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For adoptees and their birth parents, the decision to later seek information about genetic parents and offspring can be emotionally charged and often filled with legal roadblocks. Before World War II, adoption records were generally open to the public and it was relatively easier to locate people. But since World War II, states have enacted regulations that give greater privacy protections to both parents and children. These laws make it more difficult to locate birth parents, and the children they gave up for adoption.
If you were involved in an adoption and are now are seeking information about genetic family members, your first step should be to identify and assemble all possible information from the adoptive parents, adoption agency and courts. Records related to adoption-related searches would include information:
- Birth certificates
- Court records
- Adoption agency records
The adoption agency or lawyer who handled the adoption may be able to provide “non-identifying information” about the birth parents. The laws vary from state-to-state, but this information is generally available to adoptive parents and adoptees who are at least 18 years old. In some states, non-identifying information is also available to birth parents and adult birth children who had a sibling given up for adoption. Non-identifying information may include:
- Date and place of the child’s birth
- Reason the child was placed up for adoption
- Parental health-related information, such as medical history, health status, cause of death and age of death (if either birth parent is deceased)
- Physical characteristics of the parents, such as height, weight, hair color and eye color
- The parents’ ethnicity
- The parents’ educational information and professional accomplishments
- The parents’ religion
To ensure personal privacy, different laws govern the release of identifying information, which may include details such as the names and addresses of birth parents and adopted children. This information is available for release only if the person whose information is being sought has explicitly agreed to its release. At the time of adoption, birth parents may have been asked for permission to release identifying information to the adoptee when the adoptee turns 18 or 21. If the birth parents have consented to the release of this information, it eases the process of finding parents. But if the birth parent did not agree to the information’s release, or was never asked to give consent, the adopted child will have to petition a court for release of the information.
To obtain identifying information, adoptees should petition the court to have their adoption records unsealed. The chances for success depend on state laws, the judge, the reason for the request, and your (or your attorney’s) ability to present a compelling argument in favor of unsealing the documents. The judge may agree to unseal the records, may deny the petition entirely, or may agree to release only certain information. The judge may also agree to a request for a “confidential intermediary.”
A confidential intermediary may, for a fee, act as an intermediary between the child, adoptive parents and birth parents. The CI is given access to certain sealed records, and then contacts the other parties to determine whether they will allow the others to have access to confidential information originally part of the adoption agreement. The CI works with the cooperation of the adoption agency and/or courts, and information is only shared with the permission of all parties.
Adoptees and birth parents who are attempting to locate one another should research the laws in the states in which they live, were born and were adopted. Adoption-related laws vary from state-to-state, and may even depend on the year in which a child was born. Because the search involves legal records, a skilled adoption lawyer may also be able to assist in the search.