Petitioning the D.C. Court for Your Adoption Records

By Gregory D. Luce on January 16, 2017 — 11 mins read

This goes out to D.C. adoptees who are considering whether or not to petition the court to release your adoption records. If you are thinking about it, you may want to start by reading my rather long and legalistic post here. That post lays out what’s happened in break seal petitions over the years, from the good ol’ days of 1979 to the tad more troublesome times of today.

But, a few major points and an important disclaimer before I get to the nitty gritty.

First, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s a terrible strategic move to ask directly for reunion or contact through the D.C. court petition. As I’ve repeated before ad nauseum, search and reunion is distinct from your right to receive identifying information. If you seek reunion, you may sidetrack the court and get nothing. If you focus only on identifying information, you stand a much better chance of actually getting that information. And what you then do with that information is simply a different question. Capisce? No? If you don’t understand, re-read my prior post here.

Second, it will be expensive. The court’s filing fee is $80, and the “search” fee charged by the agency is typically $500 (except in some limited circumstances, by D.C. regulation it cannot be more than $500).

Third, if you haven’t figured it out already, getting your adoption records is not automatic, nor do you have an unrestricted right to get them. The court currently requires a petition and, as part of that process, referral of the case to your adoption agency. After that, it’s kind of a crapshoot as to what happens, depending on who presides over your case. That’s mostly what I covered in my earlier post.

Fourth, it may take a long time, perhaps up to a year. More likely, it will take several months. So, be prepared to wait.

Fifth, the court’s adoption records will rarely if ever include your original birth certificate. The OBC is typically on file with the District of Columbia Department of Public Health, which requires a court order to release it. While the court’s form does not specifically contemplate asking for your original birth certificate, it doesn’t hurt to include a request in the petition. In fact, it’s probably wise to do so.

Finally, I’m a lawyer but not yours. If you need legal advice or help drafting your petition, hire an attorney. If you can afford it, it may be well worth the cost of getting independent advice and direction. That said, the required court forms are not hard to complete, and I’ve provided my own sample petition as an example. You can follow my example or not—your choice. It is simply an example from 1) an adoptee who is going through the process himself and 2) an adoptee who also happens to be an attorney. So here goes.

1965 Portion of Map of Washington, D.C.

Court Petition: The Basics

The D.C. court provides a fillable PDF you can use to complete a break seal petition. It is here, and you can fill it out, print it, and file it with the court after you sign it in front of a notary. But, a huge caveat. The court’s form tries to pigeonhole you into specific reasons to get your records, namely for medical information or “to establish contact with the birth parents.” The form does include an option of “other,” but the focus on contact and reunion with a birth parent is abundantly clear. Avoid being pigeonholed. I avoided it by creating my own form, and my annotated sample, in Google Docs, is here. I’ve commented on the form itself. I’ve also included a summary of those comments below.

Case Title. Include your full name, as it was at the time of adoption. It is key to include your name as it was back then, not a new name now or a married name you may have taken later. The court must link your initial adoptive name to the court file.

Adoption Case Number. You may not know this number, which was assigned at the time your adoptive parents filed their petition for adoption way back when. No worries. You should be able to get it from the adoption agency, which I did back in 2000. If you cannot get it, no sweat. As long as the name on your petition matches your name at the time of your adoption, the court should be able to find your original adoption case number.

Adoption Agency. The court needs to know the name of the adoption agency that handled your adoption so that it can refer the matter to that agency for a “search.” Hopefully, you know this. If not, the court should still be able to find it by matching your name with existing court records. Also, be aware that many adoption agencies back in the day are no longer in operation. Before closing up shop, they were required to transfer their files to another agency still in operation. That’s why I have two agencies listed on my own petition. I’ve been told the second agency has my file. Fingers crossed.

You. This is easy. Give the court your full name, address, and phone number. For good measure, I also included my email address.

Date of Adoption. List the approximate date of your adoption. This one confused me a bit because an adoption often does not become final until months after you are born. Luckily, I had a copy of my interlocutory decree, the temporary order issued to your adoptive parents a few months after they file for adoption. That order stated my adoption would become final on August 1, 1966, so I used that date. But if you have your adoption case number already, the court will be able to find the exact date of your adoption in the court records.

