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How to Find Open Adoption Records: Finding Birth Parents and Adopted Children
Open Adoption Records
Currently, only a limited number of states allow open access of adoption records. If you were born in one of these states, you may request a copy of your original birth certificate and your adoption decree once you are over 18. In many instances, even if your adoption is closed, you may demographic information about your birth parents, including age, race, religion, level of education, reason for choosing adoption, and if they had any other children at the time of your adoption. You may also be able to obtain a medical history of your birth family as well as physical descriptions of them, including their hair and eye colors.
If you are adoptive parent, you will generally have access to these records while your child is still a minor. In several states, birth siblings also have access to these adoption records.
Compiling Adoption Information
Begin by compiling all the information you know about your adoption, such as the city, state and hospital where you were born and the name of the agency that handled your adoption. Even though the state issues a new birth certificate upon adoption that bears your new name and your adoptive parents' names, the city, state of your birth will still be listed accurately. You can obtain your birth certificate from your state's vital records office using your post-adoption name.
Your original adoption paperwork should also contain some information about the circumstances of your adoption, including the name of the agency that handled the adoption and your city and state of birth. If your adoptive family no longer has the court papers, in most cases, you can request them from the court in the city or state where your adoption was finalized.
Work with Adoption Facilitators and Agencies
It is best to contact the adoption agency that handled as your first contact point, as they will have a full set of records regarding your adoption, particularly if you were adopted in the past 40 years. Many agencies also have adoption reunion registries that can put you in touch with your birth family. These registries are typically "opt-in," so even if your birth families has not registered their current information, you can add your own so that your birth family can find you. If the adoption agency is no longer in business, your state vital records office or the court that handled the adoption should still have retained much of the agency's original paperwork.
Contact Health Departments and Government Agencies
If you are unsure which agency you were adopted through, contact the state health department in your place of birth. In open records states, they will provide you with a form to fill out and for a fee, will mail you copies of your adoption records. If you were adopted from foster care or a public agency, you may contact the child welfare agency in your state to access your adoption records.
If you were adopted internationally, accessing your records may be more difficult. That said the U.S. Department of State does maintain records of many foreign births and immigration information for current United States citizens.
When contacting government agencies, you will likely need to show proof of your identity before you will be granted access to even open records. In some cases, you may need to write a letter, sign it in front of a notary public, and enclose a photocopy of your legal ID, such as your valid driver's license, state issued non-driver identification card, military ID, or passport. This letter should list all the information you know about your adoption, including:
- Your current legal name
- Your current mailing address, where you would like to receive the information
- Your name at birth (if you know it)
- Your place of birth (city, county, and state)
- Your adoptive parents' names
- The city and state where your adoption was finalized.
Request Court Records
In both open adoption states as well as those with closed records, you can obtain your adoption records through the court in which your adoption was finalized. To obtain records through the court, you will need to file a petition with your name, date of birth, place of birth, adoptive parents’ names.
In closed adoption states, your access to information will be limited, except under two circumstances. First, if you can show a good reason why the court should open your adoption record. For example, if you have a serious medical condition and need to find a birth relative for medical transplant reasons, a judge may be willing to disclose the identities of your birth parents and any siblings. Second, if at any time your birth parents signed a release allowing you to access your adoption records, then you will generally be able to access them, even in closed adoption states. This would allow you to obtain your full adoption records, including your birth family's names, dates of birth, and last known addresses.
Even if all parties have consented to the opening of adoption records, some states have laws requiring that you talk to a professional counselor about the potential consequences of obtaining these documents. Because reuniting with birth families can bring up difficult emotions and may not always go smoothly, the state wants to ensure that the adoptee is prepared for all possible outcomes, including rejection by his or her birth family.
Seeking Professional Assistance
Even in states that allow adoptees and their families access to adoption records, state laws vary significantly and can involve many procedural "hoops," including access to information that you may not have readily available, particularly if you are an adoptee over age 50, have adoptive parents who have passed away, or are no longer in contact with your adoptive family.
While many private investigators can find your public access adoption records, an attorney who specializes in adoption law may be a good investment, particularly if you are trying to access court records. Since the courts often have high legal standards designed to protect the identities of birth parents who may be in sensitive emotional and legal situations involving abuse, an adoption attorney can help you understand what specific rights your state grants you as an adoptee or family member and can help you formulate a solid legal strategy for accessing necessary information.
Even if your state does not require you to undergo counseling prior to opening adoption records, some individual adoption agencies may want to interview you before disclosing records. For persons in neither of these situations, talking to mental health professional who is familiar with the dynamics of adoption can be helpful, even if you are only seeking basic medical information on your birth family and do not wish to establish a relationship. In some situations, adoption records may contain information about about abuse you sustained prior to your adoption, crimes against your birth parents, or birth family histories that can lead to distress or trauma.