The Legal Struggles of Adoptees

Here are some commonly faced legal struggles and potential solutions facing adoptees today.

Susan Kuligowski April 04, 2019
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Have you ever wondered what your parents first and last names are? Or had trouble completing a medical questionnaire during your annual checkup? Has your imagination run wild, wondering from whom you may have inherited that itch to travel or that incredible talent you have to work a guitar pick like it’s nobody’s business? Have you ever feared being kicked out of school or denied employment for not having the correct identification—or worse yet, threatened with deportation because you find out too late that you’re not officially a citizen of your country?

If you’re not an adoptee, then chances are these problems will never cross your radar. However, imagine being an adopted child and being denied even the most basic information about yourself such as the name given to you on your original birth certificate, or your personal or cultural history—all of the details that make you who you are. Imagine sitting across from your doctor, facing a major health emergency, and being unable to provide adequate and important family history that would help in the fight for your life. Consider the nightmare of being informed in your late teens or early 20s that, in fact, your adopted parents never followed through on the necessary and required post-adoption paperwork, which means that by law, there is a chance that you could face deportation.

Here are some commonly faced legal struggles and potential solutions facing adoptees today.

Identity: The Case for Open Vs. Closed Adoption

“Oh tell me who are you?

(Who are you?)

I really wanna know

Oh I really wanna know

Oh tell me who are you, you, you, ah you?”

-”The Who” (Peter Townshend)

You gaze into a mirror for minutes at a time, wondering who you got your brown eyes from. Or that rebellious wavy hair that refuses to lay flat no matter how hard you try. While your friends families all seem to match from head to toe and happily share stories of similarities and traits and talents that have been passed down from great-grandma to the youngest grandbaby, many adoptees feel a sense of emptiness and inability to connect the dots of their story beyond themselves and beyond the person staring back in the mirror. Yes, it’s common for adoptees to pick up traits and habits and likes and dislikes from their adoptive families and to feel just as loved and just as much a part of the family tree, despite having been sprung from a different root. But it’s different. Adoption is an answer to finding families for children; it does not wipe away the fact that adoptees had a past before finding their forever family.

While identity is one issue that adoptees find themselves fighting to control inside and outside the courtroom, others find themselves in stressful and sometimes life-threatening situations simply attempting to fill out health information at an annual checkup. Instead of quickly being able to check off the boxes, they may find themselves staring blankly at the page, unsure of how to answer whether or not heart disease runs in their family or cancer or infertility issues or any of the other health risks you can typically call your mom about to ask whether or not she’s aware of any issues.

For years, closed adoptions, or adoptions where there was no interaction between birth mothers and adoptive families, were promoted as the norm and were justified as a way to protect birth families who did not wish to be identified or found later on. It also protected adopted children who did not wish to be contacted by their birth families. However, an unfortunate complication of closed adoption is that, along with the no contact rule, valuable information also remained sealed and unavailable to adoptees even into adulthood. See Adoption.com’s “The Differences Between Open Adoptions and Closed Adoptions” for an overview and better understanding of open and closed adoptions and how it impacts the relationships of all involved.

While there are some noted benefits to closed adoption, especially in cases involving foster children who had come from dangerous homes where an open adoption could equate a security risk, over time, studies proved there was value to open adoptions. According to Wikipedia, open adoption has slowly become more common since research in the 1970s suggested that open adoption was better for children. In 1975 the tide began to change, and by the early 1990s, open adoptions were offered by a majority of American adoption agencies.

Although the majority of domestic adoptions are considered open adoptions today, lessening the chance of much of the above occurring, many older adoptees remain in the dark, unable to access even their basic information. Adoption.com’s article “What Is Open Adoption?” talks a bit about the advantages open adoption offers an adopted child, including opening the door to things like birth parent information, medical history, and personal history and how having this information helps adoptees to self-identify from an early age.

Breaking the Seal

“When she looks in the mirror, we want our daughter to know herself. It’s hard to face the world when you don’t know where your face came from.” -Adoptive parents

While many adoption advocates have been part of the changes in adoption and adoptee legal rights throughout the years, it’s been adoptees who have made the biggest impact in pushing for more openness in adoption as well as more evolved adoptee rights. For example, according to the Adoptee Rights Law Center, PLLC, The Adoptees Right to Know Law is the right given to all adult adoptees to access their original birth certificates from and before adoption. The law was set in place to assist adult adoptees in accessing their original birth certificate, which for many decades had been sealed in most states. Based out of the State of New York, the group’s website states, “We work to restore the right of all adult adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates without discriminatory conditions or restrictions.”

