' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Exactly what are 'adoption records' and who can access them?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Exactly what are 'adoption records' and who can access them?

"How can I get a copy of the consent they say I signed?" asks a reader. Another inquiries: "If a child is born in one state which has not opened its records but adopted in an open records state, can the child see his original birth certificate?"

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.

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


  1. You mention California above in your OP. I actually had the paper that I signed relinquishing my daughter; also "somewhere" I found the State and County # of her birth. I found a searcher that just used those numbers to find my daughter's "new" name, as the numbers are the same, just two different birth certificates. I guess I got lucky with finding this researcher. I did some non-id info from the County, and most of it was pretty accurate regarding her adoptive parents. But of course her amom THOUGHT I had signed a paper that I would not search for her, and of course I told her there was no such paper!

  2. I also surrendered my child in Cali in the 1960s. In the 1980s, I requested and received non-ID info on my son and his adoptive family. With the help of a searcher in Cali we were reunited soon after that.

    Around 2001, I decided I wanted the papers i signed, as well as other documents, if available. I called the agency, and they told me they could legally send me anything I had signed or was the subject of, as well as my infant son's papers while he was still in my custody.

    The agency sent me the surrender document, the temporary foster care agreement, medical release for my son, other court papers, and other documents and papers.

  3. I relinquished in Texas in 1965 and received all my papers, including medical records the home held and correspondence with me afterwards. I also had no problem finding him from the non-identifying info.

    God help the people with common names.

    I know people from other homes had more difficulty.

  4. "If it is to be an open adoption, the agency obtains the agreement signed by all parties setting forth the terms of continuing contact".

    I thought adoptive parents signed no agreement to enforce visits with the child's real mother. Has this changed? The last I heard real mothers have no legal protection at all to keep an adoption open and as usual, the stupid adoptive parents have all the control.

  5. Just a comment, my adopted kids ABC aren't stamped amended. There is no way to tell by looking at them that they aren't original. I don't think the original should be sealed though and I wish we could have gotten a copy of it before it was. So when they are presented to the school, the school can't tell that my child is adopted. They will both know (we tell the story now but they are too young to understand yet). But I do want them to have the privacy of what they tell who. Not for me, for them. Some people don't want the whole world to know their story - I don't know yet if they will fall into that category or not. From what I know of their birth father, I would say they might.

    I agree though that every adoptee should have unrestricted access to their original BC and that they should even be able to access all the information that was provided to the adoptive parents during the process. I've kept everything the agency gave us (during the second adoption, their birth families allowed an unredacted form to be given to us with everything they provided). There's still a lot of holes in the info - but our kids deserve that. I have kept everything I could find on their parents. And I'm doing my best to maintain a relationship with them and another family member to make sure that we don't lose them(mom and dad aren't in a stable situation at the moment,drugs poverty and frequent moves) Our kids identity is going to be a combination of the experiences they have with us, and the genetics and personality traits and heritage from their original family. I owe it to them to do what I can to minimize the loss. That means relationship and information.

    I also think that first mothers should be able to retrieve any and all documents related to their placement. I'm trying to eliminate the need for a search later, but I think both adoptees and first parents have the right to search. Not every adoption today involves coercion, but there is still way too much of it happening in very subtle ways. But regardless of whether or not a first parent felt coerced, they should still be able to reach out to the adoptive family at any time, not just when the child is 18. They should be able to search if contact has been lost or denied, without recrimination. We can't get anywhere in this whole story unless we can have respect for ALL the people involved in adoption. (Sorry I don't like the triad terminology, it implies an equality that isn't present).

  6. To Anonymous - just because adoptive parents sign something doesn't mean they'll abide by it. And it doesn't mean it's legally enforceable. There are many states where open adoption agreements are signed but not legally enforceable, so they are essentially meaningless.

  7. To add to what Dmeezigns said,
    Some states do not recognize open adoption agreements but I think today, most do. Typically the open adoption or continuing agreement spells out the exchange of letters, visits, condition of visits (no alcohol before visits for example), name of child, and other details. It is negotiated by the adoption agency and signed by the adoptive and first parents.

    Refusal of the the adoptive parents to abide by the agreement does not undo the adoption. If there is a dispute, the parties must go to mediation, usually conducted by the adoption agency.

    In some states, either side can go to court to seek to enforce the agreement if mediation fails. The judge can refuse to enforce it if he finds a change of circumstances, not in the best interests of the child, etc. Since first parents often cannot afford an attorney, going to court and defending accusations by the adoptive parents is not an option.

    D. I do appreciate your take on birth certificates.

  8. kitta said:
    I also surrendered my child in Cali in the 1960s.

    When you say "Cali" do you mean California?

    also Kitta said:
    The agency sent me the surrender document, the temporary foster care agreement, medical release for my son, other court papers, and other documents and papers.

    Also, you mention "agency" - is this the County of Los Angeles Dept. of Children & Family Services? I hope so; I sure would like to have everything that I signed, plus her foster care stuff, as I "heard" that it is the foster mother who noticed my daughter's heart murmur! She had a hole in her heart, but everything worked out great as the years went by with new procedures and she never had to have surgery as the hole closed when she was about 11!

  9. Open adoption is only legally enforceable in certain states, my state of CA among them. The precise terms must be written out prior to finalization and signed by all parties and then by the judge. There are some further details that vary from state to state. But the post adoption contact agreement is not legal in most states and is simply a "gentlemen's agreement" with zero enforcement.

