Approximately 5 million Americans are adopted. It is quite common for an adult, adopted as an infant or child, to seek information about his biological family. The original birth certificate is an obvious place to start such a search as it contains information about one’s biological parents and place of birth. Once an adoption is finalized, the state’s health department, vital statistics bureau, issues an amended birth certificate. The amended birth certificate is issued to the adoptive parents, which includes their names and the child’s new name, if it was changed in the adoption process. Birth parent information is not included on the amended birth certificate and the original birth certificate is sealed and inaccessible to the public.
Adoption records have traditionally been sealed and inaccessible with few exceptions. Federal law provides for confidentiality of children in the child welfare or foster system, but leaves oversight of original birth certificate access to the states. A court order to unseal adoption records is required in 25 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and US territories. Recently, some states have enacted laws granting easier access to original birth certificates. An original birth certificate contains information such as a birth parent’s name and address and the name of the hospital where the child was born. State legislatures grapple with what may be competing interests of an adult adoptee’s wishes to find out his/her biological history and those of birth parents, who may wish to remain anonymous.
At least 4 states, Alabama, Alaska, Maine and Oregon allow access to original birth certificates without a court order and without a birth parent’s consent. A few states now allow adoptees to request and access original birth certificates unless a birth parent has specifically requested the information remain sealed. These states include Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma and Washington. Many states have begun to allow access to original birth certificates but impose restrictions, such as a waiting period or with redacted birth parent names.
Arguments against allowing unfettered or complete access to original birth certificates include fears that the potential loss of privacy and anonymity would prevent women from participating in adoptions and cause unnecessary suffering to a birth parent who does not want to be found. Advocates for maintaining privacy argue that there are already procedures in place, such as voluntary and mutual consent adoption registries wherein adoptees and birth parents agree to release identifying information. At least 30 states have set up mutual consent registries or confidential intermediary programs where specially trained adoption intermediaries are allowed to search for biological relatives of adult adoptees. Other states allow for the release of non-identifying information only, such as medical history.
The first step to take to obtain your original birth certificate is to contact the county clerk in the county in which you were adopted. The county clerk will educate you on the local rules and explain what documents are needed to file if your state requires a court to order the unsealing of adoption records. New York, like several other states, requires emergency situations such as medical reasons to open sealed adoption records. Even if your request is granted, you may be required to hire an intermediary such as an attorney to be given access to the file and extract only medical and non-identifying information. Original birth certificates remain available only upon court order. New York does maintain an Adoption Information Registry, on which adult adoptees (18 yrs of age and older) may register to receive identifying information. When a match is confirmed, the registry will notify the parties and the court where the adoption occurred to request each registrant’s final consent to the release of the information.
For information on all states’ adoption legislative policies pertaining to the release of original birth certificates, visit americanadoptioncongress.org/state.php