Chicago Few issues are more heatedly debated in child-welfare circles today than whether adopted citizens should have access to their original birth certificates and other legal documents.
In most states adoptees are legally prohibited from obtaining such records, based on the belief that such practices best serve both the birth parents who relinquished their children and their new families.
But a report scheduled to be released today by the Evan B. Donaldson Institute challenges those assumptions, suggesting that all adult adoptees should have unfettered access to their court files and that barring them from such personal information raises significant civil rights concerns.
Currently, only eight states fully open such records, reflecting the nation's long tradition of shrouding adoption in secrecy. The report, considered the most exhaustive on the topic to date, examined individual states' experiences in restoring access, as well as analyzing existing research and policy. It concludes that the rest of the nation should move to share such information - and the sooner, the better.
Moreover, there is no evidence that the handful of states that do allow such transparency have caused undue hardship to biological parents' lives by revealing their names.
"Good public policy is not based on anecdote or stereotypes but on real knowledge and research," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the New York-based independent nonprofit. "We hope by providing that research we can inform the national conversation, leading to laws that are responsible and humane."
In states that have amended their statutes, none of the negative consequences predicted by opponents have come to pass, the study concluded. Chief among the concerns: Without the assurance of anonymity, pregnant women would be more likely to choose abortion.
"It's just not accurate; it doesn't happen," Pertman said. "Sealed records are a symbol of a time when adoption was an embarrassment ... and that time has gone by."
The right to information is simply the right to information, Pertman noted, and should not be confused with the right to a relationship, which he said is something mutually developed between individuals.
"These are adults we're talking about," he said, "not people looking for new mommies."
However, some advocates preach caution.
"How can we respect everyone's right to know while recognizing the birth mother's right to privacy and confidentiality?" asked Nancy Golden of the Midwest Adoption Center. "It's very complicated."