    In states with legal agreements, the burden to take the adoptive parents to court rests solely on the birth parents. As this is an expensive undertaking, one can generally assume that it's not available for women who have placed their children for adoption for financial reasons. Also, there is no guarantee the judge will uphold the agreement. Custody disputes between biological parents can get incredibly messy, so one can only imagine the difficulty and disinterest the courts would have in enforcing visitation between adoptive parents and biological parents who have relinquished their rights.

    Anyone who knows someone who is involved in shared custody with an ex-spouse can understand that these relationships are often fraught with disagreements and challenges. But the parents have to deal with each other because they are tied biologically to the child and are recognized by the state as having rights. With adoption, the adoptive parents are easily able to throw their hands up and walk away from a difficult situation, leaving the bio parents out and with so little recourse as to be practically nonexistent.

    Adoption agencies rarely state this blunt truth. They prefer to use open adoption as a carrot to offer a mom who might otherwise not go through with an adoption. I do believe that the majority of prospective adoptive parents do intend to keep their end of the deal, but I think many experience difficulties in navigating this fragile relationship, and it's easier for them to just close the adoption in those cases. There was a commenter here recently defending the right of adoptive parents to close an open adoption simply because they feel the bio parents are overstepping their boundaries.

  10. My amended birth certificate does not say AMENDED on it. The only red flag is that the filing date is not within a few days of my birth as the original certificate would be. And there is some other missing information, like the hospital where I was born.

    ". 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."

    I like this idea. That would prove the child's identity without even having to get into the question of birth or adoptive parentage. The only issue is it might make it easier to use a counterfeit document in the event of a kidnapping.

  11. Adoptive parents were the ones who wanted birth families subjugated and gone. Adoptive parents were the ones who got birth records sealed. For example, Betsie Norris' adoptive father who was an attorney got birth records sealed in Ohio in 1964. He did untold damage to families in Ohio, and across America, by his example, and he may have been the one to set the precedence for sealed birth records across America. I read that Betsie's birth parents got married after giving her up for adoption and then they gav3e birth to an array of kids.

  12. New first mom here, looking for help. The short version of my story is that I have a physical disability. I didn't know I was pregnant before my son was born. I was threatened with removal if I took him home, and open adoption was the only way out (or seemed so at the time). My son is still an infant, and every minute since I left the hospital has been absolute hell. I am in grief counseling and individual therapy, but can't seem to find any groups or individuals in my area that are familiar with a first mother's issues. The only groups that exist are run by adoption agencies. Second, I have a scheduled visit with son and AP's very soon. It will be the first time I've seen him or them since he was a newborn. No, they don't know about the coercion. Does anyone have any advice? Thank you so much!

  13. AKA1stMom,
    Contact Concerned United Birthparents and see if they have a branch in your area. If not, contact CUB and ask if they could refer you to a first mother in an open adoption. Here's the link to the CUB website. http://www.cubirthparents.org/branches.php

  14. "Amended" birth certificates are FALSIFIED documents, and as such, should be done away with. This is a huge hot-button issue for me, and I believe ridding adoption of secrets and lies must begin with doing away with this fraudulent document (which, if I am not mistaken, was a practice that came about as a result of Georgia Tann's corrupt handiwork).

    As a first mother, I find it beyond offensive that there exists a fraudulent document (I refuse to use the prettied-up term "amended") that makes it look as though my son's adoptive mother gave birth to him. It would be no different if I had some sort of legal document that claimed I was the parent who raised my son.

    If privacy is a concern, then some other kind of certificate should be used universally for enrollment in school, etc.

  15. @Lee,

    yes, I surrendered my son in CA. But, I did not go to the County. I went to a private "multi-service" agency ( or so it said).

    I called the agency when I wanted the records and they told me to put my request in writing (a letter to them by US mail).

  16. To Lee and KItta, I am a BF who within the last week has learned of my son who was given up for adoption four decades ago. I too was adopted as a child and never knew my BF, a fact I have struggled with all my life.
    After days of searching the internet and wondering where to begin, I was amazed to find this blog and your specific comments. My biological son was given up for adoption in Calif. My hope is that you could provide me any resource that I might use in locating him. Where can I find a "searcher" you mentioned. I am feeling overwhelmed at this point and any advice you give would be truly appreciated.

  17. BF?

    Birth father, I presume. We rarely use the "B" abbreviation here because of the unfortunate pairing of the letter with "M.

  18. Whatif1966--I did not read your entire comment before and was in a mad hurry and realized at first that I did not know what a BF was, and just responded to that. I'm sorry, I know I came off flip and I know you are struggling with real issues here and I hope you have come back.

    I do not specifically know any searchers in CA, but I will say that I found a searcher (who was successful in another state) by posting the information I had (birthdate and place) when I was looking for someone in the website and search registry, ISRR. Or International Search Reunion Registry. I was contacted by someone who helped me. No guarantee, but it is certainly worth a try, and who knows, he might be there.

    Secondly, have you done your own search for your first parents? Perhaps you should try searching for them too, and start with the same registry.

    Other than that, get on FAcebook and join the many many pages that are devoted to adoption healing and sharing. You will find comfort and communion with others. It doesn't heal the pain, but it does make you feel less alone.

    Again, let me apologize for my initial response. I have had a very busy day--and it isn't over yet.

  19. I just noticed my birth cert says it was amended, my mother claims it was never changed. I'm very confused. I don't even know where to begin, I'm 36 years old.

  20. Anon,
    If you were adopted, the birth certificate you have with your adoptive name on it is an amended birth certificate. Your original birth certificate has your birth name on it and the name of your first mother. It has been sealed and is located at your state's office of vital statistics..

    Depending on what state you were born in, you may be able to get a copy of your original birth certificate.



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