Unseal Adoption Records Now
In 1970 when I surrendered my newborn son, he was part of a bumper crop of 175,000 babies, handed over to strangers with adoption agencies acting as the middlemen.
Adoption is often a murky operation. In closed record adoptions murkiness intensifies into total blackout when the original birth certificate is sealed and a new birth certificate is generated, concocting a fiction to replace reality. As was the norm during the period that later came to be known as the Baby Scoop Era, my son was placed with strangers who claimed him as their own. His new birth certificate was inscribed with their names, while I disappeared without a trace.
Once upon a time most adoptions records were open to everyone, though the transactions themselves were usually arranged privately. Children were often adopted by relatives or family friends, and in those days adoptees could request their birth certificates to find out the names of their natural parents, if they didn’t already know them. Laws that sealed adoption records went into effect in most states in the 1940s and ’50s, and when records were first sealed, it was done to persuade people to mind their own business, leaving the records open only to the parties involved. Eventually, as adoption became more and more profitable and as the polarizing lobbying efforts of the National Council for Adoption garnered strength, the records were sealed from everyone. Being adopted became akin to entering the witness protection program.
The fight against closed records began in 1953 when adoptee and social worker, Jean Paton, began an organization called Orphan Voyage. Other adoption reform organizations followed — among them Adoptees Liberty Movement Association (ALMA) in 1971, Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) in 1976, and the American Adoption Congress (AAC) in 1978. The fight continues today with the uncompromising efforts of Bastard Nation. Still, original birth certificates in all but a handful of states remain sealed, or have restrictions regarding their unveiling. My son was born in Iowa, one of the states whose records are still under lock and key.
In 1990, as my son neared adulthood, it occurred to me that losing him no longer belonged to me alone. I had two young daughters, and I wanted them to know they had a brother — and to actually know him. My search efforts, however, yielded absolutely nothing. It was only due to a chance encounter that, on a breezy fall evening in 1990, I delivered a brown paper bag of cash to be given to someone, who would then give it to someone, who would give it to someone else. A few weeks later I got a phone call explaining how I could contact my son.
Adoption reunion does not have to be a cloak and dagger operation. Adoptees need their medical histories now more than ever. We know that gene variations can offer protection — or put people at greater risk from certain illnesses. Recently, 23andMe initiated a study of genetic differences that could explain why there’s such a wide array of symptoms and disease severity in those afflicted with Covid-19.
Adoptees have a right to know their genetics, their families of origin, their ethnicity, and their culture. Those born during the Baby Scoop Era, like my son, are middle-aged and beyond. Their birthparents belong to the demographic least likely to survive Covid-19. Adoptees, even in times of robust national health, should be granted the right to obtain their original birth certificates, and now states must allow them to reach out to their birth families before an entire generation of potential reunions disappears. It’s time for the 40 U.S. states with sealed original birth certificates to open these records to all adult adoptees.