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For the Record!

Access to the truth about the past should be every adoptee’s birthright. by Barbara Bisantz Raymond

Most of America's six million adoptees are members of what one of them calls "a witness protection program we didn't ask to be in." They were inducted when their adoptions were made final and the birth certificates bearing their names and those of their parents were sealed by the state. The "amended" certificates they received made it seem their adoptive parents had given birth to them. In some cases, adoptees' dates and places of birth were also falsified.

Altered certificates--and the withholding of originals even after the adoptees have reached adulthood--make it hard for them to find birthparents, and may keep them from knowing potentially life-saving information about their medical histories.

The consequences of falsifying birth certificates are so dire that you might assume the practice was instituted for good reasons. I used to believe this, too. I was wrong.

The practice was begun in 1928 by Georgia Tann, a conscienceless woman who did so to hide the illegal adoptions she arranged. Tann claimed that it spared children the shame of others’ knowing they were adopted—and, often, born out of wedlock—and she managed to convince well-meaning legislators and social workers. By 1948, almost every state was falsifying adoptees’ birth certificates. Today all 50 states do, and the United States has the sad distinction of being one of very few industrialized countries to deny adoptees their birthparents’ names.

In 1999, Tennessee became the first state to retroactively enact open records laws (to their credit, Alaska and Kansas have always allowed adult adoptees copies of their original birth certificates). Since 1999, Alabama, Maine, Oregon, Delaware, and New Hampshire have followed suit, and legislators in six other states—New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas, Ohio, and Massachusetts—are weighing the same decision. A step in the right direction, but every state should give adoptees access to their original birth certificates and adoption records.

It’s hard to understand the hesitance at this point. Have the predictions by open-records opponents come true? Has there been a decrease in adoptions caused by pregnant women’s fear that the children they relinquish might find them decades later? An increase in divorce rates for women found by their children? Have adoptees stalked parents who don’t want contact?
No. If openness has had any effect, it has been to increase adoptions, according to Fred Greenman, a lawyer who has studied adoption rates in open-record states. There have been no reports of divorces caused by birth family reunions. And mothers who’ve made clear they don’t want to meet their surrendered children have not been harassed.

It’s also true that the number of birthmothers who don’t want to meet their children is very low. Surveys show that the great majority of them welcome, even long for, contact.

My daughter, Beth, was adopted. At her request, I found her birthparents, as well as her three brothers, four grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Because New York is a closed-record state, the search was difficult, but not impossible. “I’ve been waiting for this day!” Beth’s mother cried when I reached her.

In the 10 years since, Beth has visited her birth family frequently. The contact fills a gap that had always pained her. “Knowing who I am is my birthright.” Yes, it is. It’s time to acknowledge that and to give adoptees access to honest birth certificates, to the truth about their past. 

Barbara Bisantz Raymond is the author of The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption (Carroll & Graf). This piece was adapted from a New York Times op-ed. Reprinted with permission.

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