Free Adoption Records: Open the Secrets in New York – part 1

Free Adoption Records - no Promises of Confidentiality

The history of sealed adoption records in the US and the current battle in New York’s legislation to free them open.


Since, my little blog here is now featured in the local Kingston paper online, I thought it would be most fitting to re-publish this piece I wrote specifically about New York and the adoption laws here. Since it is rather long, I broke it up for ease of reading. Please return for part 2 and part 3!

Sitting in the computer cache deep in the NY legislator’s recess, is a little bill numbered A909 Number A909, or its companion bill in the Senate S2490A, bears the name “The Adoptee Rights Bill”. For thousands of adult adoptees and their families in our state much rests on the passing of A909 if they are ever to be allowed to have the knowledge of their medical history, know their original names, or seek out their heritage. For thousands of families separated by adoption, this is their only hope.

Many people might not care about number A909 because it does not affect them. In fact, many people, including the legislators that need to vote on the bill, do not even understand the facts and principles behind the bill. It is actually quite interesting to see how little people really understand about adoption and it lifelong implications. It is one of those subjects that has many details and subtle nuances, plus as many different personal interpretations as there are people willing to listen and talk about it. Most of general society has only enough information about adoptees and adoption to fill in the basic plot of a bad made for TV movie or make some great tabloid’s headline. In other words, little in the way of hands on truth.

Even without having firsthand knowledge of the intrinsic ins and outs of adoption, in essence, number A909 is very simple. The bill will allow an adult adoptee over the age of 18 to have access to their original birth certificate, called in the adoption circles, the much coveted OBC. Often, people don’t even know that adoptees do not have access to their OBC or know that they are sealed. Many an adoptee has been quite perplexed and then often enraged that the state can withhold this basic piece of information from them. After all, they declare, it is within their civil rights. It is their records, with their names on it, but in this state, only adoptees and those in the witness protection program are denied access. Even New York, considered a liberal “blue” progressive area, the status quo for adoption is based on antiquated laws.

The Sealing of NY’s Adoption Records

In 1935, the then acting NY Governor Lehman, an adoptive father, signed a bill making NY a sealed record state. His children were adopted from the most infamous baby thief of them all, Georgia Tann and it is not a farfetched thought to think of New York States adoption records becoming closed upon her request ala quid pro quo.
As a portion of the estimated 6 million adoptees, our New York adoptees have two “official” birth certificates. The original one, which truthfully states the information about their physical birth, including their original names, their natural parents names, the hospital, doctor, date, time and weight, becomes forever sealed under a court of law when their adoption is finalized. At that point, the new adoptive parents are issued a new amended birth certificate which might or might not state the real birth information such as date, time, hospital and weight, and replaces the natural parents names with the adoptive parents names “as if” the child was born to them. The name of the child is also reborn and all identity from the point of finalization on is replaced. The OBC is forever more sealed under Domestic Relations law and never to be seen in the light of day by anyone. No one has access to it but the clerks that hold the keys and they are sworn to the subjective secrecy. The adoptive parents have no rights to it, not the adoptee, and not the original parents whose names are also listed. This 75 year old law continues to frustrate and mystify all to this day

Why Open Adoption Records?

Some might ask why anyone would even care. To some adoptees denied, they want it because they cannot have it. It’s the mere principle. Given that all anyone usually has to do to obtain a copy of their birth certificate is write a letter to the county clerk from which they were born, state their pertinent information such as name, birth date, mother’s maiden name, a copy of one’s driver’s license and a 10 to 15 dollar fee; being treated differently simply because on is adopted is unconstitutional and prejudicial based on the situation of one‘s birth. The adoptee had no say as to the conditions of their birth and parentage, being the innocent party in decisions made by adults, and continues to be treated like the perpetual child in the eyes of the state.

The United Nations seems to agree that children, even grown up children, do have rights to their identity. Article 8 of the 1989 drafted UN Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly states:
1. States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.
2. Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity, States Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity.
To date, all nations have signed and ratified the UN convention and either currently have open records or are in the process of doing so. The US seems to think us above such flim flam and unimportant drivel like a Child’s Bill of Rights. To date, the US is one of two UN nations who have not incorporated the rights of a child. At least we are in good company as the other country, Somalia, is long known for its fair and human treatment of its people. Or maybe we should be thinking why we are in the same category with Somalia. Even if the United States as a whole wants to make that statement to the world, at least NY should declare its humanity and listen to the what the UN has proposed over 16 years ago.

