An Ohio law that has kept 32 years of adoption records sealed will sunset Friday, permitting some 400,000 adoptees to ask for their original birth certificates.
The day continues a slow-moving trend in opening birth records to adult adoptees. Only six states permit unfettered access, while three others permit access if not blocked by a birth parent.
Friday also fulfills the decadeslong effort led by a woman whose adoptive father unwittingly helped close the records in the early 1960s.
“This is a major win,” said Betsie Norris, executive director of Adoption Network Cleveland.
The network and its allies are sponsoring a party Thursday night in Columbus to celebrate the Ohio law, which opens original birth records to adults born from Jan. 1, 1964, to Sept. 18, 1996.
Some 300 adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents and social workers are expected to attend, including those from the Ohio Birthparent Group and Adoption Equity Ohio.
Some who were adopted are still searching for their birth families, while others have had reunions but “really want that piece of paper,” Ms. Norris said.
On Friday, the state is scheduled to issue original birth certificates to a small group of adoptees. Others will need to mail in their notarized requests and wait a few weeks for their documents to arrive.
An original birth certificate is likely to carry name of the birth mother and possibly the birth father, as well as other details such as the child’s given name.
Adoptees have birth certificates, which are amended to carry the names of their adoptive parents.
Most records still ‘sealed’
Historically, only Kansas and Alaska have never sealed original birth records.
Throughout the early to mid-20th century, the other states began to put original birth certificates under court seal and did not issue them — even to adult adoptees — unless there was “good cause.”
A popular narrative says that the records were sealed because birth mothers wanted to keep their identities secret from the children they placed for adoption, and they were promised such confidentiality by adoption agencies and lawyers.
Such right to privacy considerations have long motivated groups to oppose efforts to open the records. Pro-life groups also worried that if birth mothers’ privacy could not be guaranteed, they would choose abortion instead of adoption.
However, a 2001 paper by Elizabeth J. Samuels, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, found that states sealed adoption records to protect adoptees from learning that they were born illegitimate, and to act “as a sword to prevent [birth parents] from interfering with the adoptive families raising the children.”
Another reason to oppose opening birth records was to hide evidence of baby snatching and baby selling. One woman alone — Georgia Tann, operator of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis — was believed to have taken hundreds of children from poor or single mothers to sell to wealthy patrons from the 1920s until 1950, when the state closed her institution.
Calls for reform
During the 1960s, adult adoptees who longed to find their families of origin wrote books and talked to media and policy leaders.
Their pleas for documents were met with resistance: “You had no other parents,” adoptee Florence Fisher was told by the lawyer who arranged her 1951 adoption, according to Ms. Samuels’ paper, published in the Winter 2001 issue of Rutgers Law Review.
“Your need to look for your [birth] mother is neurotic,” adoptee Betty Jean Lifton said she was told by the psychiatrist she turned to explain her gnawing desire to know her roots.
Lawmakers, uneasy about opening birth records, backed state-run “mutual-consent registries,” in which birth parents and adoptees would enter their personal information and wait to be informed of a match.
The registries were regarded as useless by many adoptees, who said they weren’t sure of their place of birth — or even their date of birth.
By the mid- to late 1990s, three states took action on birth certificates.
Lawmakers in Tennessee passed a measure in 1995 permitting adult adoptees to get their original birth papers, as well as a way for birth parents to register their preferences. That law was tied up in court until September 1999.
In January 1999, a law in Delaware went into effect permitting adoptee access to birth certificates, unless vetoed by a birth parent.
Oregon voters became the first to approve a law giving adult adoptees their original birth documents, with an option for birth parents to file a “contact-preference” form saying whether they wanted to be contacted.
The Oregon law went into effect in May 2000 after a court battle.
Four other states with some form of “open records” are Alabama, New Hampshire, Maine, Illinois. Laws in Connecticut, Colorado and New Jersey go into effect this summer, 2016 and 2017, respectively.
A handful of state legislatures, including those in Indiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New York and Texas, are considering “open records” bills this year, according to the American Adoption Congress.
Ohio’s original birth certificates were sealed in 1964, thanks in part to Ms. Norris’ adoptive father, the late lawyer William B. Norris.
After Ms. Norris and her baby brother were adopted, Norris became alarmed when he discovered that he or anyone else could go the courthouse and receive his children’s original birth records. This prompted him and others to ask lawmakers to close those records to the public.
But Norris belatedly realized lawmakers also closed the records to adoptees — something he explicitly didn’t want, according to Ms. Norris.
For years until his death in 2006, Norris joined his daughter in trying to rectify that “grave mistake.”
Changing the adoption records law took decades: Prominent pro-life leader Dr. John Willkie, the National Council for Adoption and some birth mothers were among the voices that repeatedly persuaded lawmakers not to open the records to adult adoptees.
Opposition ebbed over time, and the Ohio law was enacted in December 2013 with support from pro-life and Catholic groups.
The new law has a “redaction” mechanism that has been implemented since March 20, 2014: Birth parents who do not wish their names to be included on an original birth certificate can request that their names be struck from the document. The period for redaction requests ends Thursday.
As of Monday, 114 birth parents have asked for redactions, said Melanie Amato, a public information officer at the Ohio Department of Health. Those who redact their names still must provide their medical backgrounds.
Birth parents also are permitted to fill out a contact-preference form that advises an adoptee how to contact them directly or through an intermediary, or tells the adoptee they do not want to be contacted.
Adoptees can assist in their reunion searches by filling out a form that authorizes the release of their names. Filling out the form permits biological parents and siblings to have that information should they apply for a biological child’s adopted name.