She's Adopted

They just didn't tell her

Adoptee Rights Demonstration in Chicago by Karen Pickell

on November 11, 2012

The Adoptee Rights Coalition has organized a demonstration that took place during the National Conference of State Legislators in Chicago on August of this year. They tried to open the legislators’ eyes to the plight of adult adoptees in forty-four states who are not allowed to have a copy of their own original birth certificates.

What is an “original birth certificate?”

Many people who are not intimately affected by adoption do not realize that adopted people have two different birth certificates. Whenever a child is born, a birth certificate is issued to legally record that birth. We all know that, right? At minimum, the birth certificate lists the baby’s name and the name of the child’s mother.

If that baby is later adopted, a new birth certificate is issued which lists the child’s adoptive name, and his adoptive parents’ names as mother and father. The original birth certificate–the one that lists who actually gave birth to the child–is then sealed in a file controlled by the state. In the vast majority of cases, the adopted person cannot legally obtain a copy of his real birth certificate, not even as an adult, not even if he’s dying and his biological relatives might be able to save his life.

Why is this the case?

Groups who oppose allowing adoptees to have their own birth certificates will tell you it’s because birth mothers were promised secrecy and privacy. They’ll tell you that if young, at-risk mothers think their relinquished kids might come looking for them one day, they’ll likely not have their babies at all but abort them instead.

I can’t possibly list here all the reasons these statements are false, but I can tell you that the reading and research I’ve done myself has convinced me they are false. Not only were most birth mothers never promised secrecy, they don’t even want it. Many birth mothers never really even wanted to relinquish their babies in the first place, but were coerced into doing so.

The real reason, in my opinion, for the sealing of original birth certificates was to protect the adoptive family, because adoptive parents, especially back in the day when these laws were created, were very afraid that birth families might come forward after the adoption and try to take their children back. Adoption agencies wanted prospective adoptive parents to feel secure with the process of adoption, because, let’s face it, a lot of cash changes hands when children are adopted. The best way to make adoptive parents feel secure was to guarantee that birth families would never be able to track down their relinquished children. Thus, original birth certificates are legally sealed and altered birth certificates showing the adoptive parents as the legal parents are issued.

What the writers of these laws never considered was that the adopted babies would grow into adopted adults who don’t appreciate having their true identities forever under lock and key.

Why are original birth certificates so important to adoptees?

This issue is important to me because knowing my true family identity is important to me. As a child, I was acutely aware of the differences between me and my adoptive parents. We looked different. We were interested in different activities. We reacted differently to situations. We processed information differently.

In doctor’s offices, I had to write “N/A” on the lines for family medical history, then explain that I was adopted. The first picture of me is as a three-month-old; what happened in my life before that time is a black hole. I felt no connection to my adoptive parents’ family trees; I could not join the conversation of who looked like which cousin or who acted like grandma.

I saw the first person who looked like me when I had my first child at the age of thirty-three. And I realized that he would have the same black hole of missing information about his ancestry and family medical history that I had.

I was lucky to be able to locate my birth mother without having my original birth certificate, because I had some pretty detailed non-identifying information from the agency that handled my adoption (every adoptee is legally entitled to this) and a key piece of identifying information my adoptive parents were accidentally given when they adopted me.  Many adoptees are not as lucky as I was and are not able to figure out who their biological families are without their original birth certificates.

Even after I reunited with my birth mother, I still wanted a copy of my original birth certificate. I wanted that written proof. I wanted to feel like a whole person, like I was really born from another human being just like everyone else rather than picked from a lineup of cribs, which is how I had always pictured my adoption. And my birth mother wanted it too, to prove she wasn’t crazy, that she really did have a baby, that it all wasn’t just some nightmare she had imagined. Together we petitioned the Ohio probate court, and I now have my original birth certificate. But I couldn’t have gotten it without her consent. And she hadn’t even known she could file her consent until I made her aware of that fact.

So, if you have yours, what’s the big deal now?

Before I went through my own birth family reunion, I didn’t understand how big this issue was. I had no idea how many other people like me are out there struggling to come to terms with their own identities, held back by these antiquated laws that serve no one’s best interest. I didn’t know that even though we hear the term “open adoption” a lot today, altered birth certificates are still being issued, and open adoptions often don’t remain open very long after the adoption transaction is finalized. I stand behind the effort to unseal all adoptee original birth certificates because every person deserves to know where they come from. It is not the business of any state to keep family members from knowing each other or to protect those who never asked to be protected.

Most of all, I support the Adoptee Rights Coalition because adoption should be, first and foremost, about the children being adopted and what is in their best interest. It is not acceptable to violate the rights of adopted people in order to protect the rights of either birth or adoptive parents.  We adoptees have the right to know where we come from and to deal with our own family business.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

Source: Karen Pickell – Writer and editor. Adult adoptee who supports adoption reform.

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