Clearly, though, this bill is not based on just principles or an unknown UN convention as most people are not so idealistic. Violations of civil rights aside, adoptees can usually do most of the things with their amended birth certificates that all non adopted persons can do with their non alter birth certificates. They can get jobs, be enrolled in school, get a driver’s license, etc. even if the ABC looks “different” and sometimes even fake. Of course, now, with homeland security an ever present concern, many adoptees are finding that the process of getting a passport is even more strenuous. If a birth certificate is issues more than a year after the birth, then it considered circumspect and in adoption, the late issues amended birth certificate was given out after the adoption was finalized, when the adoptee was 18 months or 3 or older! In fact, “the Birthers” who demanded to see President Obama’s birth certificate would really have had something to cry about if the President had been Adopted! His original OBC would have been sealed away as well!

The one thing that the OBC does that a ABC cannot do is give them their natural parents’ names. This is often the reason why the governments get all wiggy when asked to allow access. When adoptees want access to their OBCs it is usually because that would be the easiest way for them to search and find their natural parents. With internet databases galore literally at their fingertips, finding a lost family member is sometimes a quick click away, but still the search is hastened when one has the actual name of the person they seek. With the secrets of adoption and the silence of agencies swore to carry those secrets, the OBC is the clearest sure fire way to have that name.

The History Of Sealing Adoption and It’s Records

The question is: why does our government care about what family members we have contact with and why do they seek this control?
The answers are deep within adoption history. To fully understand why adoption records should be open, one needs to comprehend why they were closed in the first place. Adoption first occurs in history not as a way of meeting the needs of neither a child nor the parents who wish to raise a child, but as a legal way to declare an heir for inheritance rights. While there have always been child who have a need for a family, the formal legal relationship though adoption was not necessary. People simply took in children when they could and raised them if needed. By the mid 1800’s conditions of industrialized cities, teeming with new immigrants, poverty and diseases, left thousands of homeless, parentless children and necessitated the birth of the Children’s Aid Society. Adoption, at this point still only seemed to seek homes for children as opposed to seeking children for homes though the motivations do begin to become corrupted early on.

Around the time that NY’s records closed, down in Tennessee, Georgia Tann was beginning her evil rein as a baby stealer. Though perhaps she had good intentions in the beginning, Tann placed or sold over five thousand infants and small children under the age of six, frequently by lying to the children’s mothers, claiming still births or having them sign fraudulent paper work when they asked for help with medical expenses. Most of her victims were poor, uneducated and had no intentions of losing their children . Tann was reported to earn over a million dollars from such sales which continued on into the 1950‘s, but died before she could be held for her crimes. Many a doctor, lawyer, and social worker also received various profits from the transfer of parental rights from the poor to those who could pay for the privilege of being a parent.

Adoption Records; Closed for Public Protection?

New York's sealed adoption records

Prior to 1917, all birth certificates were a matter of public records until a Minnesota act closed the first set of state records and began the current trend. New York closed early in ‘35, and by 1960, there were only 20 states where the OBC was still available. The last state to fold was South Dakota in the 90’s. Only Alaska and Kansas remained open though out history. Whether it was influenced by the corruption and needed to cover tracks of those like Tann or truly had the noble intentions that we are told of today, the closed records were originally said to be a form of protection. Our Puritanical forefathers were all too quick to pass judgment on both mother and child if born out of wedlock and adoption was thought to spare a innocent babe from the stigma of illegitimacy. There were no social services nor day care for young mother at this time and being with child and unwed was much cause for speculation and ostracized from society. Women who succumbed to love and found their fertility to be an enemy, had little hope of finding home nor employment and turned to various charitable organizations in desperate need of help.

