Not Cattle Or Property

The very first fight for open records was in Tennessee in the 1990s, just after my mom was denied access to her own.

Sealed records are similar to a state refusing to recognize the rights of a citizen. Not knowing one’s original name is like “being in a witness protection program the adoptee never asked to be a part of.”

On June 24, 1996, six days before a law to open records was to go into effect in Tennessee, a suit was filed in federal district court in Nashville to block it led by the
televangelist, Pat Robertson. It claimed that openness in adoption would result in a decrease in adoptions and an increase in abortions.

It was feared that women threatened by the prospect that their relinquished children might someday contact them would abort their children rather than place them for adoption.

The suit was filed by Small World Ministries, affiliated with the National Council for Adoption (NCFA), a Washington DC based lobbying organisation funded by adoption agencies who have an interest on behalf of adoptive parents in keeping adoptees and their original families apart. The lawyers argued that opening the records of all adoptees would violate the federal and state constitutional rights of birth parents to privacy.

A judge finally ended the dispute writing, “We note our skepticism that information concerning a birth might be protected from disclosure by the Constitution. A birth is
simultaneously an intimate occasion and a public event – the government has long kept records of when, where, and by whom babies are born.” The judge also praised the Tennessee law – “The statute appears to be a serious attempt to weigh and balance two frequently conflicting interests: the interest of a child adopted at an early age to know who that child’s birth parents were, an interest entitled to a good deal of respect and sympathy, and the interest of birth parents in the protection of the integrity of a sound adoption system.

That fight would last a grueling 3 years. Finally in September 1999, the decision was unanimous in favor of open records. The court found that the law did not violate birth or adoptive parents rights.

States with unrestricted access to the original birth certificate for adoptees age 18 or older are Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Rhode Island.  There are many states including Tennessee that have Access with Restrictions but that do allow adoptees and their lineal descendants to receive the adoption file.  It is thanks to that law, I received my mother’s adoption file.

In my own effort to receive information about my adoptee parents, I’ve bumped up against sealed records in Virginia, Arizona and California.  I would note that my parents, their birth parents and their adoptive parents are all deceased. Shouldn’t I as a descendant finally know where we come from ?

Fortunately, I found other ways – DNA and the matching sites, Ancestry or 23 and Me.

In total, records remain sealed in 21 states – that is almost half of these United States !!  Currently in New York, that fight to open adoption records is making some progress in the legislature. One can hope for the day when all states open their records to adoptees and their lineal descendants.

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