Open Adoption Records-The Adult Adoptee’s Right

The process of adoption involves the legal transfer of the guardianship of a minor child. In the United States, part of the formalization of the legal adoption is the creation of an ‘Amended Birth Certificate,’ or ABC, which is an official, certified document that shows the adoptive parents as the parents of the adopted child. The original birth certificate, or OBC, which shows the name of the biological mother and in some cases the biological father of the child, and all documentation from the adoption is then sealed by the court. In many cases this document is the only link an adopted person has to their biological family.

By the 1940s and 1950s, most states had adopted the practice of sealing adoption records from the public, largely in an effort to protect the adoptive family from the stigma of illegitimacy, which in many states was physically stamped on the birth certificates (Bastard Nation, “The History of Sealed Adoption Records in the United States.”).

As of this writing, only 9 states have changed their laws to allow the adult adoptee open, unrestricted access to their own original birth certificate. 19 states allow partial or restricted access, usually in the form of a “veto clause” whereby the biological parent(s) have the option to redact their names from the document and maintain their anonymity. In the remaining 22 states an adult adoptee has no access to their own information (American Adoption Congress).

Access to the original birth certificate is a basic human right. This right was formally described in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was signed on November 20, 1989 and effective September 2, 1990 (Wikipedia). The document specifically acknowledges in Articles 7 – 10 the right of the child to their identity, name, nationality, and family, and further admonishes states to restore any of these of which the child was deprived (Wikisource). Even though the United States was participatory in the drafting of the document, it is one of only three countries, including Somalia and Sudan, that have refused to ratify it. In the case of the U.S., this refusal is due to the restriction against life sentences and the death penalty for children, and because it would require a massive revision of currently accepted adoption practices in the U.S. (Musings of the Lame “United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.”). Nonetheless, the document proves that the right to one’s true identity and heritage is acknowledged nearly universally as a basic human right.

As our understanding of the genetic influence on certain diseases grows, it has become increasingly important to know and consider these factors in the course of health management. Family medical history is routinely gathered by healthcare providers. Even before the genetic markers were identified, the medical community has long acknowledged that certain diseases tend to run in families, and the presence of them in a patient’s family tree would warrant monitoring and testing with the understanding that early detection leads to better outcomes. Adoptees without access to their original birth certificate are disadvantaged by being unable to discover vital information about their genetic heritage.

The birth certificate is a vital document that is used for identification for a variety of purposes, including applying for a drivers’ license, a passport, and even some jobs. Fortunately, the Amended Birth Certificate is generally accepted for these uses, being indistinguishable from the Original Birth Certificate. However, since 9-11 the Homeland Security Act’s requirements for using a birth certificate as proof of U.S. Citizenship for passport applications include that the birth certificate must be signed by the registrar within one year after birth. For many adoptees, their adoption was not finalized until after that time and therefore their Amended Birth Certificate would not be valid for that purpose (Musings of the Lame “Adoptee Rights and Access to Their Original Birth Certificates.”).

Changing state legislation to allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificate is notoriously difficult. Representative Sara Feigenholz of Illinois’ 12th District first introduced this legislation in 1997. Fourteen years later, in 2011, HB5428 finally passed into law. Illinois is one of the states to have restricted access. The law allows birth parents to formally redact their name from the original birth certificate, and it also creates a medical information registry where family medical information can be shared anonymously. Such provisions are vehemently opposed by many adoptee rights groups, but have proven to make OBC access legislation more palatable to some legislators. The key opponents to open records legislation are representatives of the adoption industry. The arguments against open access fall into three basic categories:

