The Second Step Toward Denial

By Gregory D. Luce on April 6, 2016 — 4 mins read

I unsealed my adoption records sixteen years ago. It’s not terribly hard to unseal your records in Washington, D.C., where I was born and adopted. The local agency and the district court supplies a form, which I modified and used in March 2000. I actually traveled from my home in Minnesota to Washington D.C. to get my adoption case number and to file the petition personally with the court, paying $20 at the time as a filing fee. About six weeks later I got a letter from the adoption agency in the mail. It said the following:

Family and Child Services of Washington, DC has received an Order to unseal your adoption records. I am enclosing a copy of this agency’s procedures regarding Search and Reunion Services. Payment installments can be made toward the $500 fee if you are interested. Feel free to give me a call at (202) 289-1510 ext. 179 if you have questions. I will begin your search as soon as I receive your payment.

And that’s essentially where, despite unsealing my records by court order, I was denied my records.

I didn’t have $500 at the time, nor did I understand why the adoption agency—and someone I did not know at all—was now offering unsolicited “services.” I wanted my records. I was also confused about what exactly unsealing the records meant. Did it mean they will unseal them but not unseal them? Or that they will unseal them and then make me jump through additional unnecessary and expensive bureaucratic hoops? Should I have followed up and challenged what amounted to a denial of my request? Probably. But it was one of those things, especially as an adoptee, that you are sometimes made to feel: that you are not entitled to your records. And, if you think that you are, be prepared for a byzantine system to get what is yours. It’s a simple ordinance and process, the one in DC that allows you to break the seal on your records. And yet it’s made so unnecessarily complicated and expensive. I just wanted the records. So I gave up, at least with the legal process in DC.

Here’s the problem and mistake courts and agencies make all the time: they assume you are only interested in search and reunion. That’s essentially the bare assumption the court and the adoption agency made in my case. Unsealing the records meant sending an order to the local agency and rubber-stamping a $500 fee for “Search and Reunion Services.” The agency (and the court) conflated my request to unseal the records with their assumption I was seeking a reunion. I didn’t say anywhere in my petition that I sought to search for and reunite with my birth parents. I asked the court only “to allow me to know my identity and the identity of my birthparents.” I should then be able to do whatever I wanted with that information, even if it meant sitting on it and doing nothing.

There are two motivational aspects for obtaining your original birth records. The first motivation is basic: it is asking the state—our civil society to which we all belong—to recognize that you are entitled to your own basic identity and information. In some ways it is loosely similar to the long fight over marriage equality. For that, it was not enough for the state to say “we really have nothing against you” or “we think it’s great that you love each other, but, y’know . . . ” It is not primarily about that. It’s about legal acknowledgment that your status, and all the benefits that go with that status, is expressly recognized and equal to all others. As adoptees, we are entitled to know the full scope of our identities, in the same way everyone else is. To say otherwise, to hide it from us, is to deny all of us basic recognition as equals.

The second aspect of getting your vital birth records is this: it doesn’t matter what you do with them or what motivates you to get them. In the dustup over adoptee rights nationally, these two aspects should always remain separate. That is, we are entitled to 1) truth and recognition from the state and 2) the right to do whatever you want with that truth and recognition, even if it means doing absolutely nothing. Or if it means searching for a parent. Or if you get your original birth certificate and use it for a paper airplane, an origami dragon, or toilet paper. None of it matters if that initial recognition—that unrestricted access to your own basic record—is present. None of it would matter if the state understood such a basic need and right.

I still don’t have the secret records to which I am entitled. I’m preparing a second petition to the court (my records were later resealed). This time I’m going to throw the kitchen sink, complete with all conceivable and reasonable arguments. I will request unrestricted access to my records with no exceptions, no “search” fees, no intermediaries, no reason to want them other than I have a right to request and get them. I will supply affidavits of support from various people. And I will include one final thing as a point of information and clarification:

I know who my birth parents are.

