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open records

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

I’ve long been a supporter of the movement aimed at changing state laws to allow adult adoptees access to their original birth records. In principle, having open access to original birth records is a basic human right—the fundamental right of each of us to know who they are.

This is something the rest of us take for granted, I think. After all, we all have our birth certificates, with the names we were given at birth and the names of our parents. Because this information hasn’t changed—our names remain the same, our original parents are the ones who raised us—perhaps we aren’t capable of understanding how important it is to have that information at our disposal. But in most states, when a child is adopted, his original birth record is sealed; for all intents and purposes, the person who was before the adoption no longer exists, legally replaced by the person named on the amended birth certificate.

But beyond the fundamental question of identity lies a whole host of issues that might crop up when an adopted person applies for official identification. Triona Guidry has written on her blog, 73adoptee, about the difficulties adopted individuals can have in obtaining drivers licenses and passports because the only proof they have of their identity is their amended birth certificate.

I’ve never understood the point of sealing original birth records—I know all the arguments, but none of them really rings true for me—and I’ve always believed the state should allow adoptees access to these records. But because my children’s adoptions are fully open, in their case this seemed more a formality than anything else. We know what their last name was at birth; we know their mother’s name; we know where they were born, and when. We have in our possession all the information that is contained in their original birth certificates; we simply don’t have the documents themselves.

It seemed a formality, but today it moved out of that realm and into the realm of a real issue that has the potential to cause my daughter all sorts of problems down the road.

What usually happens when a child’s adoption is finalized is this: The appropriate paperwork indicating that the adoption has been approved by the court is sent to the state. The state records the information, files an amended birth certificate, and seals the original. A copy of the amended birth certificate is sent to the adoptive parents.

What happened in our case is this: Someone, somewhere dropped the ball. Whether it was our attorney or the court—or simply a miscommunication in which each thought the other was sending the paperwork to the state—I don’t know, but when I phoned the Amendment Unit this afternoon, I was told that there was no record of my daughter’s adoption in their files. I called the Surrogate’s Court, where her adoption was finalized last June, and was told that the paperwork had never been sent, but the very helpful clerk told me she would send it today and ask the state to expedite it so that hopefully we’ll have her birth certificate soon.

All’s well that ends well, right? Well, sort of. We’ll have her birth certificate, yes; we can apply for a social security number for her, open a bank account.

Where we’ll run into difficulty is getting her a passport. According to the State Department’s passport information Web site, a certified birth certificate is required to apply for a passport; by the State Department’s definition, “A certified birth certificate has a registrar’s raised, embossed, impressed or multicolored seal, registrar’s signature, and the date the certificate was filed with the registrar’s office, which must be within 1 year of your birth.” Because of this snafu, Julia’s amended birth certificate—the only one she has the legal right to access—will have been filed more than 16 months after her birth.

There are ways around this. Since her birth certificate won’t meet the State Department’s requirements, we can provide “Secondary Evidence of Identification“—we can sign a sworn statement attesting to her identity and the State Department will issue her a passport. (We can’t do this until after she turns two, though, I think, since the witness is required to have known the applicant for two years. *sigh*) We’re planning to apply for a passport for her as soon as we legally can—we’re hoping that having a valid passport will help with any other problems down the road where her amended birth certificate—filed so long after her birth—might not be sufficient.

But the point is: We shouldn’t have to jump through all these hoops to prove our daughter’s identity, just because she is adopted. Neither should any other adoptees have to jump through hoops, dealing with the differing requirements of each government agency (where often the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing), being told that what they have is insufficient and that they need this or that document instead, often dependent on nothing more than the understanding of the person handling their inquiry. Adopted persons should be able to walk up to the counter at the passport office or the DMV—just like I can—hand over their legal documents, apply for whatever it is they’ve come to get, and walk away having completed their task, without any extra hassle.

My own common sense tells me that since it’s the government that refuses to allow access to original birth records, the government has no business telling adoptees that the amended birth records they are allowed access to are insufficient. But in this “post-9/11” world, where everyone might be a terrorist (including, apparently, an adopted toddler), added to the adoptee’s questions of identity are issues of identification. In an atmosphere of heightened security and tightened restrictions, continuing to refuse adoptees access to documentation that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are who they say they are is simply unacceptable.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, 30 March 2010 3:24 pm

    It’s all ridiculous, isn’t it? I wish we could scrap the whole birth-certificate-as-proof-of-legal-parenthood thing and allow OBCs to stand unamended and unsealed. Or at least include both the original and new information on the amended form.

    On a practical note, did they tell you that the filing date would be current dated? On both of my kids’ amended BCs (from two different states), the filing date is the original filing date–as in the date their OBCs were entered into the system shortly after their births. It was left unchanged when the names were amended. Which I’m grateful for, since my son’s amended filing date would have been well past the 12-month window. So you might get lucky on that front.

    • Tuesday, 30 March 2010 3:48 pm

      I agree 100%. I wouldn’t even mind the amended BC so much (because it *is* currently considered proof of parenthood/legal identity/etc.) if it were attached to the original BC rather than in place of it.

      Anyway – about the filing date… I asked a friend of mine whose son’s BC had to be amended because a name was spelled wrong on it, and the filing date was after the correction was made. So I’m assuming it will be the same with this. I figure it’s better to assume it’s going to be a huge PITA and maybe be pleasantly surprised if it isn’t. 🙂

  2. Trish permalink
    Sunday, 25 April 2010 9:27 am

    I was worried about the same thing with my daughter. For many reasons surrounding her unique birth situation, her OBC was not filed until 3 months after her birth. Her adoption was finalized when she was 14 months old. Her ammended BC has the original filing date on it after all. This is in NY

    • Tuesday, 18 May 2010 8:50 pm

      I was glad to see this comment. We just got Julia’s ABC last week, and sure enough, it has the original filing date on it along with the amended filing date. So hopefully she won’t have any issues with identification, but we’re going to get her a passport right away just to be sure. I figure it’s better to do it this way than to get a passport when we’re planning to travel & have it turn out to be a huge issue.

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