Some of these homes, such as the Florence Critteon Homes, had ethical beginnings, housing and caring for women and children together until they were able to move on. They gave them support and medical care, parenting and job placement, but changed their focus as society’s and various “professionals” views were redirected. It was during this change of focus that closed records were thought to be best for all involved. The mother could free herself from the tell tale proof of her sinful digression, the child had the stamp of bastardization removed, and the adoptive parents were free from any undue influences and interference from the original mother. Infertility was not discussed and it was common for many an adoptive mother to fake her pregnancy and then pretend to all society that she had, in fact, born a child. Closed records enabled this deception.

By the end of World War II, the adoption industry in America had all their ducks in a row. It was considered one’s “patriotic duty” to reproduce and create greater numbers of free American’s to combat the numbers born in communist Russia and China. The American dream was in full force, creating the suburban sprawl and the perfect family values we now hold dear. Coupled by war wounds and just general infertility as suffered by women, being “barren” and unable to produce the requisite 2.5 children was seen as a social flaw, but not openly addressed. Newly embracing the study of the human mind, social work become a true profession and many a social worker thought themselves more knowledgeable and infiltrated the maternity homes which were dens of social woes waiting to be ‘corrected’. With Freud as their guide, a woman who dared to exercise her sexuality was seen as “immoral” and deviant in mental nature. Rather than helping mothers and children the shift began to move to the realm of punishment:

Unwed mothers should be punished and they should be punished by taking their children away.” Dr. Marion Hilliard of Women’s College Hospital, Daily Telegraph, (Toronto, November 1956)

Closed Adoption Records and Eugenics

Also popular in the day, was the concept of eugenics. While much of the studies went underground in light of Hitler’s horrors, eugenics and adoption from that time still share a similar root of thought. Past beliefs about infant development and genetic importance were also influencing the act of adoption. Children were seen as “tabula rosa”, a blank slate, from which the adoptive parents and society could shape at will, forming a better race, since the children were removed from their dubious beginnings and given to more qualified parents. Often the only prerequisite to be a “better” parent was a “Mrs.” in front of the intended mother’s name and the ability to write a generous check. Nurture trumped Nature and it was thought that the origins of one’s birth did not need to be addressed with any differential treatments. Many an adoptive parent was handed over a child and instructed to just “love like one’s own” and, that’s just what they did. It was frequent to hide the fact of a child’s adoption from all including the child and lie about one’s true origins well until adulthood.

girls who went away and lost their babies to adoption

These thoughts provided the foundation for what is now to be called the “Baby Scoop Era”, the period in time from WWII to the passing of Roe vs. Wade, where an unwed pregnant woman had little choice at all to keep and raise her child. As self documented by the women who lived it in Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, conditions at many of the homes were anywhere from cold and uncaring to downright cruel. Sent away and paid for by their own families, mother’s were drugged, strapped down, left to labor alone with no pain medication and treated with disdain, threatened with lifelong shame and poverty, made to feel worthless and bad. Often they were lied to, tricked to sign paperwork and threatened with various medical repayments if they dared to desire their own children or question their rights and abilities to parent themselves. The great majority of “girls” didn’t forget their first babies and failed to “get over it” as they were told but waited in shame and secrecy, always wondering about their first born but believing that, with sealed records, there was nothing that could be done.

Truthfully, it was a social experiment gone wrong. What we have seen of human nature though time proves it. While many good adoptive homes were formed, the ideal and the reality of perfect adoptive parents has not erased the need of an adoptee to know their origins. Many adoptive parents were hurt when they found that their love alone were not enough and their adult child still wondered about their life before adoption, though this is really no judgment about the quality of love nor care. Likewise, the threats and promises made to the mothers also proved to be untrue . Women simply do not forget the babies that they cradled and natured in their wombs for 9 months. Despite removing all evidence of the birth, these women went thought the biological and emotional changes that made them mothers and they continued to walk about as exiled from their young, forever hiding their wounds. What was protected by sealed records is now accepted as normal human nature.

Slowly, our societies views on premarital sex and single motherhood began to morph, as adoptees reached legal age and mother’s began to free themselves from shame, and the need for closure, clarity, and truth has shed new light on the emotions surrounding adoption. No longer could the agencies use shame to manipulate a woman for adoption nor could the industry ignore what was so obvious, both mothers and children fared better if information could be exchanged. Plus with the ability of birth control and the legalization of abortion and the stigma lifted from single motherhood, less children were being placed. This began the new dawn of adoption as we see it today.

