A Foster Child’s Family Tree: How To Find Adoption Records

In May 2014, New Jersey joined eight other states in opening up access to adoption records for adoptees. Today, the nature of open adoption record legislation across the United States is still evolving. For those foster children who were placed in care at a very young age, these records can represent a vital link to the past. Sometimes, however, the release of these records can also represent a violation of the biological parents’ wishes; the conflict between the rights of the adopted and the rights of the parents is central to understanding why many states still do not allow adoptees to find adoption records. For this reason, adoption record information is generally understood as belonging to one of two categories – identifying and nonidentifying information. As adoption law grows and adapts, more and more states are opening up these records and finding ways of navigating the complicated legal situations that spring up from these distinctions.

Find Adoption Records Legislation In Your State

What do these distinctions mean? According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, nonidentifying information includes (but is not limited to) the adoptee’s date and place of birth, physical descriptions of birth parents and their education levels . For almost every state, nonidentifying information is available to adoptive parents or adoptees, and roughly 26 states make similar information about the child available to birth parents.

The most contentious information in the adoption records debate, however, is identifying information. Generally, this includes (but is not limited to) the names and contact information of birth parents or adoptees, whether in the adoption records or on birth certificates – the exact sort of information adoptees seeking information on their biological heritage (or parents looking to remain unknown) are concerned with. In balancing the confidentially desires of parents with adoptees’ right to know their own histories, states have formed a spectrum of classifications that indicate the scenarios under which they will release identifying information like birth certificates. According to the American Adoption Congress, there are five different classifications that summarize how states provide access to this information. These classifications cover a multitude of different laws from the states and are as follows:

  • Unrestricted Access: Access for adult adoptees
  • Access with Restrictions: Access for adult adoptees with limits
  • Partial Access: Access for adult adoptees born during certain years
  • Partial with Restrictions: Access for adult adoptees born during certain years, and with limits
  • Sealed: Very limited or no access without, for example, a court order

Although seemingly straightforward enough, these categories can actually represent a wide variance in the rules states apply to adoption records. For instance, twenty-one states and the District of Columbia still keep their records “sealed.” South Carolina, however, has a rather sparse legal code that leaves much of the record request process shrouded in mystery. According to Adoptee Rights Law, the state seals the original birth certificates of adoptees and “it is unclear how it may be available or accessed by an adult adoptee if requested from the court later. While a provision in South Carolina law specifically requires the state registrar to supply an original birth certificate and any amended certificate to the registrant without restrictions, it is unclear how this provision has been used or interpreted in the past.” The law is vague and the process is unknown.

How to Find Adoption Records In Different States

In Washington D.C., however, both the birth certificate and adoption records can be made available through specific legal processes if certain criteria are met, and in some cases, superior courts may be required to weigh-in as “D.C. Superior courts are not in precise agreement about the scope of access an adoptee may have to court adoption records.” Even though both of these states are categorized under “Sealed,” their methods for handling a birth certificate request vary significantly.

When it comes to the partial or restricted access categories, many times the availability of a record will depend on previous laws, permission from the courts or the nature of the information. For instance, in Minnesota, within a six-month processing period after a request, the state is required to contact birth parents for permission to release the original birth certificate of the adoptee. If the biological parents have filed (and not revoked) an affidavit of consent to disclosure, a person adopted before August 1st of 1977 will then have to file a petition with the court – though a person born after that date will be given the information freely. According to the Star-Tribune, “Different rules apply to the more extensive records held by adoption agencies. In this case, the presumption of openness applies to people adopted on or after Aug. 1, 1982. For those adopted before that date, they must petition a juvenile court judge for access to the agency file.”

In Connecticut, adoptees adopted after October 1, 1983 can access their original birth certificates when they reach 18 years of age. In Delaware, there is no special date to denote eligibility for access – instead, upon turning 21, adoptees born in Delaware can get a copy of their original birth certificate unless birth parents have filed (and/or renewed every three years) a notarized statement to block such a disclosure.

Despite all this varied legislation and complexity, open adoption records are generally considered in the best interest of the children involved. In New Jersey, where about 170,000 people have been adopted since 1940, only 500 birth parents sought to block the release of birth certificates when given the opportunity. To facilitate this process which seems, even among birth parents, to be the best course of action, roughly 30 states have mutual consent registries, which will provide for the release of adoption records provide the involved parties have all signed the registry. New Jersey’s registry uses a contact preference form with three options for birth parents: Direct contact, contact through an intermediary or no contact whatsoever. Beyond that, birth parents have the ability to authorize adoptee’s access to identifying information – but the remaining nonidentifying information, like parental medical histories or the child’s developmental history, may be accessed freely by adoptive parents and adoptees alike.

To learn more about adoption record laws in New Jersey, visit here.

To see a full list of state adoption record restrictions, click here.

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