  1. Privacy of the biological mother. However, no evidence has ever been uncovered of a relinquishing mother being promised (or expecting) anonymity. The act of relinquishing a baby is generally due to economic or social pressures, not because the mother never wishes to have any contact with her child. In the state of Illinois, for example, of the 14,871 original birth certificates issued since the law was enacted in 2011, only 84 were issued with the identifying information removed – less than one percent (Feigenholz).
  2. Negative impact on the willingness of mothers to relinquish their babies to adoption. As indicated by the facts in point 1, mothers do not expect or want to be forever separated from their children. In fact, the open adoption practices that are common today are shown to make the idea of relinquishment more appealing, where a mother can continue to have reports and pictures of – if not contact with – their relinquished child. This is often used as a selling point to encourage women to relinquish their babies.
  3. An increase in abortion rate, due to women being unwilling to relinquish if they cannot be assured anonymity. Not only is this not borne out by the facts as detailed in numbers 1 and 2, in states where the OBC access has been granted the abortion rate has continued on the same downward trend it has been on since the 1980s (Musings of the Lame “Debunking OBC Access Myths and Fears.”).

As is often the case with coordinated resistance to certain kinds of legislation, corporate interests seem to be the driving force influencing legislators. Adoption is a multi-billion-dollar industry and their ‘customers’ – the adoptive parents – have the most reason to desire sealed records. They may fear interference by the biological family, desire a cleaner ‘break’ that allows them to start fresh with their newly formed family, and/or they may feel anxious about potential changes in their relationship with their adopted child if a successful search is initiated. On their behalf, powerful lobbying groups such as the National Council for Adoption pressure legislators to leave sealed records laws intact (Bastard Nation “Sealed Records and Adoption Reform: An Historical Perspective.”).

Some states attempt to resolve the situation with Confidential Intermediaries. These are given access to some, or all, of the adoption records, and when employed by any member of the adoption triad (birth family, adoptee, adoptive family) they can instigate a search for the desired party. If the party is found, the Confidential Intermediary instigates non-identifying communication between the parties, reading and redacting their correspondence as they deem appropriate, until such time as all parties agree to reveal identifying information. Unfortunately, in practice this arrangement is less than satisfactory. The process is very time consuming and dependent on the skills of the CI. In some states this is a paid service, and its cost can be prohibitive. Ultimately, it does a disservice to the idea that adults should be free to conduct their own affairs. As with every other kind of adult contact, if there is unwanted behavior there are stalking and harassment laws in place to protect an objecting party.

Altered Birth Certificates and sealed adoption records were contrivances to protect the adoptee and their adoptive family from the social stigmas of the early- to mid-20th century surrounding unmarried mothers and their so-called ‘bastard’ children, who at that time were viewed as shameful and morally unfit, if not assumed to be mentally defective. Moreover, they allowed an infertile couple to build a family and pretend it was natural. In some cases, the adopting couple would go to such extremes as faking the wife’s pregnancy or moving to a new town where the truth of their adopted child was unknown. These laws did not take into consideration the rights of the adoptee, either in childhood or in adulthood.

As is appropriate, many choices are made for minor children, adoptees or not. It would appear that only the choice to adopt creates an immutable condition where the child never grows into a set of full adult rights. Even relinquishment does not engender this condition, because if a relinquished person is never adopted, their records are never sealed. It is only the choice to adopt that renders the adoptee forever a non-adult in the eyes of the government. There does not seem to be any compelling interest for the government to keep secret any records pertaining to an adult person that are desired. Indeed, it seems inarguable that it is in the state’s interest to promote the health, well-being, and basic human rights of its constituents. It is on these grounds that I argue that all states have a duty to allow unfettered access to the original birth certificates for any adoptee who requests it.

A Paper on the LDA Experience

An Examination of the Late Discovery Adoptee Experience

The majority of adoptees are informed of their adoption in childhood. Many adoptive parents tell their adopted children in age-appropriate ways from very early childhood. “Late Discovery Adoptee” (commonly referred to as LDA) is a term used to refer to adopted individuals who did not discover their adoptee status until they were at least in their late teens or early adulthood. In some cases, the discovery did not happen until middle age or even beyond.

The LDA community is not well researched or understood. Discovering an adoption truth in adulthood is a jarring experience that can lead to debilitating depression, loss of identity, anger, and trust issues. It can disrupt existing relationships. It can occupy a disproportionate amount of focus and energy, leaving the individual with inadequate resources for their normal life’s pursuits. Many LDAs feel that their life has been entirely upended.