I’ve known it now for more than fifteen years. And I know that, despite the agency requesting $500 for “Search and Reunion Services,” my birth mother had a letter to me in the file from years before I contacted the court. She also had another letter in the file requesting that she be contacted if I ever came around knocking. The agency responded to that letter 23 years ago by saying: “Washington D.C. courts do allow adult adoptees to petition to locate their birth parents. If your birth son ever takes that step, we will contact you immediately.”

Yeah, $500. To open a file I had already unsealed.

Issues: Adoptees, DC Courts

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  • Well said, Greg, well said.

    At age 19 I found my birth family after a three year search. I learned that five years earlier when I was 14, they had written the adoption agency with their current address asking that it be given to me I ever searched. I immediately went back to the agency, who I had paid to do the search, and said WTF? Oops. They said “the letter had been put in the wrong file.” Three years of reunion life. Lost.

    • I’ve heard too many stories like this to believe that they are all coincidences. I’d love to figure out a national estimate of costs charged by agencies to conduct these “search and reunion services.” I have a feeling it’s fairly substantial in the aggregate. And $500 just to touch a file is nuts.

  • Excellent! This is the heart of the matter. Between DNA testing and social media and clues in non-ID, more and more adoptees don’t need Nanny-State “Search and Reunion services” thank you very much.

    New York State (where I was born and adopted) currently has a bill (insert expletives here) that is all about Search and Reunion. For an adoptee to get their OBC under this proposed law, the following steps must be taken:

    1. Apply to the court so that the court can research your case and give “identifying information” on your birth parents to the Department of Health. This would be the very same DOH that is currently sitting on “identifying information” for some 40,000 adoptions where one or more parties had signed up with the official NYS Registry. Why does the court have to dig up the records again? The process generally took several months to two years in the first instance. I’m sure the courts have something better to do.

    2. The DOH will then look for a “waiver” or a “consent” from the birthparent(s). No mention of the adoptee being able to attach a copy of said waiver or consent to the “application”. Right, I’m not supposed to already know who my mother is.

    3. If no waiver/consent is located, the DOH will attempt to contact the birthparent in order to obtain consent. No provision for an adoptee to attach a parent’s death certificate or contact information. They will “search” for my deceased mother and charge me for the privilege. Would they like a copy of her obituary naming me as her daughter? How about her memorial record on Find-A-Grave?

    4. If found, Momma gets to choose between consent and denial. If NOT found or the parent “does not respond” (I presume this includes situations where the parent is deceased), then your application gets kicked back to the court where a judge will decide whether providing you with your OBC would be “detrimental” to your birth or ADOPTIVE parents.

    So yes, this is the best the NY legislature could come up with once they inexplicably gutted our very nice clean bill at the eleventh hour last session.

    This piece o’ drek is still alive. We’re hearing it will be “amended” but have no idea what that might entail and frankly just want to see it dead with a stake in its evil heart for good measure.

  • “And I know that, despite the agency requesting $500 for “Search and Reunion Services,” my birth mother had a letter to me in the file from years before I contacted the court.”

    I’ll really interested in knowing whether or not you actually find your first mom’s letter in your files.

    And I’ll wager $100 you don’t.

    • I may be a sucker if I take that bet. It’s a really good question. I have a draft of that letter from her records, but I don’t have the final letter that was supposedly placed in the file. I’ll let folks know, but it could take a bit of unnecessary legal wrangling to get there.

      It was also untrue in the letter to my mother that the agency had “not heard from your birth son or the adoptive family since that time [i.e., 1965].” My father had written the agency three years earlier, in 1990. I also have that letter, and the response from the agency to the letter.

      • Repeatedly I hear from adoptees that they are questioned by friends and family when the adoptee decides to obtain their original birth certificate or their adoption file. “What do your parents think about this?” And many times they are chastised, “Your parents are great people, how could you hurt them after all they have done by looking for someone who threw you away.”

        Many legislators, or their family members have adopted and the conversation about restoring access is extremely personal and sometimes threatening to them and the relationship they have with their adoptive children… no matter the age.

        Since you mention the letter to the agency from your adoptive father and his response, would you please address this aspect of the difficulty in obtaining records?

