Sunday, March 21, 2010

Adoption Access Laws and Policies are Upside Down and Backwards

I want to suggest that the conventional understanding of adoption
should be turned on its head.
Rickie Solinger, Beggars and Choosers

Everywhere in In most of the world births are documented. One’s birth certificate is the basis for all identification and benefits within one’s jurisdiction and the ability to travel outside its borders. Whether publicly accessible or not, it is the property of those named on it - the child and the parents - who have unfettered access to it.

When people are adopted in America and other industrial nations, they are issued not a document stating that they have been adopted, but rather an entirely new “certificate of birth” as if “born again” to their new legal and entirely different set of parents. This “certificate of birth” called “amended” replaces the original birth certificate (OBC). It changes to whom the child was ”born”, the child’s given name and cal often changes the place and date of birth as well as in some cases his race, becoming a state committed fraudulently issued document that one’s entire life from that point forward based on.

In the post WWII era, when thousands of babies were placed for adoption to protect mothers’ reputations from the stigma of having birthed an “illegitimate” child outside of marriage, it became common practice state by state for the OBC to be sealed and secretive even to those to whom it would otherwise belong. The intent was to make the adopted child “as if born” into his adoptive family in a way that he never had to know that he was adopted, which it was felt might make him feel “different.” The child was at the behest of his adopters to reveal the truth, or to live out his life falsely believing that his psychological parents are in fact his genetic progenitors.

The result has been that instead of preventing stigmas for relinquishing mothers and adopted persons, it legitimized them. Adoption became a legalized “dirty secret” not just from the public, but for the parties to the adoption itself.

Mothers who lost children to adoption had to add the agony of not knowing if their children were alive and well cared for to the trauma of their loss and feelings of shame and guilt foisted upon them for having soiled their parents’ good names. They coped in various ways, many doing as they were told and maintaining the secrecy – never telling anyone – living silently with their unrecognized, unmourned, limbo loss and irrevocable lifelong grief.

Some adoptees have lived into adulthood not knowing they were adopted. Others are told that they were adopted and born to “another woman” and nothing more. They too are thus consigned to silence and secrecy – often feeling a sense of rejection and fearing being rejected again if they asked too many questions about a verboten subject. Amidst a national fascination with genealogy, adoptees report being told their natural curiosity about their heritage is indicative of a lack of “gratitude.”

Beliefs about secrecy are changing. Recognizing that secrets are almost revealed creating feelings of betrayal, current thinking in adoption practice is for more openness. As newly occurring domestic adoptions are often open from the start today, states deal with reversing draconian laws which sealed the OBCs from adoption separated persons. Six states have various degrees of access, some with stipulations such as providing mothers an opportunity to “veto” their child’s access to their own OBC or contact, or requiring intermediaries for contact, thus keeping this population infantilized and marginalized.

State legislators struggle with what seems to be a balancing act between the rights of the adoptee to his own birth certificate, and the alleged right of mothers and fathers to anonymity. Lacking any documentation of any such promises made to mothers at the time of relinquishment, proponents of continued secrecy claim it was “assumed.”

The absurdity of this claim that OBCs remains sealed to protect mothers privacy is glaring when one recognizes that everything short of her identity is exposed, including things that are far more delicate, private, and potentially devastating in a day and age when people are able to find one another, circumventing the sealed record. Adoptive parents are routinely given medical, social and cultural history as are returning adult adoptees. While such information redacts names – which the adoptive parents may have on an adoption decree – it contains information gathered via confidential counseling sessions between the expectant or new mothers and social workers, clergy or their representatives. As such, this information should be protected under HIPAA’s health information privacy rules. Ironically, many adoption agencies deny mothers who relinquished access to such files about themselves. And no other persons have access to their parents’ medical or confidential counseling files without their permission.

Adoption files routinely contain women’s gynecological history including age of first sexual relation, number of partners, STDS, number of pregnancies and number of pregnancy terminations, spontaneous or otherwise. Such information is not genetic and of no value for the health of the adoptee and would not be accessible by a non-adopted person about his or her mother. Also included are psychological evolutions of women at a time of great stress with judgments such as “hysterical”, depressed, or “ flat” and emotionless.

It is absurd and preposterous that this personal and confidential information contained in adoption agency records is routinely sought and provided – while at the same time alleging “protection of mothers’ privacy.” Parents who relinquished their children, relinquished no other rights or protection under the constitution. Yet the birth certificates, which should be the property of the parties named therein, is denied to the adoptee and often to the mother as well.

Such practices are uʍop ǝpısdn and backwards and treat adoptees and their original family members in ways that no other citizens are treated, discriminating against them and denying them rights equal to all others. They are simultaneously denied the right to access and the right to protection of confidential records.

There is no justification in U.S. law to mandate laws that apply only to certain people based on their birth status. The only fair, just and equitable solution to equalize these populations is for all states to cease withholding original birth certificates from the parties named therein and to stop the practice of releasing confidential information intended to placate curious adoptees while further violating their mothers.

