If you were adopted in the era before open adoption became the norm, your access to adoption records may be limited. Sealed adoption records have posed serious problems for adult adoptees of closed adoptions who need access to medical information, or who simply feel that they have the right to learn more about their birth family and their own adoption.
Does Your State Have Open Adoption Records?
The availability of information to adoptees varies by state. States with open adoption records allow adult adoptees to request their original birth certificates, so obtaining basic information about your adoption should be fairly easy. Some states only allow partial access to adoption records, often with identifying information redacted, or have restrictions on the information that’s included in your adoption birth records.
States with open adoption records include:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New York
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
States with restricted or partial access to open adoption records include:
States with sealed adoption records or very limited access include:
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
How to Unseal Adoption Records in a Closed Record State
Just because you were adopted from a state with closed adoption records doesn’t necessarily end your adoption records search.
Here’s how to find adoption records for your adoption:
- Contact the county clerk of the county where you were adopted. They’ll walk you through that county’s process for requesting access to adoption records, and you’ll file a petition to receive your adoption birth records.
- After the petition has been received by the county court, you’ll usually meet with the judge at an appointed date to explain why you believe unsealing adoption records is necessary for you. TIP: Medical necessity is the most common reason that sealed adoption records are unsealed.
- If the judge denies your petition to request access to adoption records, you can usually request a confidential intermediary on your behalf. This intermediary may be able to contact your birth parents (if possible) and gain their consent to unseal the closed adoption records.
- If the intermediary finds that your birth parents are no longer living, access to adoption records will usually be released to you.
Open Adoption Records in History
Before 1940, adoptions were generally informal and open. There was very little stigma about adoption, and it was common for children to be placed for adoption whenever their birth parents were unable to care for them and adoptive parents wanted a child. Very few records of these adoptions exist because the process wasn’t carefully regulated, particularly in relative adoptions.
Prior to World War II, shifting attitudes that emphasized women in the role of wife/mother/homemaker led to the widespread belief that unwed birth mothers should place their children for adoption. Courts began to enforce sealed adoption birth records, and discouraged reference to the adoption to avoid the new sense of shame that was placed upon adoption in the U.S.
By 1960, 28 out of the 48 current states had shifted to closed adoption records. By 1990, only three states provided adult adoptees with access to adoption records upon request.
What Information Can You Still Receive with a Sealed Adoption Record?
Most states allow the release of non-identifying information to the adoptive parent of an adoptee who’s still a minor, or to an adult adoptee (18 or older) upon written request. Non-identifying information often includes:
- Birth date and location of adoptee’s birth
- Birth parent(s)’ age, race, ethnicity and medical history
- The birth parent’s general reason for adoption
- Ages of the birth parent(s)’ other children, if any
Twenty-seven states grant birth parents non-identifying information about the adopted child (typically medical and social history) upon request. Fifteen states allow the same access to birth siblings who are 18 or older. The amount of information available is regulated on a state-by-state basis.
Most states have systems in place that allow birth parents to consent to the release of their identifying information to the adoptee upon request. So if an adult adoptee requests their public adoption records and the birth parent has already issued their consent, the adoptee can obtain the name and/or contact information of that birth parent.
How to Find Adoption Records for Intercountry Adoption and Foster Care
Here are a few resources to get you started on finding adoption records for intercountry adoptions:
- International Social Services Searches
- Reciprocity by Country
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
Here are some resources for foster care adoptees:
- Completing the Circle: Uncovering, Discovering and Creating Connections for Your Foster and Adoptive Children
- Family Search: Reconnecting Youth in Foster Care to Family
- Foster Care Alumni
How to Join the Fight for Adoptee Rights
For many adoptees, sealed adoption records prevent them from accessing the most basic information about themselves. While adoption records are typically sealed to protect the privacy of the birth mother, 18 or more years later, the birth mother’s situation is likely no longer the same and the adoptee is now an adult.
Adoptee rights organizations, legislators, and adoption professionals are increasingly urging state representatives to allow adoptees access to their original birth certificates. Contact your local representatives to raise the issue of opening adoption records for adult adoptees and to learn more about what you can do to help provide adoptees with the same rights to their history as everyone else.
To learn more about how to search for birth family using the information that your adoption birth records provide, click here.