WA Considers Change to Adoption Laws, Access to Birth Certificates

Birth certificates have been a frequent (and surprisingly controversial) topic of conversation here.   You can poke around a read older posts.   The key thing to understand is that, for better or worse, in this country birth certificates are generally used to establish legal parentage.   I emphasize legal here, because it’s a critical term.   A birth certificate is not a historical record of who gave birth.   It’s a document that satisfies a school district, for example, that you have the right to register a child for school.

I am happy to agree at the outset that it doesn’t have to be this way.  You could have a different system where other documents were demanded by school districts, soccer teams and the like.  You could treat the names of parents on birth certificates as historical facts that wouldn’t be changed.   For the moment, however, this isn’t what we do in this country.

The end result is that every state in the US (as far as I know–correct me if I’m wrong) generally issues adoptive parents a new birth certificate with their names on it upon completion of an adoption.   (I say “generally” because there are some contested points.  Louisiana will not issue a new birth certificate if the adoption has been completed by a gay couple, for example, and other states follow this rather discriminatory practice.)

This new birth certificate allows the adoptive parents to function in the world as legal parents.  When they get that new birth certificate, the original certificate is typically sealed.   This can frustrate efforts by the adopted child to locate her/his birth parents.   And so the relationship between adoption and birth certificates is important.

So here’s a story about a new law Washington State is considering.   It’s an effort to strike a slightly different balance between birth parents and adoptive children.   I think it fair to say that it tilts a little more in favor of the adoptive children while still offering some protection to birth parents.   It also addresses some of the issues that have been raised here about medical needs for family history.

I think it is an interesting bill, and the story of its crafting (as a result of conversations between legislators with their own life experiences) is also noteworthy.  I don’t know if it has a chance of passage this year–there’s a lot going on in Olympia and it is a short session–but I thought it might interest you all anyway.


19 responses to “WA Considers Change to Adoption Laws, Access to Birth Certificates

  1. Julie – historically a birth certificate was indeed an instrument that recorded the particulars of your birth. It wasn’t until the early to middle of the last century that changes were made when an adoption happened. Historically the general public could go and view your records to determine your birth status – i.e. legitmate or not, who your parents were, etc.

    In many states adoption laws, it is up to the adopter if a new birth certificate is to be issued. It is not mandated.

    For the era being contested in Washington at least up through 1961 it was up to the adopter if the records were to be sealed or not sealed. None of the laws between 1943 (major overhaul/sealed) and 1961 (where I left off researching the changes) is the time when most claim the privacy rights for the natural mother existed and they do not exist in the law. There is no mention at all on her rights except that she surrendered all rights to her child. It was solely in the hands of the adopting parents whether or not the adoption records were open to public scrutiny. An adoption did not have to be sealed and the court that processed the adoption also had to send notice to the vital records if the OBC was to be sealed (that changed in the mid 50’s where the court needed to advise if the OBC was not to be sealed).

    That “public scrutiny” is what the closing of the adoption files was intended to prevent. That is what is missing in all the conversations regarding the unsealing of the adult adoptees original birth certificate.

    The uses for a birth certificate today is something that didn’t exist yesterday (back then). I don’t believe it was necessary for my generation in school and it certainly wasn’t necessary before that.

    I just get tired of people ‘assuming’ what the law was during the period being discuseed instead of actually knowing what the law was.

    • Excellent points about history and I apologize for making it sound like a static field. My only excuse (and it doesn’t excuse my conduct, but might explain it) is that I sometimes get fixated on the present demands to change birth certificates. These sometimes do not take into account the purposes a birth certificate serves right now.

      But again, you are correct to insist that we acknowledge history. It’s important to realize that the reason birth certificates operate as they do these days probably are rooted in an era when adoption was a shameful secret that was concealed if possible. In this regard, there was also a time when the birth certificates of children born out of wedlock were stamped “bastard.” (See Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison.)

      It’s also true that as an adoptive parent you needn’t get a new birth certificate and of course, you can get a new one and also keep the old one to give to your kids. I think because of convenience most people probably do get the new ones, but I wonder how common it is to preserve the old ones? (I am not always sure the adoptive parents will have access to a complete copy of the original certificate. I’m aware of some people who were only given a blacked out version because they are not supposed to contact the birth parents.)

