A recurring theme heard from adopted children is that they wish to know more about their biological parents. This understandable desire to know one’s origins has been balanced by the courts and State statutes with the right of parents giving their children up for adoption to maintain anonymity if they wish.
In general, the law provides that medical reason can allow abridgement of the privacy rights of the parents but in most cases the law does not require disclosure of identity information simply because the child wishes it. That said, there are often alternative ways to determine the identity of biological parents aside from court process though the pros and cons have to be carefully pondered by the child seeking such information.
The basic law concerning the adopted child’s right to information is presented here, along with some practical considerations and methods to keep in mind.
The Basic Law:
Legally, adoption is the statutory process of terminating a parent’s legal rights and duties towards its biological children and substituting similar rights and responsibilities with his or her adoptive parents. An adoption thus severs parental responsibilities and rights of the biological parent or parents and transfers those responsibilities and rights to the adoptive parent or parents. A legal parent-child relationship is created between individuals who are not biologically parent and child. Biological parents are also referred by terms such as original parents, natural parents or birth parents. State law controls both the process and the legal rights of the parties.
If the proposed adoptee is over the age of ten, twelve, or fourteen, certain states will require his or her consent before allowing adoption. All the 50 states have statutes governing adoption. Only eight of them have adopted the Uniform Adoption Act. This article, however, shall concentrate only on the law concerning information available to the child.
TYPES OF INFORMATION:
Accessible information of birth parents of an adoptee may be of three different types:
Non identifying information includes their general appearance, religion, ethnicity, race, education, occupation, etc. The name of the agency that arranged the adoption and the facts and circumstances relating to the nature and cause of the adoption also includes non identifying information.
Identifying information of the birth parents or other birth family members are their current names and addresses.
Medical and psychological information of the birth parents may be given to a state registry any time after the adoption. The information is important to adoptees because it can indicate if they have a higher risk of some diseases.
Generally, medical information is usually available in most states via a state registry but other information is generally restricted and the amount of the restriction depends on which state handled the adoption. State laws vary widely on whether adopted children can have access to the names of their biological parents. Recent state court decisions favor the rule that an adoptee may have access to the name of his or her biological/birth parents and court records and documents pertaining to the adoption. Generally the records would be available to the adoptee only with a court order upon a showing of good cause. See for example, In re J.N.H., 2009 Colo. App. LEXIS 569 (Colo. Ct. App. Apr. 16, 2009).
Certain states mandate the state registrar to prescribe and make available to any birth parent (named on an original birth certificate in the records of the state registrar) a contact preference form on which the birth parent may state a preference regarding contact by an adult adoptee, an adult descendant of an adoptee, or a legal representative of the adoptee or descendant.
In certain states, adopted children may get access to the medical records of their biological parents where states have implemented such an adoption registry. The adoption registry allows consenting biological parents to submit family medical history, accessible to adopted children. States that have such registries include Pennsylvania (Act 1984-195 and 28 Pa. Code 1.49), Colorado (C.R.S. 19-5-305 (2008), Florida, and Rhode Island. This is not an exhaustive list and other states may have similar registries as well.
Right to Relationship with Biological Parents Does Not Exist
The effect of the final decree of adoption is to, “terminate all legal relationships between the adopted individual and his natural relatives, including his natural parents, so that the adopted individual thereafter is a stranger to his former relatives for all purposes.” When a natural parent consents to the adoption of a child by another person, the consenting parent’s relatives lose their legal rights to visitation because such rights are derivative of the consenting parent’s rights and likewise are terminated when parental rights are ended.
Public policy favors a complete severance of the relationship between the adopted child and its biological family in order to further the best interest of the child. Suster v. Arkansas Dep’t of Human Services, 314 Ark. 92, 858 S.W.2d 122 (1993).
Although statutory declarations of public policy favor the rights of an adoptive family over the interests of biological relatives, when a choice between the rights of two parties requires a decision, courts at times also look into the circumstances to see who truly and sincerely cares for the child and what other circumstances would apply to the situation.
