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.