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About the Author

Claudia Corrigan DArcy
Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy has been online and involved in the adoption community since early in 2001. Blogging since 2005, her website Musings of the Lame has become a much needed road map for many mothers who relinquished, adoptees who long to be heard, and adoptive parents who seek understanding. She is also an activist and avid supporter of Adoptee Rights and fights for nationwide birth certificate access for all adoptees with the Adoptee Rights Coalition. Besides here on Musings of the Lame, her writings on adoption issue have been published in The New York Times, BlogHer, Divine Caroline, Adoption Today Magazine, Adoption Constellation Magazine,, Lost Mothers, Grown in my Heart, Adoption Voice Magazine, and many others. She has been interviewed by Dan Rather, Montel Williams and appeared on Huffington Post regarding adoption as well as presented at various adoption conferences, other radio and print interviews over the years. She resides in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, Rye, children, and various pets.

11 Comments on "Free Adoption Records: Open the Secrets in New York – part 1"

  1. Anonymous | June 14, 2010 at 7:34 pm |

    I was one of the unfortunate mothers to end up at Women’s College Hospital. They really did punish us with verbal and physical abuse there.

    One ex-nurse I know who worked there said that the other nurses would get together on their coffee breaks and discuss the best way of physically hurting an unwed mother without leaving any marks. Punching the inside of the womb just after giving birth was a favourite one of the doctors as the bruising only occurred on the inside with no visible marks on the outside.

    Babies used to wear beads around their necks.
    One of the ways the nurses tormented mothers was to wave the bead necklace that their baby had been wearing, then snip the bead necklace into a bucket with other beads, then tell the mother to find the beads that their baby had been wearing. I remember crying into the bucket as I desperately tried to remember where the beads fell. The nurses would laugh while watching us suffer.

    The nurse that told me this said she left Women’s College hospital as she couldn’t stomach the torture that was being dished out to the unwed mothers. My son was born in the 1970’s there – it was the most horrendous and callous place. If you tried to take a picture of your baby, they would take it away and rip it up.

    I don’t know how those nurses could sleep at night, knowing what they had done to women who could not defend themselves against such cruelty.

    Our complaints ended up in their “circular file” aka the rubbish bin.

    I still get upset when I think about it.

  2. Anonymous | July 31, 2010 at 6:02 pm |

    I would have gotten a gun and shot up that place. The harsher a person is to an unwed mother, the more skeletons they have in their closets. Since most of those nurses were child, they may have been lesbians. Since giving birth is the most feminine thing a woman can do, lesbians hate that. Unwed mothers were vulnerable because their puritanical families didn’t support them. Also, premaritial sex existed since the beginning of time. 95% of the population had sex before marriage. Even those feminazi nurses. They betrayed women to the patriarchy.

  3. Thank you so much for this blog. It was very informative for me. I do Gen Research and I am trying to help someone find THEIR parents adoptive information. This is a new world I’m delving into. My person’s interest was born several years before 1935–is there a possibility that their records have been left open?

    • Assuming we are talking about NY? Then probably not. When each state sealed the OBC, they did it proactively for ALL adoptions. NY is sealed up like a drum holding Jimmy Hoffa’s body. In fact they JUST pulled the NYC birth index OUT of the NYC public library for some unknown reason, but for a long time many adoptees born in the 5 Burroughs COULD painstakingly find that way.. and they JUST took that away too!

  4. To the Lady above from June 10th: I’m so sorry that you went through that horrible experience. How very, very sad. Sometimes, in history, I’ve read many accounts of cruel nurses and I wonder why they are in the profession at all. They often seem to be anything but caring. Similar of some accounts with the nuns.

  5. I am ready to strangle someone– I swear— all I want is a copy of my original birth certificate for Daughters of the American Revolutionary War status– I already know who my mother and father were — she’s dead– he’s whatever— but I found my mother’s family goes back pre- colonial times etc.— I want my info. and I just wrote the Governor of NY State if that helps– I’m relentless and I am a rebel on top of it all — it’s in my DNA. I am tired of the red tape rude ass bullshit people give me on the phone.

