one’s history, heritage, medical and genealogical information.
  • Denying adult adopted persons access to information related to their births and adoptions has potentially serious, negative consequences with regard to their physical and mental health. As recognized by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office in its Family History Initiative, biological family medical history is vital to prevention, early diagnosis and treatment, particularly with regard to diseases and conditions for which individuals may be genetically predisposed, such as heart disease, cancer, and certain mental health conditions.
  • As states have amended their laws to provide adult adopted persons with access to their birth and/or adoption information, there has been no evidence of the sorts of negative consequences predicted by opponents of changing these laws, including intrusive behavior such as stalking by adopted persons who receive their personal information.
  • Similarly, there has been no evidence that the lives of birthmothers have been damaged as a result of the release of information to the children (now adults) whom they relinquished for adoption. In debates leading to these legal changes, opponents had uniformly stated that birthmothers object to the release of birth information and to being contacted by their children. In the states that have amended their laws, however, few birthmothers have expressed the desire to keep records sealed or the wish not to be contacted; indeed, in the vast majority of cases, the converse appears to be true.
  • Another assertion by critics of changing these laws – that abortion rates rise as a result of such access – is not supported by the experiences of states that have re-opened records (or have never closed them); in fact, the data indicate that reopening records may reduce abortion rates and may increase adoption rates.
  • For many adopted persons, the desire to obtain their records is entirely separate from any desire to search for their birthmothers or other relatives; they simply believe – as a human and civil right – that they are entitled to the same basic information about themselves that people raised in their birth families receive as a matter of course. Indeed, many who do get their birth certificates or other documents never search, while others successfully search (a growing phenomenon because of the internet) without any of their documents. Moreover, adopted adults who choose to search invariably make clear that their decisions are not a rejection of their adoptive parents but a desire to learn more about themselves and, in growing numbers, adoptive parents support and assist their adult children’s searches.
  • Research shows that knowledge of what happened to the children they relinquished for adoption plays a powerful role in the resolution of birthmothers’ grief, thereby suggesting that providing access to birth and/or adoption information can have other positive consequences.
  • There has been scant evidence that birthmothers were explicitly promised anonymity from the children they relinquished for adoption. Relinquishment documents provided to courts that have heard challenges to states’ new “open records” laws do not contain any such promises. To the extent that adoption professionals might have verbally made such statements, courts have found that they were contrary to state law and cannot be considered legally binding.
  • In addition to the states that have reopened birth and/or adoption records to all adult adopted persons, a growing number of states have restored access more narrowly – typically to (1) individuals who were adopted prior to the state’s law sealing this information and/or to (2) individuals adopted after the effective date of the statute providing access. These statutes have created a “sandwich” situation in which individuals caught in between – adopted a day too early or too late – are precluded from obtaining their documents. These situations raise significant civil rights and fairness issues by denying access to personal information to a selectively defined group of adults.

The Institute recommends that every state amends their laws so that adult adoptees can have unrestricted access to their original birth certificates; revisit state laws with the “sandwich situation”; conduct more research on understanding the experiences of adopted persons, birth parents and adoptive parents; study more deeply the experiences of states that allow access; develop education programs to provide accurate data to counter mythology and misinformation; and focus attention at the national level on state law and policy regarding access.

This report discusses domestic adoptees’ access to birth certificates alone, but it raises basic questions about access to one’s personal information. I don’t mean to conflate domestic and international adoption, but regarding international adoption, access to adoption records in Korea is largely unregulated because there is no governmental oversight on the practices and policies of adoption agencies’ operations. Agencies can allow or deny access on a whim. Add to this the language difference, distance, monetary considerations, and other cultural factors that may bar adopted Koreans from accessing their records. In 2007, I accompanied a friend to Holt, where an agency worker let her see copies of her adoption records. It was her second time going to the agency, and my friend commented that that this time she saw some new documents, signaling the arbitrariness with which adopted persons are allowed or denied access to their records. I’ve heard accounts from other friends that agency workers asked for bribes, or flat out denied access altogether.

Things need to change, in both domestic and international adoption.

Read the entire report here.

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