Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates

By Nina Williams-Mbengue | Vol . 24, No. 24 / June 2016
Updated May 15, 2019

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • Approximately 1.8 million children in the United States are adopted—25 percent from other countries, 37 percent from foster care and 38 percent through private adoption.
  • Each year, just over 100,000 children are waiting to be adopted in the United States; 44 percent are age 5 or younger.
  • About 2 percent of the U.S. population is adopted.

Adults adopted as children often want information about their biological birth families. They may need medical history information for themselves or their children, or they may want to know their background, or why they were placed for adoption, or they may want to meet family members to better understand who they are.

Federal and state laws have traditionally sealed adoption records, including original birth certificates, in order to protect the privacy and anonymity of persons placing children for adoption. Original birth certificates can be key documents in an adult adoptees’ search for birth families because they contain facts such as a birth parent’s name and address and the name of the hospital where the child was born. Once adoptions are finalized, however, original birth certificates are “sealed,” making them inaccessible to the public. The adopted child and adoptive family receive an amended birth certificate, which lists the new name of the adopted child, and the adoptive parents as parents of the child.

State Action

Adult adoptees seeking information about their biological parents traditionally were required to obtain a court order to request an original birth certificate in most states. A court order is still required in 25 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, and Puerto Rico. In recent years, however, in response to requests from adult adoptees, states have enacted laws to allow easier access to original birth certificates.

Alabama, Alaska, Maine, Oregon, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, for example, allow access to original birth certificates at the request of an adult adoptee, without a court order and without the consent of the birth parents. Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Washington allow adoptees to request birth certificates unless the birth parent specifically requested that the information not be released.

Many states, while allowing access to original birth certificates, impose restrictions. Idaho, Mississippi and the Northern Mariana Islands, for example, allow access when all parties consent to the release of the information, while other states allow accessing only when the birth parents consent. Still, other states limit access to adoptees born in certain years. Some states delay access in order to prepare biological parents for the possibility of contact with a child they placed for adoption.

State action in 2016 includes a new law in Indiana that allows adoption information to be released unless a non-release form is on file. Hawaii legislation allows adult adoptees, adoptive parents and natural parents “unfettered” access to the adopted person’s sealed records. Missouri allows an adoptee to apply for an original copy of his or her birth certificate, with certain restrictions and includes a waiting period and fee. The Hawaii and Missouri bills were awaiting governors’ signatures at the time of publication. Pending legislation in Pennsylvania would provide an adult adoptee with access to a noncertified copy of his or her original birth record information without the consent of the birth parents. It also would allow for redacting birth parents’ names from a birth record and provide contact preference forms.

In 2017, Louisiana allows that if the child is adopted by a stepparent who was married to the legal parent of the child and the legal parent dies prior to the filing of the petition for adoption, the names of both the deceased legal parent and the step-parent shall be recorded on the child's birth certificate at the request of the step-parent. Nevada revises requirements for consent by a person who intends to be a parent of a child born by assisted reproduction and revises obtaining a court order designating the contents of the birth certificate of a child who is the result of a gestational carrier arrangement. Prohibits the adoption of certain children from this State except upon a district court order and eliminates certain residence requirements relating to petitioners for the adoption of a child.

In 2018, the Iowa department shall develop and furnish to the state registrar of vital statistics a document listing all postadoption services available to adoptive families in the state, to be delivered along with a copy of the new birth certificate to the parents named in the adoption decree, and Missouri grants that upon proof that an adopted person is deceased, his or her lineal descendants shall have the right to obtain a copy of the adopted person's original birth certificate and accompanying contact preference form and medical history form.

In 2019, South Carolina amended it's law to allow an adult adoptee, 18 years of age or older, to obtain a copy of the adoptee’s own original birth certificate in certain circumstances, to allow a biological parent to consent for release of the original birth certificate, to execute a contact preference form and medical history form to be provided to the adult adoptee upon request.

There are serious concerns from those opposing unhindered access to original birth certificates and related records. They argue that there are already procedures—such as voluntary adoption registries, mutual consent registries and applying to the court—that allow access while protecting the anonymity and privacy of all parties. Parents who have placed children for adoption, adoptive families and other advocates concerned about privacy believe access should be granted only when both parties (birth parent and adoptive family) agree to release of records and information. They believe the privacy rights of birth parents are paramount and that birth parents could feel threatened by access to documents without their consent. They also are concerned that birth parents and their families could suffer from unwanted contact from adult children whom they placed for adoption, assuming their identities would remain anonymous. There are also fears that granting unlimited access to original birth certificates would prevent women from participating in adoptions.

States have developed a variety of strategies to protect birth families’ privacy and anonymity, while still providing information to adult adoptees. At least 30 states have set up mutual consent registries to allow the release of confidential information with the consent of the adult adoptee, the birth parent and/or the adoptive parent. Indiana, Michigan, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia laws permit voluntary state adoption registries, which allow birth and adoptive parents to share confidential information about the adoption. Other states have created confidential intermediary programs. Laws in Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming allow specially trained “adoption intermediaries” to search for biological relatives for adult adoptees and adoptive parents. States also may allow the release of non-identifying information, which could include medical history or affidavit systems in which birth families can file their consent or refusal to release certain types of information.

Federal Action

Federal laws have provided guidelines and assistance to promote the adoption of children and youth in state foster care, providing incentives to increase adoptions and subsidies to adoptive families. Federal law provides for confidentiality of child welfare system information, but generally leaves oversight of access to original birth certificates to the states.

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