Testifying at a recent legislative hearing about proposed NJ bill regarding adoptee access to records, Adam Pertman, adoptive father and executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, said that it is time to see beyond simply thinking adopted people only want or need their medical histories. Having their original birth certificate and the names of their original parents represents a much deeper need and should be their right, not only for their psychological health and sense of well-being, but also making them equal to the rest of us who always had this information. (

Other than a right to privacy of health records, and confidential counseling conversations with social workers and clergy, there is no other law that protects anyone’s secrets or lies. Every day past affairs and out-of-wedlock children come back into people’s lives with no law to prevent it from happening. Adoptees and their original families need to be made whole and treated with the same respect – and face the same consequences – as all others and not have laws that apply only to them.

Most mothers who placed children for adoption long to know they are well. Adoptees who find their mothers are welcomed approximately 90% of the time. In the first year that records were opened in Oregon 5,318 requests were made by adoptees for records and only 58 birth parents did not want contact. In Delaware there were 414 requests for records by adoptees and only 14 birth parents did not want contact. Laws protect the majority, not the few. Those who do not want any intrusion into their lives have every right to say no if and when a child comes calling. Sufficient legal protection exist to protect all citizens from unwanted intrusions if they become harassing.

Legislators and grassroots reformers need to remove all language that is vague in reference to access of adoption agency “files” or “records” and become clear, concise and explicit in requesting access to the original birth certificate to all parties named therein as a restoration of denied human rights. Even Bastard Nation, which began with a strong theoretical differentiation between one's right to their OBC and search and "medical and psychological need to know" does not maintain that distinction in their mission and blurs the lines by using the term "records."

Equality very simply means “the same as” – not less nor more than any others have legal access to. Any and all medical and social history can be acquired the same way all other non-adopted people acquire theirs – by asking their parents. And all mothers and fathers have every right to reveal as much or as little as they see fit to reveal, thus balancing everyone’s rights. The alternative is for original parents to voluntarily sign a waiver and or to file updated medical information.

Mothers who relinquished have long been oppressed and silenced by society, or simply concerned with reunification to ease their concerns for the well-being of their children. They are now becoming increasingly aware of and vocal about their rights. In a climate where mothers’ rights have long been pitted against adoptees rights, keeping the issues clearly defined in this manner will defuse opposition from mothers who oppose violation of their HIPAA rights.

Clarifying the vagaries of terms such as “records” will likewise help legislators, reformers and the public rights and also help assuage opposition of some state ACLU branches. Reformers and legislators need to get back to basics, keep it simple, and keep the focus on equality, something all Americans can understand and support and legislators are wont to deny.


Peach said...

Great article, thanks for writing it.

I so wish we could post web addresses on "comment" sections of local newspapers, but they won't allow it. Take a look at some of the comments left at this letter to the editor I wrote last week.

Mirah Riben said...

Those comments are mean, evil and ignorant! Shows how much work we need to do.

Cully said...

Part one...
Amen! Yes, as has been pointed out over and over again, people do not understand that adoption records and birth records are two very different things. Though they both contain personal information about people, the "people" are two separate entities... one being adults at the time when the other was either not born yet or just born. Let's all stop using the word "record(s)" and start using terms that identify exactly what we are talking about.

Cully said...

Part two...
This year - The Year of the Census - is (IMHO) a perfect year to address how the denial of Adult Adoptee Access to our OBCs can (and probably has) affected our country through irronious Census results. When I was a little girl, I told people that I was French, Irish, and German (A-Mom was French and a-Dad was Irish/German), then when I understood more I told people that I was French and Irish/English (because my a-Dad was dead and my a-Mom had been told that I was Irish/English)... well, in 2005 when I went to court I got my OBC and guess what?? I'm NOT Irish and English.
Thank you Mirah, for always bringing the issues into focus and making us use our brains!! Cully

d28bob said...

"Any and all medical and social history can be acquired the same way all other non-adopted people acquire theirs – by asking their parents. And all mothers and fathers have every right to reveal as much or as little as they see fit to reveal, thus balancing everyone’s rights. The alternative is for original parents to voluntarily sign a waiver and or to file updated medical information."

Mirah, I don't disagree that the best way for adoptees to learn of their medical and social history is from their original parents. But please bear in mind that many of us don't KNOW who our parents are, and our only source is the agencies and courts who brokered our transferal from our families of origin to our adoptive families. How are we to even know who to ask or where to look?

And what are we to do if we find that our birth parents cannot be found, or have passed away? I know this is a tough emotional subject for first parents, but should we adoptees be denied even what little information might be in our files in even that case?

I grant that much of the information may be incomplete, biased, or incorrect, but do we only deserve NOTHING in such cases? Not every agency worker was dishonest, though many were. I too would prefer to hear the truth from my own mother's mouth, but that may never happen.

The ideal situation is for first parents to voluntarily submit updated history to the agency with directions it be shared with the adopted person, along with the parent's version of any other information they wish to share, in case death interrupts any possibility of reunion.

I think we all want to resolve this issue with compassion and respect for each other. Surely we who have the most at stake in adoption should lead the way!