Adoptees who are now adults are generally free to seek out their biological parents and often do so. However, the methods they use are not court process but investigation, often by professionals. There is no “right” on the part of the biological parent to stop such a search, though the effect of the search may be extremely damaging to family relationships, as discussed below.
State Differences and Resources:
Certain states like Alabama and Colorado have set up State registries which provide contact preference and medical history forms. The contact preference form allows the birth parent to voluntarily include the birth parent’s contact information and provides the birth parent with options to indicate a preference regarding whether the birth parent would prefer future contact with the adoptee or adult descendant. Medical history forms may be submitted to the state registrar with the completed contact preference form. Such medical history statement should contain a brief narrative statement written by the birth parent indicating medical information about the birth parent or other biological relatives.
The records are accessible to the adult adoptee, the adult descendant of the adoptee, or the legal representative of the adoptee or descendant, upon submission of a written application form, proof of identity, and an explanation of the person’s relationship to the adoptee.
Conversely, in Pennsylvania an adult adoptee or his or her legal representative can access the files of the court relating to adoption only upon an order of the court. (23 Pa.C.S. § 2905). The information will be disclosed only if the natural parents consent to the disclosure of information. The natural parents may withdraw their consent at any time by filing a withdrawal of consent form with the court and the department. No medical history of the birth parents will be released which would endanger the anonymity of the natural parents. If both the natural parents are deceased, their identities may be disclosed. If one parent is deceased, his or her identity may be disclosed. If only one parent agrees to the disclosure, then only the information relating to the agreeing parent will be disclosed.
Some other states which release adoption information by court order are New York, California, Michigan, Washington, Wyoming and New Jersey. In New York, medical grounds may be considered as a good cause for the court to grant access to the adoption records.
Florida Statute, Fla. Stat. § 63.165 (2009) provides a person who enters information in the registry an option to limit the persons to whom he or she is consenting to release this information. The persons shall be limited to the adoptee and the birth parents, adoptive parents, birth siblings, and maternal and paternal birth grandparents of the adoptee.
Tennessee code (Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-127), provides that information from any records shall be released by the department only to the parents, siblings, lineal descendants, or lineal ancestors, of the adopted person or of a person for whom records are maintained. The records shall be released only with the express written consent given to the department by the adopted person or of a person for whom records are maintained. A person who gets access to such information is generally subject to all the requirements of the contact veto process.
Practical Considerations and Conclusions:
Most people seeking to reconnect with biological parents are doing so for emotional reasons. They wish to know their own history, to know why adoption occurred, to connect with a family that they know nothing about. Deeper, many feel anger or betrayal and wish to know why they were abandoned. It is to avoid this type of confrontation that the laws seek to protect the identities of the biological parents so often. There is often shame or a feeling of failure on the part of the biological parent who has rebuilt his or her life and the states are worried that adoption would be imperiled if the person thinking of giving his or her child up for adoption worried about future confrontations or revelations.
People change and lives change. A person desperate economically and emotionally in her twenties or teens can become a successful powerful business person or professional with a family in two decades. This may mean they are willing and able to meet their former child…or they wish that part of their life forever forgotten.
That said, it is far from impossible to track down a former parent if one is willing to persevere and spend monies on professional investigators to do the tracing. There is nothing illegal in the effort and our firm has seen it succeed more often than not. The question then arises as to what the child does with the information. Is contact actually made?
Somewhat surprisingly, the experience of our firm is that once the child discovers the information about the biological parent quite often no further contact is made. It is as if curiosity has been satisfied and the need to establish a real relationship-or to try to do so-is secondary.
In those instances in which actual contact is made, the establishment of a long term good relationship is the exception. There are often meetings, perhaps a dinner or two, but the parent and child, often from extremely diverse economic and educational backgrounds by now, find they have little in common other than genes. And, of course, once in a while, a new parent child relationship is created. Note, however, that the challenge is greater than just the biological parent and child but often the adoptive parents and brothers and sisters and their feelings have to be considered.
