For decades, adoptees have been denied the right to their own birth records, and as a result, denied the opportunity to learn about their origins. Many false claims about birth parent privacy or anonymity have been made as reasons to continue to deny equal rights to adult adopted persons. However, in the last decade, the availability and affordability of consumer DNA testing through sites such as Ancestry and 23 and Me, has opened up new avenues for adoptees from states with sealed records to find out where they came from. But, using DNA testing in an attempt to discover one’s origins is not without issues, one of which being the lack of privacy.
If you have never taken a consumer DNA, let me explain how it works. First, you purchase a kit from one of the consumer DNA testing sites and upon receipt, spit into the tube, and mail it off to be tested. Then you wait. It usually takes the lab a few weeks to perform it’s analysis. Once complete, your results are uploaded to the site and you will be notified that your results are available! At that point, you may be filled with excitement or anxiety as you click to link to find out what your DNA has to say, especially if you are an adoptee with so many unknowns.
Many people are aware that once they log in they will find out what percentage Colombian, or Irish, or Japanese they may be, but not everyone is aware that in addition to identifying your ethnicity mix, you are also matched with DNA relatives who have also taken a DNA test through that same company. (There are also platforms that allow DNA results from various companies to be compared, such as GEDMatch, if that is desired.) For most people, when they view their list of DNA matches, they will see some combination of 2nd-4th cousins listed. It is less common to log on and find that you’ve immediately been matched to a 1st cousin, sibling, or better yet… a parent! (Although this would be like hitting the jackpot for most adoptees.) Without being directly linked to a parent and having little to no knowledge of your origins, how do you use these DNA matches to find out where you belong in the family tree?
Well, you have to start shaking the branches and ringing the phone lines. You will need to contact some of your matches and hope you can get some of them to respond with helpful information. Even though some of them want to help they do not have the information you need, so they aren’t really sure where you belong. They may then begin to call their sister or aunt, or another cousin, or grandma asking about any information that they might have on a baby from the family that was placed for adoption. If that person doesn’t know either or has vague memories of something like this happening, they may call another cousin or uncle or brother. Before you know it, the whole family may be in on trying to discover where in the world you came from and who gave up a baby! This is obviously not a very private or personal way to attempt to learn your biological origins, but this is what is forced upon adoptees when states refuse to allow adoptees their own records.
If the concern for adoptees and biological parents is privacy, then allowing an adopted person the right to directly obtain their own birth record is the key. With this scenario, the only contact required is between the adopted person and the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH).
Giving equal rights to adult adopted persons means more privacy, not less. It is that simple. Or as my kids would say, “Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy!”
One of the most common myths in open records legislation is that “birth records can not be opened to adoptees because birth parents were promised privacy or anonymity.”
However, that’s just not true. It’s a MYTH.
In Georgia, the Surrender of Parental Rights form has been used since the Adoption Act of 1977 went into effect on January 1, 1978. Adoption agencies, attorneys, churches, and states have been using the exact same document since.1 (Prior to 1978 in Georgia, birth mothers did not have to sign any official surrender documents.)
Take this surrender document (pictured below) signed by a birth mother in early 1979. This mother is agreeing to surrender her child to the Georgia State Department of Human Resources, Division of Children and Family Services. In the document, she agrees to surrender the child to the State, not interfere in the management of the child’s life, and relinquish all rights and claims to the child. Nowhere in the document does it state that anonymity is promised or even an option for birth parents. It does not assure the birth parent secrecy from the child, potential adoptive parents, or society in any way. If anyone at any time made an implication of such, they did so without any legal standing.
The Surrender of Parental Rights also did not guarantee that the child would be adopted. The child could have remained in foster care until they reached the age of majority or been cared for under a legal guardianship instead of an adoption. It is not until the finalization of an adoption that a child’s original birth certificate would be sealed and replaced with an amended post-adoption birth certificate. Up until the point of adoption, the original birth certificate containing the birth parent(s) name(s) was available the same as for any other person born in Georgia.
Additionally, when an adoptee requests information from the Georgia Adoption Reunion Registry (a service to birth parents, adopted persons, adoptive parents and siblings who are affected by adoptions finalized in Georgia) they will give the adoptee the name of the birth parent if they are deceased and locate the obituary for them. Adoptees can also request a death certificate from the state for a deceased birth parent. So if the State of Georgia promised birth mothers anonymity, then why is a state-contracted organization giving out the birth parents’ names?
In Georgia, the only way for adopted persons to obtain their original birth certificate and any birth records is to hire an attorney to petition the State for their sealed documents. It costs adoptees thousands of dollars and a lot of time. Even upon doing so, there is no guarantee that the records will be given to them as it is up to each individual judge. Some are successful in their pursuit and the judge orders their records to be opened and provided to them. If the State of Georgia promised anonymity to birth parents, then the State would not be able to provide birth certificates and records upon petition without consent from those they promised anonymity to. But the fact is, anonymity was never promised to birth parents. Rather, it was forced upon them by the sealing of records.
We need laws that exist based on facts and not the myths that have long endured. It is time for the State of Georgia to remove the undue burden placed upon adopted persons to obtain their original birth certificate allowing them to acquire it via the same method and fee as all other persons born in Georgia.
1. In 2018, the right to withdraw surrender was changed from 10 days to 4 days.
Additional Resources: Current GA Surrender of Rights Form (2021)
Whenever change occurs, resistance is often offered by those who believe and practice the current system. Before adoptee access to the original birth certificate was legislated in states, provinces and countries, no hard data existed regarding the impact of information being given to adopted persons. The results based on states that have instituted adoption reform and recorded in hard data, are as follows:
MYTH #1 Only a small number of adopted persons want to know their birth information.
