What Would You Do If You Couldn’t?

It’s safe to say that most of my readers are genealogists.  I came upon a question today that may be of great interest to genealogists – what would you do if you couldn’t do genealogy?  I don’t mean you can’t find someone or have a “brick wall” that is hindering your research. I mean what if you had all of the desire, curiosity, and sheer determination that we genealogists have to dig up our roots, but you could not research your family history because you didn’t know who your parents were?  And the government won’t show you your own birth certificate?

I learned today that this is the fate of most adoptees in the United States.  Birth records in 44 states are completely closed to adoptees, so they are unable to learn the bare facts about their family history.  Privacy laws have been on the books for a few generations that deny access to adult adoptees to protect the privacy of the parents who chose to give their child up for adoption.  In theory, it’s understandable.  But in reality, is it practical?  Advocates of open access insist the issue is unrelated to the decision to find or know their birth parents, but is more about a right that nearly all of us have to simply have a copy of the birth record that all other Americans are allowed to have.  Those for open access argue that the family history, regardless of the reasons for the adoption, is important for health or genealogical reasons.  Opponents insist that the parents have the right to remain unknown.

I think adoption is a wonderful thing and a selfless act on the part of both parties – the birth mother/parents as well as the adoptive parent/s.  But does giving up a child to another out of love allow someone to remain anonymous?  Does knowing your parents’ names guarantee a relationship with them?

It’s a tough issue, and I’m no expert since I am not adopted nor have I given up a child for adoption.  But, as a genealogist, I honestly can’t imagine not knowing my ancestry.  I know many people who have no interest in their genealogy whatsoever.  But, what if you are like me and you do have that interest – yet you can’t even get a copy of your own birth certificate to surmise what nationality your ancestors were?

I learned about this issue because advocates of adoptee rights protested yesterday here at the Philadelphia Convention Center during the National Conference of State Legislatures.  Read more about their cause here. I wish them luck.  I don’t know what I’d do if I enjoyed genealogical research as much as I do but could not research my own genealogy.  What would you do?


18 thoughts on “What Would You Do If You Couldn’t?

  1. It used to be that the child never knew. My maternal uncle didn’t know he was adopted until he had to produce a birth certificate for the army in 1941. Then you-know-what hit the fan.

  2. Not sure if one rule for some and one rule for others regarding open records is fair.

  3. Thank you for your blog!

    I was one of over 100 triad members (adoptees and both sets of parents) who demonstrated for open access in Philadelphia on Tuesday. I felt I just had to go because, even though I have located my birth family with a great deal of effort and a lot of help, I was born in PA where my original birth certificate is still a state secret.

    Stella is right, one of rule of some folks and different rule for others is NOT fair!!

    I am reunited primarily because I could not have a copy of my OBC. If I had that, I wouldn’t have needed to search to know my origins. And, by the time I was able to follow the bread crumbs and come up with names, the medical history that would have been invaluable when I was young was a moot point — I was 50 and all the inherited medical problems had surfaced.

    Something that may surprise you is that adoptees are often the genealogists in the family. Any member of either side of my adoptive family faced with that 5th grade family tree assignment is referred to me automatically as the one who will know. I started when I was nine to ask questions and collect information from elderly family members. Who knows why? I can’t help but think it is because I wanted roots. I have a lot of them now.

    Adoption is sometimes selfless, but not always. Too often adoption, as it is practiced in the USA, is about finding a child for a couple who wants one rather than about finding a home for a child who needs one. the difference may seen subtle if you are not adopted but I can assure you it is profound. I count myself lucky because I did get really wonderful parents. I know that is often the case. But I also know it is not always the case. And because those who arrange adoption find it profitable, they will take short cuts knowing that sealed records will protect them forever.

    Thanks for your understanding of this issue. Please continue to speak out on our behalf. And you can visit a petition on change.org to register your support:

  4. I agree that adoptees should have access to their true birth certificates. I just want to correct one bit of misinformation. As a woman who relinquished a child I can say that I never wanted or asked that my child not know who I was. In fact I was told I could never know who my child was to protect him and his adoptive family from my interference. No one has yet been able to produce one document that promised mothers this type of protection. Courts in both TN and OR dismissed this theory when they upheld laws allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificates. Pitting adoptee rights against mother’s rights just obscures the true issue. All citizens deserve to have a copy of their true birth certificate.