The drive to attempt it may be overwhelming for some people and as with most family issues, emotion often trumps all practical considerations. What must be considered, however, is that the number of people affected and the need for extreme care in reestablishing relationships has to be factored into the decision of what steps make sense.
Recognizing this fact, certain states have actually created forums to assist in seeking to bridge the gap.
List of State Registries and Forums which Facilitate Reunion Between Adoptees and their Birth Relatives.
- Arkansas Mutual Consent Voluntary Adoption Registry, Arkansas Department of Human Services.
- California Search and Reunion Forum, California Department of Social Services Adoption System Unit.
- Colorado Voluntary Adoption Registry.
- Delaware Search and Reunion Forum.
- Florida Adoption Reunion Registry (FARR), Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitation Services.
- Georgia Reunion Registry.
- Hawaii Family Court Central Registry.
- Idaho Voluntary Adoption Registry, Vital Records Section
Center for Vital Statistics and Health Policy.
- Illinois Adoption Registry, Illinois Department of Public Health.
- Indiana Adoption History Registry, Indiana State Department of Health.
- Iowa Mutual Consent Voluntary Adoption Registry, Iowa Department of Public Health.
- Kansas Search and Reunion Forum.
- Kentucky Adoption Registry, Department for Social Services.
- Louisiana Adoption Registry.
- Maine State Adoption Reunion Registry, Office of Vital Records.
- Maryland‘s Mutual Consent Voluntary Adoption Registry. Maryland Department of Human Resources.
- Massachusetts Adoption Registry, Massachusetts Department of Social Service.
- Michigan Central Adoption Registry, Department of Human Services.
- Mississippi Search and Reunion Forum.
- Missouri Adoption Information Registry, Division of Family Services.
- Montana Search and Reunion Forum.
- Nebraska Search and Reunion Forum.
- Nevada Search and Reunion Forum, Division of Child and Family Services Adoption Registry.
- New Hampshire Search and Reunion Forum.
- New York Adoption Information Registry, New York State Health Department.
- New Jersey Department of Children and Families, Division of Youth and Family Services.
- North Carolina Search and Reunion Forum.
- North Dakota Search and Reunion Forum, North Dakota Department of Human Services, Adoption Search/Disclosure.
- Ohio Adoption Registry, or the “Mutual Consent Registry”.
- Oklahoma Voluntary Adoption Reunion Registry, Department of Human Services.
- Oregon Search and Reunion Forum.
- Pennsylvania Search and Reunion Forum.
- Rhode Island Search and Reunion Forum.
- South Carolina Adoption Reunion Registry.
- South Dakota Voluntary Registry.
- Tennessee Reunion Registry.
- Texas Reunion Registry.
- Utah Search and Reunion Forum, Utah Department of Health – Vital Statistics.
- Vermont Adoption Registry.
- Virginia Search and Reunion Forum.
- West Virginia Mutual Consent Voluntary Adoption Registry.
- Wisconsin Search and Reunion Forum, Wisconsin Division of Children & Family Services.
- Wyoming Search & Reunion Board
It makes sense to contact the relevant agency to discuss methods, concepts and recommendations. One client told the author after deciding not to contact her father who we had located that she had filled a gap in her own identity, now knew her roots and that search, rather than knowing this man, was what had been her driving force. “He disappeared on me when I was born for his own good reason, I suppose. At least from his point of view. And I don’t feel like arguing with him about it now, thirty years later. I didn’t search for him for him but for me. I searched to find what I needed to know about myself. I am satisfied now.”
But she had great adoptive parents, a full life with a full family and felt no need to reconnect. It is easy to contemplate others who feel the need for family who would go to the next step and seek a relationship.
Just remember: all legal rights and obligations have been extinguished under the law. There is no duty to meet and reestablish a relationship on the part of either party. It is entirely a question of choice.