I recently received the court of appeals opinion in my case. First, as a result of the decision, things will be changing for adult adoptees who were born in the District of Columbia and who seek their own records, whether court records or their own original birth certificates. Here are my quick takeaways and what the decision is likely to mean in the near future. There is still work to do, at least one more decision is ahead, and legislative action remains the real and lasting solution.
Here are the big takeaways. While there were some other fairly wonky statutory interpretation issues, I don’t include those here.
- The appellate court reiterated and affirmed the purpose of sealing records, stating that it is “primarily intended to protect the privacy interests of adoptees. . . . Such privacy interests surely persist into adulthood.” (citation omitted).
- The most important consideration in releasing records is “whether disclosure would be in the interests of the adoptee.”
- Birthparents have “no absolute right of privacy” in relation to releasing sealed OBCs or court adoption records in DC. Birthparent interests may be “relevant” but—consistent with the intent and scope of DC law—they cannot be a deciding factor.
What Does It Mean?
At its core, the decision eliminates consent of birthparents as the deciding factor when a court in the District of Columbia decides whether to release court records or the original birth certificate to the adoptee, particularly when that adoptee is now an adult. Prior to this decision, the DC Superior Court had relied entirely on an adoption agency or intermediary to search for and obtain consent of birthparents, largely within the context of contact between the parties. The court of appeals in my case has now rejected consent—as well as birthparent privacy— as “dispositive factors” in future break seal petitions. While the court did not dismiss birthparent concerns or interests, it indicated that such interests are only “relevant” to the overall decision. The court’s final decision, however, remains focused on the paramount interest of the adoptee. Moreover, as the court stated:
[a]t least barring unusual circumstances—a trial court will have no reason to doubt that disclosing an adoption record would be in the interests of the adult who seeks disclosure of his or her own adoption record.
The decision shifts the framework for current and future petitions to disclose, which will focus on the paramount interests of the adoptee (which is what I had argued). How that plays out is not yet determined, so it’s not all rosy unicorns and fireworks right now. The case has been remanded to the trial court, which has already set a hearing in March to reconsider my request (which at this point is for an unredacted OBC as well as copies of the court records). I’ve also been ordered to notify all those “affected” by the disclosure of my information and am working on a response to the court on that issue, as that requirement at least includes my birthfather, with whom I have already been in contact. Obviously, it’s a loaded issue to serve a birthparent with legal papers, so I’m considering options. I will comply with the order, but at least he deserves a heads up.
Does this Mean I Get My OBC?
Does this mean that adult adoptees can now petition the DC Superior Court (or the US District Court for pre-1956 DC adoptees) and get your records automatically? No. It means that the focus has shifted away from birthparent privacy and interests and shifted back to the adoptee. How that now works out in practice is the next process to determine, and it may happen in my case or it may take subsequent cases to hone the procedure and to determine the full scope of our own rights to our own records. That’s how litigation works.
Finally, a constant reminder and an important call to action: this is a court decision that interprets current DC law. It is not legislative action that changes the law. For that, I’ll have news soon on initiating and supporting legislative efforts in the District of Columbia and it surrounding states. If you want to be notified or get involved in those efforts, sign up now with Adoptees United Inc., a new national nonprofit of which I am a part. It will get you plugged into the action.
It’s been a long time since I had posted here on my personal blog. I hope it will be less time between now and my next post—and I hope the news will keep getting better, in DC as it already has in New York. Hang tight.