  6. Jacob J. Wicks | May 15, 2016 at 2:55 am |

    I have done 2 DNA tests and have found a half brother and 3 half sisters from my father. My brother gave me the family history of my father. The only information I have for my mother is a last name and country of family origin from my adoption papers. I do have my birth name. The 3 people I have been in contact from the matches of my maternal DNA are also adopted and we don’t even know what our exact relationship is.

  7. Truly wondering | May 24, 2016 at 1:48 am |

    Going by what you have written in the above post,
    The United Nations Article 8 of the 1989 drafted UN Convention of the Rights of the Child clearly states:
    1.States Parties undertake the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.

    AS RECOGNIZED BY LAW. Well there is the clincher! What identity, nationality, name and family relations are recognized BY LAW for an adoptee?!

    The ADOPTIVE identity is what is recognized BY LAW.

    Many seem to think the lawmakers that refuse adoptee access to OBC’s are going against the UN Convention Rights of the Child. Thinking that the UN was all for adoptees having their truth. Nope. NOT if it is truly written as it is in the above post. Lawmakers would be upholding the UN Convention Rights of the Child and the UN would be upholding the rights of -by law- adoptive families.

    That section needs to be re-written to include the word/s genetic /original identity, nationality, etc. if the UN at all claims to be upholding the rights of a child who was adopted or their descendants. It seems to be protecting the adoptive status.

    Does “without unlawful interference” pertain to those searching for truth and natural family members? Does it pertain to natural parents searching?

  8. Jo Swanson | June 2, 2016 at 10:31 am |

    I beg to differ with this commenter:

    “AS RECOGNIZED BY LAW. Well there is the clincher! What identity, nationality, name and family relations are recognized BY LAW for an adoptee?!”

    The right of the child “to preserve his or her identity” wouldn’t refer to the ‘identity’ assigned him by the country’s adoption law. There has never been “unlawful interference” to take an adopted child’s amended identity and pseudo-nationality, name, and family relations from him, so why would it need protecting by the International Convention?

    In the U.S., registration of births is required by law. That registration is the child’s identity “as required by law.” Other countries have birth registration laws which establish each child’s identity. Those are the identities that are to be protected by the Convention. Later assigned names and amended ‘birth’ information are not considered a child’s “identity.”

  9. Peninah Ritschad | June 18, 2016 at 10:22 pm |

    I was 5 years old as I was adopted. I am now 66 and I still miss my biological mother and siblings. It has been a torment for me for years not knowing my mother and family and being deprived from my birth records. As my children were being born, I had no baby pictures or toddler pictures to compare or show them ,which was not only sad for me but also for my children as well. It’s like I didn’t exist or I had no identity during the fundamental years of my life. Why are the unwanted children being punished for the sins of the parents? We have a right to know who we really are and where we come from. So many secrets and unanswered questions like – who do I look like? Or from who are my talents and abilities? Did my parents love me? And who are my half brothers and sisters? Are they alive? A part of my identity and the identity of the generations will always being missing for me and my family until my questions have answers. I am grateful for my adopted parents who died many years ago but they cannot replace my mother, because blood is thicker then water! It’s our DNA that says, ” I’m not like the rest of the family who adopted me – I’m different! It’s a real emotional roller coaster when a child gets older and realises your in another family’s life film but not your real family. Different parents, a name change and wiping out all the traces of the past can’t change your DNA. The imprints of the generations are branded in our souls and still we are expected to deny who we really are as adoptees. New York, you’re behind in the times! Wake up and give the adoptees a break and open the way to our freedom by releasing the birth records (hopefully before I am 75)!

  10. My dad who has been deceased since 1964 was given up for adoption along with 4 siblings he was given up at the age of 5 years old from what I understand his biological dad passed aw,ay ,his mom remarried and he did not want the children.His one sister was his twin. This took place in brooklyn ny through the queens county court with the courts denied my request to open the seal so many times I don’t know what to do,my dad has been dead for over 50 years by opening the seal who would be hurt if someone has any advice please let me know.

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