Late Discovery by its very nature means simultaneously discovering that people who were deeply trusted had been lying. In some cases they were lying by omission, but in others they were outright lying in response to direct questions from those who for whatever reason suspected they might have been adopted. In many (if not most) cases it is discovered that there was a far-reaching web of individuals that were aware of the adoption but agreed to or were coerced into maintaining the secret. The LDA can feel that they are the butt of a cruel joke, or the victim of a vast conspiracy. In some cases the adoptive parents are dead when the discovery is made, leaving the LDA with no good path for resolution.

Late Discovery means instantly learning about and then grappling with society’s expectations for adoptees, and even internally challenging those narratives that have been absorbed over a lifetime. In the midst of discovering and processing the shocking facts, the LDA must also respond to the reactions of the people in whom they confide. Oftentimes these reactions include some manner of defending the adoptive parents and adoption in general – for example, comments such as, “Your adoptive parents were your real parents. They didn’t tell you because they loved you and were trying to protect you.” This kind of commentary, while usually given in a spirit of kindness, is often hurtful and devaluing of the LDA’s experience, which leads to feelings of isolation.

Most adoptees feel some level of anxiety when making the decision to seek out their biological family. In LDAs this anxiety is often compounded, especially if the discovery happens later in life. The older the adoptee is the more likely it becomes that their biological parents are already dead. They may worry that if their adoption occurred many decades ago they would be unwelcome intrusions in the lives of their biological family. It may be difficult to discuss with their existing family. Their children may have varying reactions to the fact that they suddenly have ‘new’ grandparents. They may have adoptive siblings who also discovered their adoption at the same time, and everyone needs to absorb that they are not genetically related, that there are multiple sets of biological parents involved, and that the parents you thought you shared were not your biological parents at all.

In the course of writing this paper I conducted an informal survey that I offered to members of the closed LDA Facebook group of which I am a member. I have compiled their complete responses as an appendix. There were 35 responses. The age of discovery range of the respondents was 17 to 60. The average age of discovery was 38.8. The range of length of time since discovery of the respondents was 4 months to 40 years. The average length of time since discovery was 11 years. Of the 35 respondents, 34 have discovered that there was a wider web of individuals (beyond adoptive parents and immediate family) who were aware of their adoption and had been keeping the secret.

Here are a few excerpts from their responses to the question, “How did you feel when you discovered?”

  • Lost, betrayed, hurt, alone. No words really to describe it. My parents have passed so I cannot question them. It’s just a really weird feeling.
  • It was a seismic shift in my reality. I questioned who I was at my core. Every time I looked in the mirror, it was as though I saw a stranger’s reflection.
  • Ashamed, sad, angry and a tiny bit relieved.
  • Isolated, angry, resentful, sad, emotional, aggressive.
  • Betrayed, numb, confused, lost, angry, bitter.
  • FAKE! I suffer with trying to understand who I am. Betrayal, unworthy, anger, not good enough

Here are a few excerpts from their responses to the question, “Do you have anything you would like to say about being an LDA?”

  • It’s hard. the feelings of betrayal of trust, the crisis of identity you struggle with, the way it colors every part of your life and relationships, the lies you remember, even if just by omission, the fact I gave false medical info my whole life and they LET ME! how people who are not LDA try to tell me how to feel, how to react, and that I was just being protected. You can protect a child from the hard truths of their past, and STILL tell them they were adopted! geez. lol
  • I understand why it was so important to my mother. There was a stigma. But I would have loved to be able to thank my parents for choosing me.
  • It’s a horrible, traumatic discovery that I don’t think I will ever fully recover from.
  • Very difficult experience, roller coaster.
  • It is abuse. It is criminal.
  • It’s changed me. I have zero tolerance for dishonesty, I will only have serious conversations in person, I want every chance I can to assess what they are saying. I miss the closeness I had with my family pre-discovery but I am glad I know the truth. I’ve met my bio Dad Matthew & 2 sisters 1 brother.
  • It has been earth shattering and no one should have to endure it. It rattled my basic sense of trust in people. After everything broke down, I’ve had to rebuild everything; identity, relationships, self-care, beliefs.