        • It’s a good question but hard to answer because of the vastly different experiences we all have with it. But if I were to take a guess or approach to it, it would likely be about the perceptions of power and how that power invades the whole issue of adoption. When a legislator or someone asks “how could you do this to your adoptive parents,” to me they are really saying “why are you trying to disrupt our power over your narrative?”

          And I think it also reveals the questioner’s rather tenuous hold on or even understanding of that power. That is, if as an adoptee you question the power of the state to control adoption and its narrative, you are generally put in a position of a dissenter or, worse, as an unappreciative adoptee brat. It’s a visceral response from legislators and others, and it really lays bare one thing: the power over our narrative is not generally based on equality. Rather, to be honest, our narrative is literally born from an underlying inequality, whether from societal demands on women at the time, poverty, race, class, culture, or a whole host of other varying experiences.

          If adoption is defined as an equation with two sets of parents on both sides and a child in the middle, then that equation is almost always out of whack. Digging into the inequality by seeking the truth of your birth typically gets you in a world of hurt, primarily because you are digging underneath a shaky framework and, in doing so, asking questions that must be answered. When you ask those hard and essential questions, the accepted adoption narrative is thrown back at you, as if you are the problem for digging around in the first place. It really isn’t a whole lot different with any social justice issue seeking to upend an accepted narrative.

          I’ve been lucky, though. My adoptive parents get it. But I do acknowledge that, for them, it may not always be easy. After all, part of the equation of power is a parent’s emotional and physical power over a child. As that child and her parents age, that power must be relinquished, just as birth parents were compelled to relinquish power over us years ago. If the equation needs to be moved toward equality later in life, it will take a fundamental understanding that the truth of our origins must be understood and accepted. And if parental power is still exerted over the truth of our narrative, whether by adoptive parents or by birth parents or by legislators, it won’t come soon or easy.

  • “The second aspect of getting your vital birth records is this: it doesn’t matter what you do with them or what motivates you to get them. ”

    When people in positions of power ask me “What will they (the entire class of the 2% of the US population who are adopted, because apparently those 6,455,240 people will all act as ONE entity) DO with their birth certificate?”

    On any given day my response is that *I* do not know what the estimated 540,000 Texas adoptees will do. Frame it? Put it in a file? Prove membership to many blood line based organizations like the DAR or Sons/Daughters of the Texas Republic?
    Line a bird cage? Throw darts at it?

    Sometimes I respond, “I don’t know…what do you do with yours?”

    Not once has anyone asked me what I do with my amended birth certificate.

    Nor has anyone asked me what I do with other court documents from other court cases I have been a party to.

    No one ever studied the form I completed to obtain a copy of my divorce decree and interrogated me, “what will you do with this document?” Had they done so I might have told them that it was none of their business. Because it is not. What other court cases exists where people who are parties to the legal proceedings are denied copies of the documents? Thus far I have only seen this occur with adoption.

    I imagine it is also in the witness protection program court files, however in those cases the affected parties are willing participants who already know their own information.

    • I’ll have to think carefully about any cases where the parties to the proceeding have no unrestricted right to the files. Maybe cases involving national security or business trademark or proprietary secrets.

      Years ago when I filled out the detailed application to become a licensed attorney in Minnesota, the application asked if I had ever been a party to any court proceeding. I answered truthfully that I was the named party in an adoption proceeding when I was a few days old. I thought about that when you mentioned this. I’m sure the attorney folks approving the license process kinda rolled their eyes. But at least I made them wonder a bit about what it means.

  • In 1976, just by chance, I encountered a woman who told me there was one particular judge, at this particular time, who was willing to give permission to open adoption files.

    “You need to go now because when the agency finds out he is doing this again they will put pressure and he will stop again.” She didn’t have to tell me twice, however on that day I was still 17. I remember going to bed every night and praying for the Judge. “Dear God, please don’t let anything happen to him until I can get to use the car without my adoptive parents figuring out what I am doing. Amen.”

    Yes, I knew I was adopted. I had been adopted at the age of nine. I had been in foster care for 6 years. I knew my sister’s names and vaguely remembered my mother. I knew my name because I had been writing it on school papers for years before my adoption.

    In September, 1976, I walked into Judge Herman Jones office in Austin, Texas and asked for a court order so I could access my original birth certificate.

