Friday, July 18, 2014

Birth Certificate Access and U.S. Born Domestic Adoptees

Born, fostered, adopted and raised in Connecticut, I reconnected with my natural parents and families in 1998. Since then, I have applied my lifelong experience as an adopted person to conducting critical analysis of global adoption practices. A resident of Pennsylvania, I currently serve as a contributing board member of Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights. I also write about the adoptee experience as editor, contributor, and media columnist of the collaborative blog of adopted women, Lost Daughters.

I have witnessed, and been a part of, many disagreements surrounding adoption reform. What I have realized is that many are fearful of how things might change should the current practices of adoption change. As more transparency and the empowerment of everyone involved in adoption practices are not things that should be feared, I am committed to relieving the suffering caused by what I view to be inequitable practices that are not holistically compassionate. Such practices provide a rather weak foundation for an adoption industry that claims to be working in the best interests of children. What many seem to ignore or forget is that adopted children eventually become independent adults and that we should be considered as contributing members of our own adoptions. We are also the only ones who can actually speak to the experience of being adopted.

I'm proud to be part of a global community of adoptees, fostered persons, natural parents, adoptive parents, and supporters who are committed to advocating for the rights of adopted persons. The issue of adoptee rights is broad and far-reaching. My experience as a Caucasian adopted through domestic infant adoption in the U.S. is different from my transracial and international adoptee counterparts. Yet there are so many common threads that weave our experiences together and create a united, collective whole. I am dedicated to advocating for reform measures that place the needs and rights of the child first and foremost when it comes to global adoption practices. As a U.S. born domestic adoptee, I also have a deep, personal interest in the current practice of altering and sealing original birth certificates. This is an issue that impacts me directly, as well as my children and future descendants.

Birth Certificate Access and U.S. Born Domestic Adoptees

When the domestic adoption of a U.S. born adoptee is finalized, the state in which the adoptee was born issues an amended birth certificate that lists the adoptive parents as if they are the biological parents. There is no indication on the amended birth certificate that an adoption took place. The original, factual birth certificate is then sealed away and the amended version becomes the only legally recognized birth certificate. This happens with every domestic adoption of a U.S. born adoptee in every state. Is it necessary to alter a child's birth certificate in order for an adoption to take place? Of course not. Adoptive parents are issued a separate document called an Adoption Decree deeming them the legal parents. Yet, all states continue the practice of altering adoptees' birth certificates and many states currently do not allow adoptees to legally access their original birth certificates upon reaching adulthood in the same way that non-adopted adult citizens can.

It wasn't always this way. Some states have never denied adoptees equal access to their own, factual birth certicates. My state of birth, Connecticut, didn't deny adoptees equal access until 1975, four years after my adoption was finalized. My state of residence, Pennsylvania, didn't deny adoptees equal access until 1985. When the laws were changed in both Connecticut and Pennsylvania, however, it was done retroactively. This means that I am currently unable to access my factual birth certificate unless I pay court fees, petition a judge, and hope for the request to be granted--even though nobody involved in my adoption in 1971 had any reason to believe that I would not access my own birth certificate upon reaching adulthood. Non-adopted adults born in Connecticut, on the other hand, can simply make a request and pay a small processing fee to access the accurate records of their births.

When one class of people is treated differently under law to all others, it is discrimination. The message provided to adult adoptees by some state governments is that we are somehow less deserving than non‐adopted adult citizens simply because we were adopted as children--a choice we no more made for ourselves than we did our hair, eye, or skin color. Access legislation advocacy seeks to restore the equal access under law that once existed for all adult citizens and end the decades‐long practice of considering adoption to be something shameful and secretive.

Access legislation is not about:

Search and reunion. Some individuals and organizations oppose restoring equal access to adult adotpees based on the notion that some natural parents might not wish to have contact with their relinquished sons or daughters. Contrary to what many in society have been led to believe, there is not one legal document involved in any adoption that legally guarantees a parent total anonymity form their own son or daughter. In most states, an adoptee’s file and original birth certificate can be opened at a judge’s discretion. As such, it is a legal impossibility that a natural parent could assume total anonymity from the adoptee.

What an adult adoptee may choose to do, or not do, with the information contained on their original birth certificate is a personal matter and not one that requires the involvement of state governments. Some may choose to search and some may not. Adult citizens manage their personal engagements with other adults on their own every day. And there are many options available to any adult citizen who does not wish to engage with another adult citizen. The personal preferences of some (natural parents who do not desire contact with their sons or daughters) should not be given priority over the legal rights of all adults who were adopted as children.

Natural parent privacy. Birth certificates are not amended until an adoption is finalized. Children who are in foster care because the parental rights of their parents have been terminated, and who have not been legally adopted, use and have access to their factual birth certificates. If the amending of birth certificates was contingent on the privacy of natural parents, the process of legal fiction would occur upon termination of parental rights. Instead, an adoptee’s birth certificate is only amended upon the finalization of adoption. One could surmise, therefore, that the amending of birth certificates is for the adoptive parents’ benefit and has nothing to do with natural parent privacy.

Additionally, as referenced earlier, all states have laws allowing access, even if that access can only be granted through a judge's discretion. So privacy has never been a factor from a legal perspective. There has never been a legal guarantee of total anonymity in adoption between natural parents and their offspring.

Abortion. Alaska and Kansas have never sealed the original birth certificates of adoptees. Both states have also been noted as having very low abortion rates according to data compiled in 2010 by the American Adoption Congress. The same data also revealed that in the states with more recent restored access, abortion rates lowered significantly following the passing of access legislation. Data shows that access legislation will not result in more abortions.

Our adoptive families. An adult adoptee who determines that it is in their best interest to obtain their original birth certificate has simply made a personal decision about their well‐being as an adopted person. Desiring one’s original birth certificate is not an indication of how an adoptee feels toward their adoptive family. We can love, cherish and respect our adoptive families and still need our original birth certificates.

Adoptees existed, and had identities, prior to our adoptions being finalized and our birth certificates being altered. For many of us, it is important to acknowledge this fact regarding our personal histories. Access legislation empowers adoptees and this is something that everyone connected to adoption should support.

Access legislation is about restoring to all adult adoptees the right to access their own original birth certificates and treating adult adoptees as equal to non‐adopted adults under law. Non-adopted adults born in any state can access their factual birth certificates by making a simple request and paying a small processing fee. Many adoptees cannot. This must change. 

Julie Stromberg
When the time came to think about college, I decided that my career path would encompass either child psychology or journalism. Fortunately for all the young people out there, I opted for journalism and earned a bachelor's degree in communications. Since that time, I have worked as a newspaper and magazine staff writer, public relations associate, and marketing copywriter. My professional creative efforts have been acknowledged with several industry awards.

I am also pleased to be involved in several writing and advocacy projects outside of the office. As an adoptee, my advocacy work is focused on changing the common, societal discourse on adoption practices and encouraging reform that would place the emotional needs and legal rights of the children involved first.