How to Open Sealed Adoption Records
By Jayne Thompson
Updated March 16, 2019
Almost all states allow adoptive parents and adult adoptees to view limited information about the adoption after the record has been sealed. The exact procedure depends on the type of information you are looking for and the rules of your state. Non-identifying information such as the adoptee's date and place of birth is easier to get hold of than information which might positively identify the people involved in the adoption process. In some jurisdictions, you may need a court order before you can access identifying information.
Check That You're Entitled to Adoption Information
While rules vary between states, "non-identifying" information is usually available to the child's adoptive parents, adult adoptees and in some cases, the birth parents and adult birth siblings of an adoptee. Non-identifying information includes the adoptee's date and place of birth, physical descriptions of the birth parents, and medical histories for both the child and her birth parents. Visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway (see Resources) to find your local child welfare agency and ask what information it is prepared to disclose, and to whom. In three states – New York, Oklahoma and Rhode Island – you'll have to formally register with the state adoption registry before you can request non-identifying information.
Consent for the Release of Identifying Information
Information that might positively identify an adoptee or his birth family is tightly restricted by the court. The local adoption agency may give you details of a person's name and address, employment and similar records if the person whose information you are seeking has consented to the release. Some states include extra layers of protection.
In Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas, for example, an adoptee seeking adoption information must undergo counseling before the child-placing agency will disclose details about her birth family. Other states such as Connecticut will not disclose information if the disclosure might harm the birth family, either physically or psychologically.
Mutual Consent Registries
Around 30 states arrange the consents that are necessary for the release of sealed information through a mutual consent registry. Around eight of those states will automatically release consented information upon request. Most states, however, require those who wish to exchange information to file an affidavit consenting to the release. States without mutual consent registries have other procedures for arranging consent.
For example, an adoptee looking for her birth parents may be allocated a court-certified intermediary who will open the court record on her behalf for the purpose of tracing the birth parents, and requesting their consent to the release of information.
Going Through the Courts
If you can't access the information you require through your local child welfare agency or mutual consent registry, the only option is to seek a court order permitting the release of the adoption file. You'll need to show a compelling reason for unsealing the record that outweighs the right to privacy. In most states, only a party to the adoption proceedings may file a petition to open a court adoption record. The court may open the entire file or allow access to only certain information.
A former real estate lawyer, Jayne Thompson writes about law, business and corporate communications, drawing on 17 years’ experience in the legal sector. She holds a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Birmingham and a Masters in International Law from the University of East London.