Adoptive Parents. Hopefully you know your adoptive parents’ names and dates of birth. I’m not sure what to tell you if you don’t.

Birth Parents. Obviously, most folks do not know this, which is the reason you are filing a petition. If you do know them, list them. If you do not, simply say “Unknown.”

Court Petition: Advanced

The final two questions on the petition are a little more complicated to work out, not because they are difficult to complete but because they make up the petition’s raison d’etre. Y’know, the whole shebang. That is, the questions that tell the court your what and why. The first question simply asks you to complete the following:

I am seeking the following information from this petition:

The court’s own form gives you three options to check: 1) medical information; 2) contact with the birth parents; and/or 3) other. Again, the court tries to limit your reasons to two primary things: medical info or reunion. And again, proceed at your own risk if you choose reunion. It’s largely a misplaced reason because it leapfrogs over a more nuanced and central reason, at least for me: you want information about your origin and identity. And what you do with that information and knowledge, once you have it, is up to you. That is, if you get it and then decide to ask the adoption agency to facilitate a reunion, all the power to you. That’s what those social workers are there for.

For my petition, I had also prepared a lengthy memorandum of law and my own affidavit, so I simply referred the court to those by saying “See Petitioner’s Memorandum of Law and its request for relief, along with supporting affidavits and documents.” But what if you want to include everything in just one form, without the need for a separate memorandum of law and affidavits? That’s up to you. But, to understand it a bit better, here’s what I said in my memorandum:

Petitioner, an adult adoptee, seeks the following relief:

  1. An order directed to the District of Columbia Department of Health ordering it to unseal and to release to petitioner a copy of petitioner’s original birth certificate;
  2. An order unsealing the adoption records and papers in this proceeding and allowing petitioner to inspect and request copies of those records, pursuant to D.C. Code § 16-311;
  3. An order directed to the original child-placing agency in this matter, or its successor in interest, to allow petitioner to inspect records from petitioner’s adoption agency file and to request documents from the file that do not abridge any legally defined and recognized right of an individual’s confidentially in the records

Whew. That’s a fair bit of legalese. But I’m an attorney who needs to think through all of the issues as well as any potential for appeal. I was also careful to ask for information from three separate “repositories,” each of which held identifying information but was reasonably subject to court control: the department of health (my OBC); the court (my court records); and the agency (my adoption records). I also did this because each one of these repositories has a slightly different legal standard for release of its records. Which may explain why it took me 35 pages in a separate memorandum to lay it all out.

So, what to request? Again, it’s up to you. If you want all of it, ask for all of it, but be specific as to which records: your original birth certificate, your court records, or your adoption records. And keep in mind that the court’s records are likely the most directly applicable and, relatively speaking, more easily obtained. The court, after all, has direct control over its records. In fact, I cannot realistically imagine asking for your OBC or agency records without also asking for your court records (unless, of course, you already have those).

Finally, the last part on the court form states: “If there is any additional information you would like to provide, please do so here. Attach an additional page, if needed.”

I consider this the “why” question, as in why do you want your records? As I did with the prior question, I referred to my affidavit and other submissions, which explained my own reasons in significant detail. If I could distill those reasons down to a few key words, I’d get this: I wanted proof of my birth to my first mother, and I needed to know if I had another name, my first identity. I also wanted to know how the process of my relinquishment and adoption unfolded, clouded by now because I was seven days old at the time. Essentially, I wanted to know the full extent of my origin and identity, the same as almost all other people in the world and the same as Carolyn Brinker, the adoptee who requested and got her identifying information from a D.C. court in 1979. Indeed, this is what was said in 1979 for Brinker’s reasons to get her own records:

that she has desired to know the identities of her birth parents and siblings since her early teenage years; that the lack of knowledge has left her with feelings of emptiness and confusion concerning her identity; that she is concerned that possible hereditary diseases or conditions could affect her children; and that her adoptive parents have shared with her all of the information in their possession concerning her adoption and fully support her efforts to learn the identities of her birth family.

