What Can I Do to Help Adult Adoptees Gain Access to their Original Birth Certificates?

We all have a right to information about ourselves, regardless of why that information might be important.

Maya Brown-Zimmerman June 25, 2016
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Imagine having part of your history erased. Growing up without part of your identity. Not being able to access answers. Then imagine that some of those answers exist, but the government has determined that you don’t have the right to know.

You don’t have the right to know your own story.

That’s what it’s like for hundreds of thousands of adoptees born in America. When a child is adopted, his or her original birth certificate (OBC) is sealed at finalization and an amended birth certificate (ABC) issued, with the names of the adoptive parents listed instead of the birth parents. Currently, 32 states do not allow adoptees to access their OBCs and another 11 states have “partial” or “restricted” access.

Restricted access can mean a variety of things. In Ohio, my state, it means that birth parents had the opportunity to request that their names be redacted from the OBC. Only if they were born in Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, or Rhode Island do adoptees have complete access. Without an open adoption (which is only recently the norm), adoptees have no information about a significant part of their history, making reunification that much more difficult.

Although there are multiple reasons an adoptee may want access to their original birth certificate, from trying to gain access to crucial medical information to making it easier to get a passport, the bottom line is that the information in that document is about the adoptee themselves, and we all have a right to information about ourselves, regardless of why that information might be important.

Lisa, an adult adoptee, sums this up well: “It’s MINE and I want it!!! I didn’t ask to be placed or adopted. Two sets of adults made major life decisions for me without my consent (which I’m grateful for, don’t get me wrong) but I’m a grown up now and people are still making life decisions for me like I’m a baby. If birth parents can choose to place and [adoptive parents] can choose to adopt, then the least everyone can do for the subject of the adoption is to allow them the privilege of knowing their own history.”

Betsie Norris, an adoptee in Ohio, spent twenty years working to get OBCs unsealed. That work came to fruition in April of 2015. Her story is pretty amazing (her adoptive father helped close Ohio records in the 1950s) and you can watch a short video about it here.

As with any adoptee rights initiative, adoptive parents have an obligation to get involved and help push legislation forward. So much of adoption law centers on what benefits adoptive parents, and it’s time for us to change that. Let’s talk about how you can get involved in the effort in your own state!

First, you need to know if your state allows access. American Adoption Congress has put together a listing. There are national organizations working to effect change, including American Adoption Congress, Adoptee Rights Coalition, and Adoption Alarm Network. Depending on your state, an initiative may already exist. Here is a list by the Adoptee Rights Coalition:

California Open

Colorado Triad Connection

Access Connecticut

Adoptee Rights Georgia

Adoption Circle of Hawaii

The White Oak Foundation (Illinois)

Indiana Hoosiers for Equal Access to Records

Kentucky Adoption Reform

Louisiana Adoptee Rights Campaign

Access Maryland

Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform

Missouri Adoptee Rights Movement and Missouri Open

New Jersey CARE

New York State Adoption Equality  and New York Statewide Adoption Reform

North Carolina Coalition for Adoption Reform

North Dakota Adoptee Rights

Adoption Network Cleveland (Ohio)

Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights

South Carolina Adoption Reform

Support Texas Adoptee Rights

What if you can’t find a current initiative in your state? American Adoption Congress has tips on creating a group, talking with legislators (including a script), and getting media involved. It only takes one person to start and like a snowball, your efforts can gain traction and numbers.

I’ll close with excerpts from the story of Matt, an adoptee who spent 11 years searching and challenging the courts for access to his original birth certificate, before his state finally unsealed all OBCs.

He began his search to get medical information for his daughters. “I petitioned the Rhode Island court to open the records (accompanied by my wife, both adoptive parents, AND a note from the doctor detailing how important it was to gather any and all info for my daughters’ treatment). I was given tiny little tiny bits of info. Dates of death for my bio grandparents (and causes of). Judge did NOT feel it was worth giving me the OBC. My search took off from there . . . every step led to a dead end. And eventually a deep depression for me. What started out as needing medical answers for the kids turned into a need to “know me.” Finally, RI changed their laws and I was able to get my hands on my OBC within days of them being released. I finally had a name. The day my OBC arrived, I called my wife. She recalls I was sobbing incoherently. It was such a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders.”

If you have hit a dead end in your adoption search, click here to connect with a professional who can help you find your birth family members. 

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Maya Brown-Zimmerman

Maya Brown-Zimmerman is a mother of three, both biologically and through adoption. She has been blogging since before it was cool, and is passionate about everything from open and ethical adoption to special needs advocacy and patient-physician communication. In her spare time (ha!) she's on the board of directors for a medical nonprofit and enjoys medical and crime dramas. You can read more from her on her blog, Musings of a Marfan Mom.


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