Connecticut adoptees marked a major milestone earlier this year when the General Assembly passed legislation giving them access to their original birth certificates — and the names of their biological parents.
Legal experts don’t see the measure, recently signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy, creating much new work for lawyers. In fact, it could mean less work for the relatively few practitioners who focus on adoption issues.
As it stands, adult adoptees must go into court and prove that they need their original birth certificates. But once the new law takes effect on July 1, 2015, the process of accessing birth certificates is going to become an administrative and bureaucratic matter rather than a legal one.
“Bureaucratic is the right word,” said Karen Caffrey, an adoptee, a former attorney, a psychotherapist who counsels adoptees and an activist with the grassroots adoption organization Access Connecticut. “We’re not anticipating any type of [legal] issues.”
The new law will give adults whose adoption was completed after Jan. 1, 1983, access to birth certificates by right, said Caffrey and Donald Sherer, a fellow of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys and a solo practitioner in Stamford. “The only reason someone is calling a lawyer [about the new law] is if they’re having a bit of a hard time figuring out who can request a birth certificate and the initial understanding of the law,” Sherer said.
Until 40 years ago, birth certificates were open records in Connecticut. But then the law was changed, and adoptees had their original birth certificates sealed and were issued revised documents that listed their adoptive parents as their parents. In recent years, Access Connecticut and other advocates have pushed for access to original birth certificates, and not just because they might want to forge relationships with their birth parents. They argue that they should have access to family medical histories so they can take proper steps to maintain their health.
In Connecticut, an earlier version of the birth certificate bill was vetoed in 2006 by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who expressed concerns for the privacy of the biological mother. But this year’s version passed the House and Senate by wide margins. Fourteen states now give most adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates.
There is not a robust adoption bar in Connecticut, as the state does not allow for-profit adoptions. Not-for-profit agencies handle most adoptions in the state.
Sherer says he is one of a handful of lawyers who does adoption work in Connecticut. He said that in states that allow for-profit adoptions, lawyers arrange the adoptions, even going as far as to pick up babies from hospitals.
Connecticut may be the “only state that allows nonlawyers to go into court without a license” to handle adoption issues, Scherer said. Adoption agency executives and social workers go into probate courts, he explained, to offer documentation that the biological parents are relinquishing their parental rights. The probate judges offer approval for finalizing adoptions.
A portion of Sherer’s practice is representing out-of-state adoption agencies that are licensed in Connecticut and that need somone in-state to handle the probate court process.
Sherer, who has two adopted children himself, said there is not a lot of litigation over adoption agreements in Connecticut. The stigma of having children born out of wedlock has vastly diminshed, Sherer said. Now adoptions are much more open and often involve birth parents’ continued participation in a child’s life.
The only time adoption cases are in Superior Court is when the Connecticut Department of Children and Families is seeking to involuntarily terminate the parental rights of abused or neglected children, Sherer said.
Tip Of Iceberg
The recently approved legislation was based on a compromise that opens access to some, but not all, birth certificates. The Jan. 1, 1983 threshold was chosen for a specific reason. Starting in 1983, birth parents in Connecticut had to sign a form when they relinquished their parental rights stating that “the child or youth, upon reaching his or her 18th birthday, may have the right to information which may identify me or other blood relatives.”
The bill also set up a voluntary procedure for birth parents to specify if they want to be contacted by the children they put up for adoptinon. Adoption agency counseling records, and court records of adoption hearings and the termination of parental rights remain confidential.
Caffrey said that the “very, very narrow step” of opening access to birth certificates could be just be the tip of the iceberg in making accessible more information about an adopted person’s ancestry and identity. Access Connecticut plans to lobby to restore access to the birth certificates of people who were adopted before 1983, she said.
Advocates also want access to information in adoption agency files and information in attorney files. Adoption information held by attorneys will raise the question of who is the client, Caffrey said: The person who was adopted? The parents who adopted the child? The birth parents who gave the children up for adoption?
The desire to have knowledge about one’s origins comes up not only for adoptees, but for people who were conceived through artificial reproductive technologies, Caffrey said. The legal issues concerning such information is going to continue to grow, Caffrey said. “It is not, in my opinion, in any child’s interest to deprive them of their identity forever,” Caffrey said.