  5. I’m a 51 year old adoptee who is still barred from learning anything about my birth family. My first grandchild is due in less than 2 months, and I won’t be able to tell him anything either.

    A geneologist was researching my adoptive mom’s family, and yes, my name was included in their book, with the notation “adopted”. They didn’t want to know anything else about me or my children. Kinda says it all right there, don’t you think? It seems my family tree is a stump.

    I’d love to be able to research where I came from! To find old photographs and compare noses and chins and all that, it would be wonderful!

    So I’ll keep making noise and writing letters, and maybe someday my grandchildren will be able to succeed and learn where we all came from.

  6. I, being a birth-mother, believe that EVERYONE should
    have the right to their original birth certificate. There is
    no fairness to the adopted child who is now paying the finalprice. Ronnie, how true your statment is in regard to never knowing who your child was and no document was ever produced.
    It also seems that since they cannot have their orginial birth certificate says we never gave birth to them. They have every right to know their heritage.
    We are now in 2009. Don’t you think it is time to come of age?

  7. I also just returned from the portest in Philly and would love to point out one more fact:

    The original birth certificates are sealed upon the FINIALIZATION of the adoption NOT the relinquishment; therefore no assumed promises of confidentiality could have been made for birthparent anonyminity was not possible. The OBC was a matter of public record immediatly after birth ( when any hint of “scandal” would be most fresh ) and until the adoption finalization which was often anywhere from months, and some case years, afterwards.

    There are also instances where the pregnancy is made extremely public: for instance in the relinquishment of my own son in ’87, my name was published in the legal section of a newspaper in order to terminate my son’s father’s rights.

    Thank you very much for writing about this issue. Too many peopl, including our elected officials, are unaware that over 6 million US citizens are discriminated against because they were adopted.

  8. As a birthmother and genealogist I have the skills necessary to help adoptees and birthmothers with their searches. One adoptee I’ve been trying to help has two young daughters with heart conditions that can only be traced to his side of the family. Despite letters from their pediatrician and cardiologist the judge was unable to provide him with the name of his birthmother so he could obtain very necessary medical history. This is one very crucial reason for allowing adult adoptees access to their original birth records.

    I know only too well what can happen. I recently learned that my relinquished son died at age 36 of a condition that may be hereditary. His son, now ten has the same condition. Yet we still can not obtain the proof that we are related. I wonder if my son’s death might have been prevented had he had his medical history.

  9. The adoption business has grown from a concern over who would raise a child, to “who cares if a huge percentage of our citizens do not even know who they are” – let’s charge them big bucks and dole out little hints, like the first name of the maternal uncle, the age of the mother at time of birth, etc. Let ’em guess and worry and suffer – forever.

    This is all very wrong. At age 18 or 21, everyone needs a real birth certificate. This should be dealt with at the national level, but with the current President hiding his own birth certificate, there’s a fat chance a national law can happen anytime soon. So people in every sealed-record state are spinning wheels – some actually spending their entire life to turn this around. Without truth, nothing else much matters.

    I would go so far as to jail anyone who hides birth certificate information. In fact, a person also deserves to have a contact number and address of ALL relatives. Imagine not knowing if you are Irish or German or Polish or Swedish; if you were born in the USA or elsewhere; if you were formed in a lab or have Indian tribe rights; if your father was a master violinist or your mother was a writer, if a certain kind of cancer or heart problem is something to be especially guarded against, if you have many siblings (maybe even a twin) or are an only child, if your parents are still alive and if not, a copy of the death certificate……

  10. I am one of those adoptees who was and is still VERY interested in my own genealogy. Unfortunatley, throughout half of my life, I was under persuasion that I should just “accept” my adoptive parents’ family history and genealogy and just pretend that I was their nationalities. This never felt right to me because deep down I knew I had different genes (thus where the term genealogy stems from!!) Legally, I had and still have no “right” to my own original information including my original birth certificate. I know in the genealogy world, birth certificates are very important!
    I eventually found my birthparents (without the help from the state of NJ, who by the way, still to this day, seals my original birth certificate from me–remember I am the one to which this document actually pertains!)
    So I am one of the few adoptees who was lucky and able to find my birth relatives on my own (not many are able to do so) and today I know that I am half Jewish! (who would have thought in my adoptive family!) and the other half Irish, German and Cuban. It would have been nice to have grown up with this information instead of wondering while going throught those very young and informative years. So my Hope is that all adoptees will have access to their own original birth certificates (a right every other non-adopted individual enjoys in America) so that adoptees also, like me, can at least know their original name. Such a simple piece of information that so many people and the law want us to ignore can only be appreciated by you, avid genealogists, who know the importance of such information!
    Thank you for posting this story to your blog. The more people who are aware of how adult adoptees are being denied basic rights in America, the sooner our rights will be restored.
    Anne Bauer,
    Author of, The Sound of Hope: A True Story of an Adoptee’s Quest for Her Origins