    He wrote out a few sentences, handed it to his secretary and in a few minutes I left with that precious piece of paper.

    It was sheer luck that I met someone who knew what judge was opening files, at a time when that judge had the authority to open my file.

    There are thousands of Texas adoptees that, had they known, in 1976 would have been in that judge’s office asking for their own records. They didn’t know because they were not lucky enough to meet someone who knew what judge to ask.

    Now in Texas, adoptees must petition the court which handled the adoption. Since there are 254 county courts, there are 254 interpretations of the standard, which is “good cause.” In one county, good cause is that you want your birth certificate. In another county, the argument that you have life threatening medical problems and need family history is not enough.

    Now the luck is not in meeting someone with information, now the luck is the geography of your birth, no scratch that, it is the geography of your adoption.

    If the birth was in Dallas County and the adoption was in Dallas county, it is very likely an adoptee will be able to obtain a judges order opening their file.

    However, if the birth was in Dallas County and the adoption was in Harris County, there is virtually no chance the petition to access records would be granted.

    There is a disparity within our state and a disparity within our nation which can only be corrected by reasonable voices educating those in positions of power on the issue and advocating for equality. It is a long road to equality as we have seen over the years in other civil rights issues.

    Thankfully social media and DNA are procuring identities to people who have been denied, however in many cases they are still denied their own “Simple Piece of Paper” as the Jean Strauss film illustrates so well.

    • This is a great story and provides lots of context to the issue. For me it’s easy to figure out, as I have to deal with just one jurisdiction (DC), and a unique one at that.

      Also, I should make sure folks know that here I am talking about my adoption records, which are distinct from the original birth certificate filed with the vital records department. In DC, though, the original birth certificate is almost always in the adoption file. I believe a current bill that is close to passage in Hawaii also deals with unsealing adoption records and not specifically with releasing the OBC, though the OBCs in Hawaii—like those in DC—are almost always part of the adoption records.

      • I really appreciate the thoughtfulness and clarity with which you have laid this post out.

      • Hi there. Im a little late on this thread but im wondering did you petition the DC court to open the seal. I have to send in my request along with the $80 fee.

  • Given it’s now a trope every four years, I’ll ask it: What do adoptees who want to run for president do? (If, as you say in some cases, the birth certificate is tied up in the adoption record files, in other words.) I’m no lawyer, but I would think there’d be a ton of 14th Amendment issues around denying adult adoptees the same basic information the rest of us take for granted, particularly when it comes to government records. (Which, uh, I guess is your point.)

    • Most of the time your “second” or amended birth certificate makes it appear as if there is no other birth certificate. In fact, I really didn’t know I had another birth certificate until I was in my thirties. Go figure. That said, I’m sure if “birthers” wanted to make a stink about an adoptee as presidential candidate, they certainly could, and have. Though both birth certificates typically indicate where you were born (i.e., city and state). International adoptions would be a whole different story.

      • My son’s Minnesota-issued birth certificate identifies his corrrect date and place of birth, Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Oddly enough, New Jersey did (may still) permit adoptive parents to alter the place of birth. (There was a court case some years ago in which adoptive parents wanted to alter the birthplace of their child but were not permitted to do so because two countries were involved.)

      • But… the “other” birth certificate still has the same date, right? I mean, that’s the part of this story I’m most concerned about, you know.

  • What were the express terms of the order, Greg? Is it too late to seek an order compelling compliance with the original order or must you go back to square one, hope you get the same result, and then seek an order compelling compliance when the agency refuses to honor it. Or perhaps the agency has mended its ways since 2000.

    • Well, unless I’m misremembering things, you don’t get to see the actual order to the agency. The court sends it over to the agency and the agency contacts you by letter. So, no idea what it actually said. You do essentially ‘start over’ with a new petition, but this next one will be different and will be accompanied by a memorandum of law.

        • Agreed. Again, I could be mistaken in my memory but do not have a copy of any order in my records and specifically recall only receiving two things: 1) the letter from the agency and 2) a court order that later resealed my records. These petitions are almost always done ex parte, which is why a potential contested hearing in a another case now pending is a big deal.