In this era of more open adoptions, my guess is that few people in the population at large even realize that the original birth certificates of adopted children in the US are routinely sealed. Although we adoptees are well aware that adopted people are expected to live for life with amended birth certificates that list their adoptive mothers and fathers as the people who conceived and bore them, many people, I suspect, are not so aware. I'm not basing this assumption on any data -- just the fact that most people I meet are shocked when I share the realities of adoption law.
I've been going into my local Apple store for one-on-one computer training for about six weeks now. Every instructor I've met has been stunned when I've related the fact that adoptees' original birth certificates are sealed for life, and that adult adoptees have no legal access to them in most states. They just assume that adoptees have access, because they hear that most adoptions are open now, or they have read the popular, human interest reunion stories, the media's favorite adoption subject.
Unfortunately, the media tends to focus on the reunions themselves, not the history of the obstructive laws that block the exchange of information between adoptees and their original families. The media could help adult adoptees regain their civil rights by delving into the history a bit and correcting the myths that the adoption industry and other opponents continue to disseminate.
But newspapers are in business to make money, and feel-good reunion stories sell. We're still waiting for the investigative journalism that would uncover the link between corruption and secrecy in adoption. The stories are out there, but they remain hidden, for the most part, and I'm sure the industry likes it that way. What better way to remain in control of the entire adoption process than to keep the records that would ensure integrity and accountability permanently sealed?
Sealed records, as most adoption reformers know, are a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the year 1940, adoptions in America were usually open and informal. One notable exception to the rule was the Tennessee Children's Home Society, operated by the infamous Georgia Tann from the 1920's through 1950. Tann, highly respected in society at the time, often removed poor children from their homes under false pretenses and then "amended" their birth certificates so that she could cover her tracks and more easily sell them to wealthy adopters. In most cases, original birth certificates were destroyed. Tann was eventually charged with stealing or otherwise separating 5,000 children from their families so that they could be adopted by notable, well-connected couples. She was able to run her fraudulent adoption ring for decades because a "save the children" message always resonates with the public, and secret birth records virtually guarantee that there will be little or no accountability.
The legal practice of sealing adoptees' birth records did not exist before the mid-20th century and did not become prevalent across the states until after the 1960's. As we know now, the intent was misguided but probably benevolent, although Tann's story in hindsight clearly shows the dangers of amending and sealing birth records. In the 1950's and 60's, social workers believed that those families formed through adoption should be viewed just like those families formed through birth. By sealing birth records, they believed they were protecting children from the "shame of illegitimacy," and adoptive parents from "unwarranted intrusion" by the original family. As legal scholar Elizabeth Samuels points out in her thorough history of the sealed records movement, protecting the confidentiality of birthparents was the last thing on anyone's mind.
As late as the 1960's, adoptees in 20 states were still permitted to see their birth records, but then gradually, states began sealing the documents, one-by-one, although two states, Kansas and Alaska, never did. It didn't take long for adoptees to start complaining about their second-class status as citizens, and during the 1970's, search and support groups began to organize across the country. In 1978, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare commissioned a panel of adoption professionals to draft model legislation that would serve as a guide for states to reform their adoption laws. Released in 1980, the Draft Model State Adoption Act recommended that all adoptees at the age of majority be given free access to their original birth certificates.
Unfortunately for adoptees, the HEW proposal spawned the growth of new and powerful groups that wanted to keep adoption secret, and as a result, protracted legislative wars occur in every state considering restoring adoptee access. In 1995, Tennessee became the first state to allow adoptees access to their own birth certificates -- the Georgia Tann scandal was most likely a contributing factor. Oregon followed suit in 2000, granting adult adoptees access at age 18. The decisions in both states were challenged legally, but opponents' arguments that abortions would increase and that birth mothers had been promised anonymity were refuted by the higher courts.
With so much evidence to support adult adoptee access -- empirical, professional and legal -- why doesn't legislation to restore adoptees' rights move forward more quickly? Part of the answer is that too many people don't know how sealed records came to be, don't know that the vast majority of original parents oppose them, or even that the practice of sealing records still exists. That ignorance makes it too easy for opponents to spread their misinformation.
Professionals in the media should be asking why the opposition to adoption reform is so fierce and so well-funded. They should be questioning the opposition's claims. We have facts now from all the states that have restored adult adoptee access, and those facts can be investigated. Editors and writers covering adoption stories should be better informed about the issues than the general population. Those who do their homework will discover that the facts in no way support the adoption industry's and the Catholic Conference of Bishops' position that birth records should remain sealed from the very people whose births they document.
Adoption may be more open today, but the original birth certificates of adoptees in most states remain permanently sealed. As a country, we should be ashamed that we continue to put the best interests of moneyed lobbies ahead of the best interests of adopted people.
As Nicole Burton wrote in 2010 in response to an essay opposing an Adoptee Rights Bill in NJ, "As a British adopted person who received her original birth certificate when the UK opened up its adoption records 33 years ago, I consider America to be a barbaric, backward country in the way it treats its adopted citizens. Nothing less than full human rights are at stake, and I expect to see the end of adoption as we know it in my lifetime, just as I have witnessed the end of the Soviet Union, South African apartheid, and the fall of the Berlin wall.
May it be done."
Adoptees Deserve Access to their Birth Records
The Strange History of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Records