The right of adopted persons to access their adoption records is the subject of debate among adoption professionals and those whose lives are personally touched by adoption. As with almost everything in adoption, state laws vary with respect to this issue. While there was a time when adopted persons could freely access their adoption records, times have changed and today many states have closed records laws. The reason for such laws was the belief that this would protect birth parents and adopted children from the stigma of illegitimacy. It was also believed that closing adoption records would allow the children to more easily bond with their adoptive families. Closed records advocates also argued that woman would choose abortion over adoption unless they were assured that no one would ever learn their “secret.”
States with closed records laws mandate that all court adoption records be sealed (closed). While certain designated persons have the right to petition the court for access, in many states such requests are rarely granted. As a result, many adopted persons do not know the identity of their birth parents or birth family and they lack the ability to obtain important information about their social and medical history.
Over time, and as the many adoptees born during the closed records period reached adulthood, there has been a growing movement in support of an opening previously sealed adoption records. Advocates in support of opening adoption records argue that society has changed dramatically since the time when many closed records laws were passed. Children born out of wedlock are not stigmatized as they once were and adoption is no longer a shameful secret. Open adoption relationships between adoptive and birth families are also increasingly common. The growing understanding of the genetic basis for many medical and mental health conditions is another compelling argument in support of adoptee’s right to access information relating to their genetic history. Many adopted persons lacking information about their birth identity argue persuasively about the emotional toll this takes on them and their offspring. Finally, adopted persons with no other means to identify biologically connected relatives are turning to social media and DNA testing to locate those with a shared genetic history. It is argued that the ability of adopted persons to locate their birth family using these means poses a far greater risk to birth parents’ privacy then providing adopted persons with access to their adoption records.
In response to the advocacy by open records proponents, a growing number of states have passed laws that provide adopted persons with the right to obtain an unredacted copy of their original birth certificates. State laws vary with respect to the mechanism for obtaining those records, the extent of records provided, whether the birth parents receive notice of the open records request, and whether birth parents can veto such requests.
The open records debate may be summed up as a debate between those arguing that states must honor the expectation and desire of some birth parents to keep their identity confidential and those arguing that adopted persons have an inherent right to access information relating to their personal history. While there is no perfect solution to these conflicting interests, the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys (AAAA) believes that changing societal norms, scientific advances, and our greater understanding of the emotional needs of birth parents and adopted persons justify changing adoption laws to provide adult adopted persons with the right to access their birth records and their personal adoption files. This position is consistent with the AAAA mission which seeks to promote laws that support the best interests of children.
Read a copy of the AAAA resolution in support of open records laws.
The following websites provide a compilation of open records laws across the country: