How An Adopted Person Can Find Their Birth Family

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In nearly all States, adoption records are sealed and withheld from public inspection after the adoption is finalized. To maintain the confidentiality of these records, most States have instituted procedures by which parties to an adoption may obtain nonidentifying and identifying information from an adoption record, while still protecting the interests of all parties.

Non-Identifying Information

Nonidentifying information is generally limited to descriptive details about an adopted person and the adopted person’s birth relatives. Nonidentifying information may include the following:

– Date and place of the adopted person’s birth

– Age of the birth parents and general physical description such as eye and hair color

– Race, ethnicity, religion, and medical history of the birth parents

– Educational level of the birth parents and their occupation at the time of the adoption

– Reason for placing child for adoption

– Existence of other children born to each birth parent

Nearly all States allow the adopted person to have access to nonidentifying information about birth relatives, generally upon written request. The adopted person must be an adult, usually at least 18 years of age, before he or she may access this information. Approximately 37 States and American Samoa have provisions in statute that allow access to nonidentifying information to an adoptive parent or a guardian of an adopted person who is still a minor. Some States allow birth parents access to nonidentifying information, and some States give such access to adult birth siblings. Additionally, States are allowed to charge a reasonable fee for providing the information. Policies on what information is collected and how that information is maintained and disclosed vary from State to State.

Restrictions on Release of Nonidentifying Information

A few jurisdictions are more restrictive about the release of information from adoption records. New Jersey and Guam require a party to obtain a court order before any information can be released. In Indiana and Pennsylvania, the person whose information is being sought must provide consent before information about him or her can be released. In Colorado, any party to the adoption can request that information not be disclosed.

The statutes in Illinois and Kansas allow the adoptive parents to receive medical and family information about the birth family. In addition, the adoptive parents may request the department to contact the birth parents any time, postadoption, for additional health information when there is a medical need.

Identifying Information

Identifying information is considered to be data that may lead to the positive identification of an adopted person, birth parents, or other birth relatives. Identifying information includes the current name of the person, but usually also includes an address or other contact information so that adopted persons and birth relatives can use the information to arrange personal contact with one another. The statutes in nearly all States permit the release of identifying information when the person whose information is sought has consented to the release.

A mutual consent registry is one method many States use to arrange the consents that are required for release of identifying information. A mutual consent registry is a system whereby individuals directly involved in adoptions can indicate their willingness or unwillingness to have their identifying information disclosed. Approximately 33 States have established some form of a mutual consent registry. Procedures for mutual consent registries vary significantly from State to State. Most registries require consent of at least one birth parent and an adopted person over the age of 18 or 21, or of adoptive parents of an adopted person who is still a minor, in order to release identifying information. Currently, 26 of the States that have registries require the parties seeking to exchange information to file affidavits consenting to release of their personal information. However, seven States will release information from the registry upon request, unless the affected party has filed an affidavit requesting nondisclosure.

Approximately 22 States allow biological siblings of the adopted individual to seek and release identifying information upon mutual consent. No consent is required for adopted persons in Louisiana and Texas to receive identifying information about birth parents who are deceased. Many States ask a birth parent to specify at the time of consent or relinquishment whether they are willing to have their identity disclosed to the adopted person when he or she is age 18 or 21. If consent is not on file, the information may not be released without a court order documenting good cause to release the information. A person seeking a court order must be able to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that there is a compelling reason for disclosure that outweighs maintaining the confidentiality of a party to an adoption.

Some States have imposed some limitations on the release of identifying information. Mississippi and South Carolina require the adopted person to undergo counseling about the possible consequences of contact with his or her family before any information is disclosed. In Connecticut, release of identifying information is prohibited if it is determined that the requested information would be seriously disruptive to any of the parties involved.

Other Methods of Obtaining Consent

States that have not established registries may use alternative methods for disclosing identifying information. Search and consent procedures authorize a public or private agency to assist a party in locating birth family members to determine if they consent to the release of information. Some States have a type of search and consent procedure called a confidential intermediary system. In this system, an individual called a confidential intermediary is certified by the court to have access to sealed adoption records for the purpose of conducting a search for birth family members to obtain their consent for contact. Other States use an affidavit system through which birth family members can file either their consent to the release of identifying information or a nonconsent to register his or her refusal to be contacted or to release identifying information. The written permission may be referred to as a consent, waiver, or authorization form.

Original Birth Certificate

When an adoption is finalized, a new birth certificate for the child is customarily issued to the adoptive parents. The original birth certificate is then sealed and kept confidential. In the past, nearly all States required a court order for adopted persons to gain access to their original birth certificates. In approximately 28 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, and Puerto Rico, a court order is still required to gain access to the original birth certificate, but in many States, the laws are changing to allow easier access to these records. Some of the methods now available include:

– Available through court order when all parties have consented

– Available upon request to the adult adopted person

– Available upon request to the adopt adopted person unless the birth parent has filed an affidavit denying release of confidential records

– Available to persons who have established their eligibility to receive identifying information through a State adoption registry

– Available when consents to release of identifying information from the birth parents are on file.

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