Overwhelming anecdotal evidence points to the LDA experience being acutely painful and confusing. In some ways the LDA has similar emotions to a typical adoptee, but their experience of these emotions is temporally compressed and much more intense. They have compounding threads of deception and betrayal, loss and grief that a typical adoptee does not experience, or experiences in a more abstract way over the course of their lifetime. Further study and the development of appropriate therapeutic models for the LDA community is warranted. It is quite possible that our society is on the cusp of a tremendous surge in the population of the LDA community, that we, as a society, are currently ill-equipped to support. There are two main reasons I believe a surge in the LDA population is imminent: the ‘Baby Scoop Era’ and the preponderance of DNA testing.

In the “Baby Scoop Era,” a period of time roughly defined as the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, an estimated 4 million babies were placed for adoption worldwide, with an estimated 2 million in the 1960s alone (Wikipedia). The prevailing harsh social condemnation of unwed mothers and their so-called ‘bastard’ babies coupled with a lack of sex education and available birth control led to an unprecedented number of babies being relinquished to adoption. Young women by the score were shunted off to maternity homes, often in cities far from their homes, to live out their pregnancies and deliver their babies in secrecy and relative anonymity. Concurrently, the post-WWII social fashion toward large families as an expression of patriotism and status led to an unprecedented demand for those babies (Fessler). The dual shame of illegitimacy and infertility was hidden by the practice of creating an Altered Birth Certificate upon adoption of the infant, and having the original records hidden and sealed under court order.

Because of the stigmas associated with illegitimacy and the prevailing notion of giving the baby a ‘clean slate,’ it can be surmised that a higher percentage of adoptive parents in the Baby Scoop Era chose to keep secret the adoption of their child – even from the adoptee themselves – than adoptive parents before or after this era. Given that the average age of adoptive parents is between 35 and 55, BSE adoptive parents would be approximately in their 80s and 90s in 2017. In other words, toward the ends of their lives. The death of an adoptive parent is often the precipitating event in the LDA’s discovery, whether it be a relative who feels relieved of the need for silence with the death of the adoptive parent, or the discovery of hidden paperwork or clues among the deceased adoptive parent’s belongings.

Additionally, there is the current, heavily promoted fashion of recreational DNA testing, which can inadvertently reveal that a person’s genetic makeup is radically different than what they were told, and can also lead them to unexpected genetic relatives.

Given these factors, it seems that the LDA population is likely to grow exponentially in the next two decades. I have not yet identified any organized effort to study and support this community. A steady stream of members finds and joins the private LDA group on Facebook, and they almost to a one arrive bewildered and shaken to their core with no idea where to turn for help.

After 6 months post-discovery I identified my own need for counseling support, and was unable to find any local therapists who had even heard of the category, let alone had any idea how to address it. My search encompassed all of Chicagoland – a major metropolitan area. The stock answer was, “They specialize in adoption issues.” But LDAs should not be lumped into the general adoptee population. From the moment of discovery, many LDAs enter into a condition of acute crisis that has a far-reaching impact on their lives and well-being. Their experience has some similarities to that of a typical adoptee, but in critical ways it is entirely different. The dearth of readily available information about their situation is distressing. Even within the traditional adoption support communities, the LDA is in a tiny minority and therefore something of a curiosity, rather than a place the LDA can find desperately needed support and guidance.

It is my sincere hope that by exploring the LDA experience I might inspire further study, which would hopefully lead to much-needed support for this very vulnerable population.

Works Cited
“Baby Scoop Era.” Wikipedia, Accessed 4/22/2017
Fessler, Ann. The Girls Who Went Away, Penguin Books, 2006