Here's a run through of the records created during an adoption and who can see them.
When a child is born, the hospital or attending medical practitioner collects the information required by state law, which is given to the state vital statistical registrar, who uses it to prepare the child's birth certificate. The certificate contains the mother's name, the child's name and gender, the date, time and place of birth, and perhaps the address and occupation of the mother. The certificate may also include the name of the father. Some states, like Oregon, include the father's name only if the parents were married, or the father acknowledged paternity. Unfortunately these registrars often put "not available" or "unknown" in the space for the father's name, giving the false impression the mother did not know who the father was. Even worse was an Oregon birth certificate from 1969 I saw which had "Negro" for the name of the father.
After an adoption is completed, the adoptive parents (or their attorney) send information to the vital statistics registrar of the state in which the child was born, and the registrar issues an amended birth certificate. This shows the adoptive parents as the parents, and the child's name as the one they chose. If a child is adopted from another country, the adoptive parents can obtain a birth certificate from the state registrar showing the adoptive parents as the parents, but reflecting as accurately as possible the place and date of birth. The new birth certificate is helpful for enrolling the child in school, allowing him to apply for a driver's license, and the like.
ADOPTION AGENCY RECORDS
Mothers or mothers-to-be considering adoption for their child may begin the process at an adoption agency, or state child welfare agency. The mother's social worker gathers family history information and personal information, such as the circumstances of the pregnancy, her relationship with the child's father, and why she is considering adoption. Another social worker collects information from those seeking to adopt, conducting a home study to determine their suitability as parents, which includes social, educational and financial information. If the adoption goes forward, the first mother and, if required, the father, sign consent papers, surrendering the child to the agency for adoption. If it is to be an open adoption, the agency obtains the agreement signed by all parties setting forth the terms of continuing contact.
If the child is is to be adopted in a state other than the state where the child is born, an adoption agency in the state where the child is to adopted is involved as well.
The mother may have opted to start with an attorney who works with the adoptive parents' attorney. Both attorneys collect information about the first parents and adoptive parents such as age, education, and occupations. The attorney collects the consents necessary (a father may or may not be involved) to relinquish the child directly to the adoptive parents. An adoption agency conducts the home study of the prospective adoptive parents.
The final step in an adoption is the courthouse. The adoptive parents file a petition for adoption, usually through an attorney. The consent, the home study and other information is filled with the petition. The judge issues an adoption decree or judgment of adoption.
In summary, adoption "records" are located at the offices of the state vital statistics registrar, the adoption agency or agencies, the mother's attorney, if any, the adoptive parents' attorney and the courthouse. The adoptive parents may receive copies of some documents as well.
State laws prohibit anyone, vital statistics staff, adoption agencies, attorneys, and court employees from disclosing confidential information related to an adoption. Adoption agencies may give first parents copies of documents they signed such as the consent and continuing contact agreement.
Most if not all states allow adoption agencies to provide non-identifying information to adoptees and first parents. New York and perhaps other states have required adoptees to obtain their adoptive parents' permission even though the adoptees were legally adults before the agency could release the non-ID. The non-ID is often so vague, and, in some cases, downright false, as to be useless in helping the adoptee and first parents reunite. In my case, however, the California agency gave my daughter Rebecca such specific information--the ages of her father and me, where we lived at the time, where and when we went to college--that she was able to find both of us. (Smart girl!)
Some states operate mutual consent registries or require adoption agencies to have them. For a fee, staff will search for the other party and, if both consent, connect them. At time of my daughter's search in 1987, California required consent of the adoptive parents before they would connect an adoptee and her birth parents. My daughter did not file with the registry because she did not want to ask her adoptive parents for their consent. The subject was too sensitive. It's galling to adoptees and first parents that a functionary in an adoption agency has access to their most personal of information while it is denied to them.
State laws also require that court records be sealed, allowing them to be accessed only by a court order. In all but two states, Alaska and Kansas, the laws also require the original birth certificates be sealed. Sealing records was thought necessary to protect the adoptive family's privacy and reinforce the notion that the adoptive family was the child's only family.
In the past 20 years, ten states have passed laws allowing adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates, although some of these states allowed first mothers to file vetoes barring their children from receiving their original birth certificate, or requiring the names of the parents be blacked out.* Adoptees born (not adopted) in an open state may receive their original birth certificate regardless of where the adoption took place.
In 2013, Oregon passed a law allowing adoptees over the age of 18 to inspect and copy their court files --except the home study--without a court order. The law also allows adoptive parents to access the entire file. It allows first parents to obtain copies of all documents they signed and it makes it easier for first parents to obtain a court order to access the court file. Finally the law repealed the statute prohibiting disclosure of confidential adoption information which means agencies can pass on identifying information to adoptees and first parents.
We know now, and thinking people have always known, that sealing records and amending birth certificates, cannot obliterate the first family. With open adoptions becoming the norm, we are hopeful that within a few years most states will allow adoptees to access their original birth certificates. In a few years after that, perhaps states will allow both adoptees and first parents to access the court files.
The next stop should be to stop sealing the birth certificate and preparing false birth certificates in the first place. A certificate of adoption or similar document should replace the amended birth certificate. This certificate would allow the child to enroll in school, apply for a driver's license, and so on. An adoptive mother posted a comment recently pointing out that a "certificate of adoption" would stigmatize the child as being adopted. Birth certificates with "AMENDED" stamped on it already does that. We believe that being adopted should be nothing to hide. Today since attitudes have become much more accepting of being adopted, it should not cause so much consternation as in the days when families tried to hide it--even from the individual himself. States could issue short form birth certificates for all children as well as long form certificates. Short form certificates would show place and date of birth but not the names of the parents. Schools and the like could accept these short form certificates.
Please note this post does not constitute a legal opinion. For specific information about your state,
contact a lawyer familiar with adoption law in the state you are concerned about. An American Bar Association site, Find Legal Help, can refer you to resources in your state including legal aid offices.
*States which allow adult adoptees to access to their original birth certificates: Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Washington. (Delaware, Illinois, Ohio, Washington and Tennessee do have a first-parent veto; Ohio's is the least restrictive and covers a very small number of adoptees. As we have stated previously, very few first parents file no-contact preferences, or vetoes.
Is it a 'Birth' Certificate or Certificate of Title?
Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption by E. Wayne Carp
Family Matters cuts through the sealed records, changing policies, and conflicting agendas that have obscured the history of adoption in America and reveals how the practice and attitudes about it have evolved from colonial days to the present.
Amid recent controversies over sealed adoption records and open adoption, it is ever more apparent that secrecy and disclosure are the defining issues in American adoptions--and these are also the central concerns of E. Wayne Carp's book. Mining a vast range of sources (including for the first time confidential case records of a twentieth-century adoption agency), Carp makes a startling discovery: openness, not secrecy, has been the norm in adoption for most of our history; sealed records were a post-World War II aberration, resulting from the convergence of several unusual cultural, demographic, and social trends.--Amazon