  11. Thank you! From a fellow genealogist *and* birth mother who relinquished a daughter in 1964 and found her and reunited with her in 1986. I concur with everyone — every person deserves to know everything they want to know about their origins. Even the bad stuff — you can eventually get over and move past the “skeletons in the closet” but you can never, ever effectively deal with the unknown.
    Another point I didn’t see raised with respect to adoptees and genealogy is that no adoptee can join the Daughters or Sons of the American Revolution through their own ancestry; because their (revised) official birth certificates list the adoptive family, not the true family, they cannot prove relationship to the qualifying ancestor. This definitely concerns my daughter — she can never become a member of the DAR through me back to our ancestor Joseph Goodenough because the only birth certificate she can provide says she’s descended from others.
    What a mess! Let’s do all we can to reverse these idiotic, ill-conceived secrecy laws!
    Priscilla Sharp

  12. As an adoptee from Philadelphia, an armchair genealogist and one of the volunteers from the Philly protest, I’d like to thank you for this post!

    I have my maternal family tree traced back to the 1600’s in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland, even though it’s against the law in Pennsylvania for me to know my original name – how foolish is that?

  13. Thank you for this post, from an adult adoptee whose mother passed away while searching for me. She was told she had given birth to a boy, so the mutual consent registries wouldn’t “match” us. We need our OBC’s just like everyone else.

  14. Ah, Mutual Consent Registries! My son was born and surrendered in New York State. His adoptive family moved to Texas shortly after he was placed with them and his adoption took place there. New York’s mutual consent registry is only for people born AND adopted in New York. So, when I tried to register, they kept my fee, but said they had no record of my son being adopted in NY and therefore could not register me. I think many adoptions cross state lines. Another reason why adoptees should just be able to recieve their OBCs with no strings attached.

  15. It’s time to STOP THE MYTH!!!!!!
    We birthmothers were never promised confidentiality from our children.

  16. I too was in Philly supporting adoptees’ access to their OBCs. I surrendered my daughter to adoption in 1961 through Catholic Charities, Paterson, NJ. I was never promised confidentiality, nor did I ask for it. Neither was any other birth mother I know. When my daughter and I were reunited almost 11 years ago, I learned that her adoptive parents always knew my name. Catholic Charities had given it to them. Some 40% of adoptees know their birth name because of this practice, or because it was left on the copy of the adoption decree. So what is the real issue as to why legislatures continue to ignore these facts and keep adoptees’ OBCs sealed? As a person who has been lobbying in NJ for the past 10 years knows, it must be out of fear…fear of something they have to hide. In NJ, it’s the speaker of the Assembly who is blocking our legislation. And he is a staunch Catholic. And the Catholic Conference of Bishops is the main force behind why we can’t get a hearing on our bill. I wonder what they have to hide??? Hmmm….

  17. I’m the father to two children adopted at age 5 from the foster care system in Pennsylvania. This is a no brainer – adult adoptees should have complete access to their original birth certificate.

    It doesn’t matter the circumstances which led to their relinquishment or separation from their biological family. Adult adoptees should not be denied their history.

    Think about it for a moment. Imagine not knowing if your natural mother is alive or dead. Imagine not knowing where your grandparents are buried. Imagine facing a critical health issue and not knowing your family’s medical history.

    Imagine being separated from your brothers and sisters and having no way to reconnect those family ties, even in adulthood. If the state were keeping this information from you, would you stand for it?

    My children have their Original Birth Certificates (OBC) and family history thanks to Pennsylvania’s full disclosure law when adopting from foster care. The files we received from the state gave us everything we needed to identify our children’s natural parents.

    I guess adult adoptees relinquished at birth are **** out of luck. It’s time the state treats adult adoptees like any other citizen and ends closed records.

    Pennsylvania Adoptive Dad For Open Records

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