In a study of American adolescents, the Search Institute found that 72% of adopted adolescents wanted to know why they were adopted, 65% wanted to meet their birth parents, and 94% wanted to know which birth parent they looked like.
Psychological literature has established that whether mental or actual, searching is an understandable, common and part of healthy adaptation for adopted persons. (A Psychosocial Model of Adoption Adjustment by David Brodzinsky, Marshall Schechter and Robin Marantz Henig)
In Oregon, as of February 1, 2007, seven years after passage of approving access in 2000, 9,193 adult adoptees have requested and 8,878 have received their original birth certificates.
MYTH #2 Most birthmothers want to forget the past and not have “old wounds reopened.”
Through registries and data collected in states and countries where access was legislated, 95% of birthparents who were contacted wanted reunion. (1989 Maine Department of Human Resources Task Force on Adoption)
In Oregon, only 0.25% of birthparents requested no contact. That’s less than 1%.
MYTH # 3 Birthmothers need to be protected from searching adoptees.
Adopted persons are most often reticent to pursue reunion in fear of risking rejection.
Birthparents have the same protections under the law as anyone else. They have the right of privacy and boundaries as does everyone, but privacy does not equal secrecy. Privacy is about healthy boundaries; secrecy prevents people from having information about themselves.
Researcher John Triseliotis from University of Edinburgh found in 25 years of study that adoptees needed genealogical and background information to confirm their identity based on both adoptive and birth family. In researching the impact of opening records in Great Britain, he found those who did search “did so with considerable forethought. Furthermore, the vast majority are over-careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings.” (In Search of Origins: The Experience of Adopted People by John Triseliotis)
Ninety-four (94%) percent of non-searching birthmothers when contacted by their adult birth children were pleased, according to a recent British study. (“The Adoption Triangle Revisited: A Study of Adoption Search and Reunion Experiences,” British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2005)
MYTH # 4 Lifting secrecy will increase abortion.
Data from states where access exists reveals that if access has had any effect on adoptions and abortions, it was to increase adoptions and decrease abortions.
Since adult adoptees in Oregon and Alabama obtained access to their original birth certificates in 2000, abortions have declined much faster in those states than in the nation as a whole. Between then and 2003 (the last year for which national data are available) resident abortions declined 10% in Oregon and 13% in Alabama, but only 2% in the nation as a whole. In other words, after adoptees gained access in those states, abortions declined five times as fast as in the country as a whole.
Workers at pro-life centers such as Birthright report that young women today will only choose adoption if they are assured of updates or contact with the adoptive family. Gretchen Traylor, Birthright counselor in Minnesota, says, “When adoption is under consideration, the young woman’s overriding concern is that she will be unable to contact her child later in life, and that the child will not be able to find her as well. Pregnant women tell me that if such contact is NOT available, they would rather abort.”
In a national survey of 1,900 women having abortions, not one woman cited the inability to choose a confidential adoption as a factor in her decision to have the abortion. “Reasons for Terminating an Unwanted Pregnancy,” Guttmacher Institute, 2003.
A September 24, 2004 (Page D1) Wall Street Journal article reports that those parts of the country practicing open adoption currently do not have enough couples to adopt infants being relinquished by birth parents wanting open adoption.
MYTH #5 Opening up adoption will break up adoptive families.
With a law that gives adults access to their original birth certificates, nothing changes while the adoptee is a child under the care of adoptive parents. Birth information and contact with birth family does not replace one’s relationship to adoptive parents but rather leads to a more cohesive identity for some adult adoptees.
Research from the United Kingdom on the results of access found that the loyalty and love adopted people felt towards their adoptive parents and family did not lessen as a result of the search and reunion process. In some cases adopted people reported that the experience of searching enhanced their relationship with their adoptive families. (British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2004)
Many therapists believe the process of finding past history is so helpful to the adoptee that it strengthens the adoptee’s relationships with their adoptive families.
After New Zealand allowed adult adoptee access to adoption records, researchers found that reunion actually strengthened relationships between adoptees and their adoptive parents, often laying fantasies about birth family to rest. Results showed that adopted children and adults can successfully integrate two or more families into their lives. Finding birth relatives does not mean they relinquish their adoptive ones. (The Right to Know Who You Are, Keith C. Griffith) Research conducted by the University of Minnesota and University of Texas reveals that parental fears about entitlement in open adoptions were unfounded, and in many ways, contact with the birth family strengthened the bond between adoptive parents and children. (Openness in Adoption, Harold D. Grotevant and Ruth G. McRoy)
MYTH # 6 Adoptees conceived by rape or incest (and birthmothers too) will be devastated by search, reunion and/or learning truth about origins.
While unsavory details of one’s past are not pleasant to cope with, they still are a part of one’s life. Denying access to one’s personal information about himself/herself is robbing that person of his/her heritage. The contents of the information are not as important as the fact that information becomes available, and questions are able to be answered.
New Zealand found that adult adoptees can better cope with such traumatic revelations than with not having any information. Oddly enough, many had already fantasized the event. Most adoptees know that in exploring the unknown void of their origins, anything is possible, realizing that there must have been difficulties or they would not have been placed for adoption. This information remaining secret increases the shame. The reality, once it is confronted, is less than the enormity of the secret.
One adoptee conceived from rape said, “When we met things were pretty tense between us. I knew that my birthmother was holding back something. I asked her and she told me. We both held each other tight and howled for about an hour. Then we shared exactly what had happened and we shared our hurts and fears. It was one of my birthmother’s fears that one day I would find her and ask her. And now that traumatic time had come. Somehow, in the sharing of our deep personal grief feelings, we built up a relationship. We now understand each other on an issue that no one seems to understand.” (The Right to Know Who You Are, Keith C. Griffith)
Information from American Adoption Congress https://www.americanadoptioncongress.org/reform_myths.php