The article “4 Things You Can Do Now to Support Adoptees Rights” says those interested in working for adoptees rights and unsealing their past should first educate themselves on adoption laws and regulations and then consider taking the step of identifying the states that are the most adoptee-friendly and helping push other states to adopt similar laws and regulations on behalf of adoptees.

According to www.childwelfare.gov, in nearly all states, adoption records remain sealed and withheld from public inspection after an adoption is finalized. However, most states have instituted procedures, allowing parties to an adoption to obtain both nonidentifying and identifying information from an adoption record while still protecting the interests of all parties. As of 2018, nine states have unrestricted access to original birth certificates, while 20 states have conditional or other access. Four states have restricted access and pending legislation, while 17 states remain restricted. To see what the availability of adoption records in your state, please go to Adoptee Rights by State.

The article “A Birth Parent’s ‘Right to Privacy’ vs. an Adoptee’s ‘Right to Know’” asks the question, “Whose rights are more important?” Author Tom Andriola makes the case that “Hiding the truth is not the way to protect a birth parent’s right to privacy. That’s what common decency and existing laws are for.”

For more information on how to get involved with continuing to push for adoptee legal rights, please check out the Adoption.com article “How to Open Adoption Records.”

Crossing Borders

“Love knows no reason, no boundaries, no distance. It has a sole intention of bringing people together to a time called forever.” -Unknown

International adoption continues to be the best solution in response to statistics that show an estimated 10 to 24 million children are living in institutions and more than 60 million children are living on the streets today. For more information on international adoption, please visit Adoption.com’s International Adoption Guide.

Most international adoptions continue to be closed adoptions. In many cases, though, birth family information is provided to adoptive parents along with the finalized adoption decree, which can then be shared with adopted children. This may include the child’s original birth certificate information, birth mother’s name, some medical history (if it was provided) and some social history (if it was provided). In some countries, adoptees are now able to obtain their adoption records at a certain age—either from the orphanage or from the social services department. As with domestic adoptions, many older adoptees are seeking out adoption registries and using social media platforms to search for birth family information. Oftentimes in an attempt to find answers that were not provided at the time of their adoptions and/or that were kept from them by their adoptive family.

For obvious reasons, having early access to this information has proven beneficial to many internationally adopted children with special needs or other medical conditions requiring having as much background information as possible. Not to mention having basic information—birth family and social history that adoptive parents can share as their children begin to ask the same questions that kids who have been adopted domestically do.

According to the Travel.State.Gov website, the U.S. government reports that there have been approximately 250,000 international adoptions recorded in the past 15 years, most adopted before the age of 2. In an attempt to protect the legal rights of internationally adopted children, it was adoptive parents in the 1990s who worked together to lobby for the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 (CCA), which made intercountry adoption easier by eliminating extra red tape and automatically granting citizenship to internationally adopted children. Unfortunately, this Act did not cover thousands of older adoptees who were born outside of the United States earlier on.

According to an article that appeared in the Inquirer in 2018, “Foreign-born adoptees discover they’re not U.S. citizens,” thousands of international adoptees have discovered that they are not, in fact, citizens of the U.S. You may also have read the story about Adam Crapser, one of several adoptees in South Korea, who was deported from the U.S. because his adopted parents had failed to get him citizenship: “Deportation a Death Sentence to Adoptees After a Lifetime in the U.S.

According to the National Immigration Forum website, currently awaiting approval is The Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2018 (S. 2522; H.R. 5233), which will provide citizenship to individuals born outside of the United States who were adopted as children by American parents. The bill was introduced on March 8, 2018, in the U.S. Senate by Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) with two original cosponsors and in the U.S. House of Representatives by Reps. Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) and Adam Smith (D-Washington) with four original cosponsors. This bipartisan bill would fix a loophole that denies some adoptees the right to citizenship.

For more information concerning post-adoption guidance concerning international adoption, please visit the U.S. Department of State Travel.State.Gov and read What To Expect After Adoption. For information on the steps you need to take before and after a child immigrates to the U.S., please visit this link. The site explains the importance of familiarizing yourself first with U.S. federal law, the laws of your child’s birth country, as well as the laws of the state and/or territory where you live. Adopting families should also research the differences between Hague and non-Hague adoption and the process of immigrating older adopted children. Families should research the visa process before entering the U.S. as well as the needed steps to apply for U.S. citizenship upon having returned home with your adopted child, including going through the process of applying for a social security number for your child, as well as helping him or her obtain a U.S. Passport. See U.S. Citizenship for an Adopted Child for more information.

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Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.


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