AdoptAuthor said...

"please bear in mind that many of us don't KNOW who our parents are."

This is what access to OBCs all about!

"The ideal situation is for first parents to voluntarily submit updated history"

I absolutely agree!

"And what are we to do if we find that our birth parents cannot be found, or have passed away?"

This is a tragedy indeed - but what do non-adopted people whose parents desert and they cannot be found? What do we do if our parents die before we have a chance to ask them or if they simply refuse to tell us or give us vague answers, e.g. I was always told my grandparents died of "old age."

Once you know your parents names on the OBC you can access death certificates. That was my only option, and I'm not adopted.

You will not like this, but there is no way tat anyone "deserves" anything simply because they were adopted that non-adoptees don't.
You give your possible scenarios, and I till tell you that many of us are concerned with other scenarios: adoptees seeking to get what they want without having to be "bothered" actually meeting us. Adoptees finding such offensive info that they decide not to meet. And we are left hanging.

But not none of it matters..

You "deserve" equality - nothing less and nothing more. You do NOT "deserve" to violate out privacy - no matter how tragic your loss. We all suffered a tragic loss. We don't violate you or your adoptive parents because of our loss...

O Solo Mama said...

Quick correction. Unregistered births are not documented in China with accurate info. The child may be handed to another family to register but that info will be that new family's info. But we are talking millions.

O Solo Mama said...

Peach, despite the ignorant comments (and they sounded more uneducated than ignorant, like he had never looked at it another way) from Rockfan, many people seemed to do an OK job of setting the record straight. But it certainly did show how much burning stupid there is out there.

AdoptAuthor said...

Thanks, In far smaller numbers that happens even here....informal adoptions, sometimes within families. In some case, a mother is check into the hospital under the adoptive mother's name and thus no OBC. Also, of course there are abandoned babies.

Chris said...

I was born of an unwed mother that was allowed to keep me in 1946. My mother never revealed to me who my natural father was, she took that to the grave with her. Was that unfair to me, probably, but was I going to do about her choosing not to reveal my nfather's identity? Torture her, bring a lawsuit against her, blackmail her, continue to harangue her for that information? Nope I did not..she was my mother, and yeah sure, I would have liked to have known who the other person was that makes up 50% of my DNA, but it simply wasn't in the cards for me to know.
The most important piece of paper one can get their hands on is an OBC. That OBC will open roads to the adopted person, roads that were blocked before. If an adopted person finds the nmother has passed away, you can then order the death certificate, learning the indentities of the natural grandparents and thus one can be on the road to finding other family members past and present. This is what I have done since my mother passed away and so has a 2nd cousin of mine who's grandfather died (her grandfather who lived a life of lies to his own children and wife). This 2nd cousin found me on Genes Reunited (UK), we share the same maternal bloodlines..her grandfather was my mother's brother. 2nd cousin ordered my grandfather's death certificate and the roads were opened to both of us. I have now contacted many people on my mother's side, who I knew nothing about nor they of me. They were welcoming and they shared a lot of information and history with me, as I did with them. That OBC is what will open the door..not bits of erroneous, biased and very old info held in some file cabinet at an adoption agency office. Adoptees need to be very specific and very focused...that of and on the Original Birth Certificate..that is the piece of paper that will unlock doors that are now locked to you. I am not encumbered by adoption laws because my bastard status was not legitimatized by the act of adoption. I was born illegitmate, yet I have the freedom to speak to people, because I was given my original birth certificate when I was 15 yrs old. I am free to contact any maternal family members, because no contact vetoes/permissions or threat of penalty hang over my illegit head.
Adoptees you want those OBCs free of vetoes and threats of fines and penalties. To compromise this by saying Yay to any manner of bill that includes further intrusion by the government, is what will forever chain you as an adopted person. You want equality, not 'special' status as a segregated population of people. That 'special' status has been forced upon you since the day you were adopted, how well as that 'special' status served you to date? I'm thinking, not very well in my estimation. Sealed OBCs are not about protecting the nmother nor the adopted is very much about protecting the business of adoption in America and adoptive parents. Please read this..
Consent or Coercion?
How Mandatory Open
Records Harm Adoption
By Thomas C. Atwood†

And this is what the NOW org gave reference to recently as an opposition to "Open Records" in the state of Michigan. That bill was shot down. You can find the bill here..notice all the inclusions about 'medical history'.

AdoptAuthor said...

Thank you, Chris, for a very succinct example of what I replied above.

Anonymous said...

kitta here:

some people just don't believe in "medical history' at all. My mother is one of those people.

She believes in Christian Science. She also says there are no diseases in her family. She believes that illness is caused by bad thoughts, bad food, and breathing bad air.

There is truth to her beliefs to some extent but not for every possible medical issue. But she is very old and has stayed pretty healthy and is not going to change.

There are quite a few people like my mother, and I think that it has to be remembered that people do have the choice whether and how to approach medical care.

Everyone does not have a full and complete family medical history. A lot of people don't have much at all.

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