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Adoptive parents are overwhelmingly in favor of opening sealed adoption records, Cornell study finds

Parents of adopted children in New York are overwhelmingly in favor of laws that allow adult adoptees access to information in their birth certificates about their birth parents, according to a new Cornell University study.

"One major argument for keeping records sealed is to protect adoptive parents who might feel threatened if their adopted children knew more about their birth parents," said Rosemary Avery, Cornell associate professor of consumer economics and housing and a specialist in family policy and foster care. "Yet, these results indicate there is no justification for keeping such information from adult adoptees, especially non-identifying information. And there is no reason to believe that New York state adoptive parents are any different from those in other states: they are overwhelmingly supportive of opening sealed adoption records," Avery said.

As more adult adoptees pressure state legislatures to open sealed adoption records on the grounds that they are unconstitutional and important for healthy psychological development, Avery set out to determine how adoptive parents felt about the potential legislative changes and how common open adoptions were in the sample.

She surveyed 1,274 adoptive parents in 743 adoptive homes in New York. The study, which is the first intensive study on this issue in New York, based its findings on a diverse sample of parents who lived in rural and urban areas, adopted through public and private agencies and adopted children of various ages.

She presented her findings at the North American Council on Adoptable Children in Dallas in August, and will publish them in a forthcoming issue of Children and Youth Services Review.

Among her findings:

  • Adoptive mothers were more in favor of opening adoption records than fathers: 83 percent of adoptive mothers and 73 percent of adoptive fathers felt that adult adoptees should be able to obtain a copy of their birth certificates; only 9 percent of adoptive mothers and 11 percent of adoptive fathers felt they should not have access.
  • 78 percent of adoptive mothers and 66 percent of adoptive fathers felt that all adult adoptees should have the right to obtain an original birth certificate, regardless of when they were adopted.
  • About 17 percent of the adopted children in the study had some contact with their birth mothers compared with 7 percent having some contact with their birth fathers. Of those, about half have actually seen their birth mothers and half have met their birth fathers.
  • White adopted children and "other" race children are far more likely to have contact with their birth parents than black/African American children.
  • Children adopted by more educated parents were far less likely to have any contact with a birth parent.
  • Older adoptive mothers were more in favor of opening adoption records while white adoptive fathers, and adoptive parents with prior experience with fostering or adoption were less in favor of opening adoption records.

Currently, only New Jersey upholds the policy of complete confidentiality in adoption records, Avery said, and Hawaii, Kansas and Minnesota have open adoption records with and without age limits; Alaska, Kansas and Tennessee allow adoptees access to their original birth certificates and Washington, D.C., Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia and West Virginia hold "good cause" hearings to determine whether to allow adoptees access to all records.

In 42 states, including New York, the state requires that adoptees persuade the court they have "good cause" for learning non-identifying information regarding their adoptions; mere curiosity is inadequate. Non-identifying information includes birth, age of birth parents, physical, medical and educational histories of birth parents, race, ethnicity and age and gender of biological siblings.

In 1994-95 the New York legislature debated whether to allow adoptees access to their birth records regardless of when they were adopted. Although those bills have since died, Avery said, she expects that they will be reintroduced and hopes that her empirical data will facilitate the dialogue.

Pending additional funding, Avery would like to replicate her study using a national sample and to survey all three members of the adoption triad: adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees.

"At the very minimum, adoptees should have easy access to non-identifying information about their birth parents," Avery concluded. "Such information lets adoptive mothers and fathers parent better and should help them deal with difficult child adjustment problems during adolescence. For adoptees, greater opening might contribute significantly toward healthy development during adolescence and lesson feelings of rejection and insecurity."

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