Hopefully, you understand your own reasons. If you don’t, I’d think twice about petitioning the court. It may not be wise to do so without at least some articulable reason. This process is not the same as requesting an original birth certificate in a place where you have an unrestricted right to get one. In those states, mere curiosity is fine, irrelevant actually. Here, before the court, expressing mere curiosity may hinder any success.

Finally, I’d attach Judge Joyce Hens Green’s decision from 1979, the one I wrote about at length here. It is reported and officially available (for $15.00) through the Daily Washington Law Reporter, with a citation of 107 DWLR 337. For convenience, however, I’ve posted it here as a simple PDF so that you can read it and attach it to any petition. Though I didn’t do this in my own petition, I would certainly refer to the case on the court’s form, simply saying “I request my identifying information pursuant to the process followed by this court in In Re: Female Infant, 107 Daily Wash. L. Rptr. 337 (D.C. Superior Court, 1979), which I have attached.” And don’t forget to attach it. I’ve been there. And done that.

Also, don’t forget to include a money order for $80 (yes, a money order) and send the form and any attachments to the court, at the address listed here on the court’s PDF form. The court should send you a receipt in the mail, which shows that it was successfully filed.

I cannot predict what will happen, with your case or mine. It’s actually not a good idea to guess on outcomes of cases. As I explained in my analysis of Judge Green’s 1979 decision, I believe the law is on our side. But that does not mean a different judge will agree. You will have to make your own decision to file, based on all of your information as well as the risk, cost, and potential disappointment.

If you petition the court, I’d love to know. I want to continue to follow how the court handles and resolves these cases, with an eye toward nudging the court back to the approach that Judge Green took in 1979. In addition, it would be good to monitor how the court handles these cases and build a decent library of decisions and approaches so that we can better advocate for positive results.

Best of luck. Really.

Posted in: Adoptees, DC Courts

Leave a comment

  • Thanks very much for this. I found it quite informative! I hope to be able to file a petition soon for my own OBC. I hope that things work out for you with your petition!

  • Dear Gregory my name is Robin Lindner I was born in Washington DC on November 30th 1953 right now I’m 63 years old and basically I’m starting from scratch I need to send away for my amended birth certificate because I lost it years ago I figure at least I can get the amended birth certificate with the adoption case and perhaps the doctor’s name that’s another question I have if somewhere it would be recorded that a certain Dr deliverered a certain baby on a specific date?? Any advice would be greatly appreciated and I do enjoy your website it’s very informative!! I thank you very much sir I look forward to communicating to you and the future!

  • So glad I found your site. I am a birth mother that has recently been contacted by my wonderful daughter who was born in DC 1967. Adopting Agency was in Virginia. Would it be easier for me to get her OBC? Also do I go thru DC or Virginia? I can’t believe the complicated process for Adoptees. It would mean so much to her to have the OBC.

    • Nice news for you and your daughter!

      The birth certificate would be filed in the District of Columbia. Current DC law explicitly prohibits a birth parent from obtaining the original birth certificate, so it wouldn’t help actually. And DC really does not have a process (yet) to request only the OBC. If you were in a maternity home the home may have a copy of the OBC in your file, but I’ve heard from many people that those files have often “disappeared” or been mysteriously lost.

      I have my own case pending that seeks to change the process, and I’m still waiting for that decision. Feel free to email me at greg@adopteerightslaw.com to talk about it a bit more. But, yeah, it’s unnecessarily complicated.

  • Hi my name is Kathleen Claunch. My mother is Rae Claunch (Miller) and she is 81 and was adopted at birth in Washington DC. We now live in a suburb of Charlotte NC and would find it difficult if not impossible to file and get my mothers records unsealed. I would happily hire you or any other attorney to assist us. I have called the bar association and asked for a reference by message (twice) and have never received a call. As her life is nearing its conclusion, my mother is consumed by finding out who she is.
    I just would like to hire someone who can help.

    Can you point me in any direction that may help us? Please?

    • Kathleen–

      Thanks for contacting me. I will email you with more information. One important thing to figure out for the DC court records in your mom’s case is whether they were ever sealed—and if a new birth certificate was ever issued. Adoptions prior to August 25, 1937, took extra effort on the part of the adoptive parents to have them sealed (including the mayor’s involvement to issue a new birth certificate). I will be in touch.

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