Today’s post is from Kathie Otte, who received her B.A. in Child Development from Connecticut College and her Master of Social Work from the University of Houston. She has been involved in the infertility and adoption field since 1980. As a result of her own personal experience with infertility and adoption, Kathie started her business as an Adoption Consultant in 1995, educating, guiding and supporting adoptive couples on their road to adoption.
An Adoptee’s Birthright by Kathie Otte
The debate as to whether adoptees should have access to their original birth certificates has reached a fever pitch recently, as more and more bills are being put before state legislatures which would allow adoptees to have copies of these documents. So far, ten states have passed laws allowing access to them- Oregon, Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Tennessee, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. It has been a long and difficult road, and the fight is not over yet.
Adoptees want open records because they feel that it is important for them to have access to their medical histories. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General, Richard Carmona, just last year encouraged all Americans to learn more about their health histories, stating that many diseases are inherited. For the adoptee, however, this is a daunting task. In the majority of states, adoption records are sealed after the adoption is finalized. Sealed adoption records can only be inspected with court approval. Most states in which the adoption records are sealed allow an adoptee to petition the court to receive identifying information, if they prove “good cause.” Good cause could be health or medical reasons, or showing that the release of information is in the best interest of the adoptee. This can be a long and arduous process, and expensive as well.
Secondly, many adoptees believe, and I concur, that this is a civil and human rights issue. Adoptees should have the same birthright as every other American citizen-the right to access their original birth certificate. One adoptee reported feeling totally dehumanized when he was sitting in the office of a social worker at the agency that placed him. The social worker was reading information in his file, and had total access to his records on her desk, yet he, the adoptee, was not allowed to see any of it. “All of a sudden it hit me,” he says. “This stranger was sitting there looking at the names of my parents, and I had no right to see them”. By denying adoptees access to the birth records, it relegates an entire class of citizens to second-class status.
Thirdly, according to the Texas Coalition for Adoption Resources and Education, giving adult adoptees access to birth certificates would “discourage illegal and shoddy adoption practices”. It used to be an acceptable practice at agencies to change or not fully disclose information to the adoptive parents. In fact, one of the reasons that Tennessee passed their recent access to records law is the scandalous stories which came from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Having open records would mitigate such practices.
Lastly, like other human beings, adoptees have a need to know their true heritage, whatever it may be. Every person on this earth wants to know who they really are and from whence they came. Adoptees are no different, and as such, should not be treated differently from any one else.
The Child Welfare League of America, which establishes and publishes standards of practice for social workers dealing with children, fully supports giving adoptees access to birth records. They recognize the need of adoptees to have their birth information and endorse their efforts to obtain it. Having the endorsement of such a prestigious organization is validating to adoptees and confirms to them that their desire for access to their birth records is justifiable.
The main opponents to allowing access to adoptees are the adoption agencies and attorneys who argue that opening the records would infringe on the birth parents’ privacy rights and would violate their guarantee of anonymity. They say that they made a long-standing promise of confidentiality to the birth mother and they want to keep that promise. It would especially ruin the lives of women who had been raped or had hidden the pregnancy from family members.
Extensive research over the last 20 years has shown, though, that the law has never guaranteed lifelong anonymity for birth parents and they were never given that legal assurance. Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of birth parents do not object to adult adoptees having access to their records. They WELCOME some level of contact, or at least some knowledge about the children they gave birth to.
Elizabeth Samuels, a Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, believes that the real motive of agencies and attorneys is “the financial and institutional incentives to satisfy prospective adoptive parents who want their children to be as much their own as possible and not be connected to any other family”. And they want to protect adoptive families from possible interference or harassment by the birth parents. Again, research has shown that all the birth parents really want is to know their child is OK, not to interfere with the lives of the adoptive family.
It is interesting to note that, historically, when adoption in America became legal in the second half of the 19th century, all adoption records were open. It was in the 1940’s and 1950’s that records began to be closed, under the recommendation of The Children’s Bureau, who stated that birth and adoptive parents who did not know one another should not have access to information about each other. At the same time, however, it said that original birth certificates should be available to adult adoptees. But the seed of secrecy in adoption had been planted and by the 1970’s all states but Alaska and Kansas had closed their records.
The pendulum is swinging back again with ten states now allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificates. And several other states are currently considering open records. But the dire problems predicted by the opponents of open records have not yet come true. A big reason has been that in most of these states, a contact veto registry has been established. When adoptees request identifying information, the birth parents are notified of the request and have an opportunity to submit a document prohibiting the adoptee from making contact with them. The adoptee must agree to respect the veto before receiving the information.
In Texas, the 79th Legislature of 2005 passed a bill which amends Section 192.008 of the Texas Health and Safety Code. It took effect on September 1, 2005 and allows persons born in Texas, and subsequently adopted, to obtain a non-certified copy of their original birth certificate. However, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, you must identify the name of each parent listed on your original birth certificate before you can get a copy. This requirement is nothing short of ridiculous. It disqualifies many adoptees from getting their birth certificate and puts them back at Square One. They wanted their birth certificate to find out the identity of their birth parents, and now they are being told to somehow get the names before they can get their birth certificate. In my opinion, adoptees are not being treated as second class citizens, I would say more like third class. I propose that at the next regular legislative session an amendment be made stating that all adoptees may obtain their original birth certificate, even if they do not have the names of their birth parents.
Of course, this is not as big of an issue in today’s world where a fully open adoption has become more and more common. In many situations nowadays, both the adoptive family and the birth family are willing to share their full identities. This is more of an issue for the thousands of adoptees who were adopted in a closed or semi-open adoption where full identities were not shared. In my own family, both my son and daughter’s adoptions were closed. It did not take me long to realize, however, how important it is for them to have full and complete medical history. In addition, I totally support their efforts, if they wish, in finding their birth mother. Equally as important, is the fact that I want my children to be treated like every other citizen of the United States. Moreover, they need that information so that they have a true understanding of who they are. What can be more important than that? As Alex Haley so aptly stated:
“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage,
to know who we are, and where we have come from.
Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning;
No matter what our attainment in life,
There is the most disquieting loneliness.”