January 15, 2020 is a significant day for adoptees in New York State. Taking effect that day is a state law that gives adult adoptees the right to obtain their own original birth certificates by applying to the Health Department (that right of access is also extended to the descendants of deceased adoptees). It was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support by the Legislature, even ultimately swaying some legislators who’d opposed such a change in past sessions.
For decades, the only way for an adult adoptee to obtain his or her own original birth certificate was by petitioning the court. Such petitions were rarely granted.
As a New York adoptee myself, I was struck years ago when I handled a 1642 adoption order in the New York State Archives (since added to their Digital Collections), but I could not access my own birth record, nor could future historians.
In spite of that, I was able to learn who my birth mother was by hiring a private investigator who found her in less than a week. I learned my biological father ‘s identity after taking a genealogical DNA test. He, two paternal half-brothers, and nearly 700 other relatives had also provided DNA for a test.
As a result, I’ve finally been able to share with my doctors information about my genetic medical history, something my brother — the biological son of my adoptive parents — had always been able to do. The change in the law means that other adoptees won’t have to spend the money and effort I did. They will now be more equal under the law.
The Adoptees Liberty Movement Association (ALMA) was founded by Florence Fisher in 1971, preceded by adoption reform advocate Jean Paton’s book Orphan Voyage (1968). Bills in New York that would have given adoptees more access to their birth or adoption records had been introduced in almost every legislative session since 1975, but ALMA’s political activism gradually faded. The new law was shepherded through the legislature by the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition and other supporting organizations, including legislators and adoptee rights activists who had been involved in the process for four decades.
Adoptees generally have three types of records that identify their biological parents: agency foster and adoption records, court adoption records, and birth records. The process whereby most of those records were sealed in New York was a gradual one over the course of several decades. At right is a chart summarizing the changes over the years.
There had been an ever-growing pile of court decisions rejecting adoptees’ petitions to unseal their own records since the 1970s. Some judges would not even unseal records for adoptees who already knew their birth parents’ names. Such decisions overlooked the legislative history and intent of the sealed birth and adoption records laws.
The legislative intent behind L. 1936, ch. 854, the law that first provided for (but did not mandate) the creation of amended birth certificates for adoptees and the sealing of their original birth certificates, was partly to ensure “unfortunate children born out of wedlock are entitled to the fullest measure of protection which the State can afford [and] removing the stigma of illegitimacy from such children” and partly to “preserve the records and make them available, but [to] prevent outsiders as well as curious clerks from securing the data on the original certificate, except if they could secure a court order.”
The law had emerged from Gov. Lehman’s Commission on Registration of Birth for Children Born Out of Wedlock, called for in his 1935 veto of a bill that would not have preserved records of the true facts of the births of children born out of wedlock and thus would not have made them available. It was not seen at the time to be an outrageous or objectionable thing that adoptees could learn in adulthood who their birth parents were:
“We have found, over a period of approximately 20 years, that children who are adopted at a young age and who later ascertain that fact, are usually desirous of having the files opened so that they may examine into the matter and ascertain who their parents were,” Erie County Clerk Edwin B. Kenngott wrote to Gov. Thomas E. Dewey in 1943.
Even in 1949, when the sealing of adoptees’ original birth certificates became mandatory, a number of other records remained unsealed. The Petition of Adoption and the Order of Adoption, available to the adoptive parents, continued to contain the adoptee’s full birth name into the late 1960s.
Some records remained unsealed even more recently. The birth indexes for the five boroughs of New York City, for example, were available at the New York Public Library until fairly recently, and have also been available digitally. Those birth indexes gave adoptees born in the five boroughs the ability to find their birth parents’ names. (See Lisa Belkin’s story “What the Jumans Didn’t Know About Michael” in N.Y. Times Magazine.)
As the courts have restrict adoptee rights over the decades since the 1930s, the legislative intent to keep records from the prying eyes of outsiders for the benefit of the adoptee remained consistent. As other documents and indexes were sealed the courts seem to misinterpret the original legislative intent. Now, adoption records will be available once more.