  2. Julie, my OBC which I have a certified raised seal copy of has a check box Legitimate or Illegitimate and a big X is in the latter. Mine is a Wa OBC.

    The petition to adopt signed by my parents attesting that they had read and understood the petition noted my birth surname in 3 places and identified my mother by her first name, middle initial, last name. Her privacy was not privacy from them.

    Aware parents try to obtain the OBC prior to the adoption going through.

  3. Her info was not private from them is what I meant to say above…

    • Right–I understood. But I don’t think this will always be true. I have friends who adopted out of TX and all the documents they received had names and identifying information blacked out. This was not done at their request (and it was a while back.) It does seem clear that the recent trend is towards greater openness.

      • That is so strange because Texas is the rockingest state for birth records I have the Texas birth registry and I have the full first middle and last of both parents and their birth dates. If a person was born in Texas I can find them or their parents in usually half an hour. I do lots of surprise reunions in Texas just because their records are so awesome. If I have some spare time during the day I’ll just pick a person off one of the big adoption registries who gave birth in Texas that is looking for their kid and I just figure out what their fake name is from the birth registries and that is it. I could have a job of just calling Texas adopted people all day long and telling them their mothers and fathers are looking for them. Its a big state so I try to do a couple of those a month. Texas is by far the state with the very best complete accessible records.

  4. Julie – my adoption happened over half a century ago in WA – in the time frame that is what this legislative change is about…that’s why it is relevant and the openness was there is my point.

    • Right. I think you wouldn’t even have that “illegitimate” box on a more modern birth certificate. It is interesting, though, that in your case the adoptive parents had access to the information you describe. I’m really not an expert here, but I’m prepared to say that it doesn’t seem that the provision of this information is uniform. I don’t know what determines the variation, but I surely know people who didn’t get it.

  5. Julie do remember how I went to all that effort to get all the code excerpts that say that a birth record is in fact to document the identity of a person’s genetic parents and that the information is used by the CDC for national birth statistics and is the basis for much of the medical research on maternal and fetal health that that has reduce the instances of birth defects and infant mortality all over the world. The long form is the basis for the short form and the long form is filled out only once. Reissuing the short for certificate with a new name makes it appear that the certificate is just like one that goes to CDC for statistical purposes, but it’s not its misleading. Its not a real birth certificate if the information on it was not filed with the federal government. Its not a real birth certificate if the child for whom the certificate is named has already been counted as a if the person the certificate is not counted as a citizen of that. It would really make me happy if you remembered because I don’t want all that work to have gone to waste.

    PS those M’s were me i just spaced my keys

    • Your real birth certificate is the one where they count you. Its not like the population increases every time there is an adoption. The number of children born every year is counted from real birth certificates not fake ones. And I suppose that includes real birth certificates with falsified information like the ones I see so often where people are stepped on by their mother’s husbands whose names appear in place of their fathers. And I suppose the number of children born each year includes real birth certificates that don’t list their father’s names because their mothers either withheld the information or simply did not know who he was. One of the saddest instances was my downstairs neighbor who was the daughter of a convicted rapist. I guess her mother was raped in the Bronx and she was the result of that. Did you know that New York won’t put her father’s name on her certificate because of what he did and her mother would not tell her his name either. We had to find out who he was by looking at old newspaper articles then we contacted her Aunt who was so happy to meet her. Like why should that guy not have had to have had to help pay for her upbrining from his jail cell? Why should she not be entitled to inherit from his family cause he got left property that is so messed up. Luckily his relatives I think fixed that. So messed up that they think hiding information is helpful.

      • As I just wrote in another comment, I think the use of the word “real” can be confusing.

        Some people would say that your “real” birth certificate is what you would get when you go down to the state office and pay for an official certified copy. In the case of an adopted child in WA, that will have the adopted parents’ names on it. And it is what you will need to produce if, for example, you are taking a child out of the country and immigration wishes to inquire about whether you have a legal right to do this. (Believe me, this does happen.) I have no idea what would happen if you tried to present immigration with the federal form and I don’t know if you can get a certified copy of the federal form. (And believe me again–immigration wants a certified copy–this is what they think “real” means, I believe.)

        Is there a reason to argue about what “real” means here? It seems beside the point. The document you discuss exists, but it isn’t the document used by lots of authorities–school districts, little leagues, the state department. That’s because we don’t have a separate simple form to show legal parentage and so we let state-issued birth certificates do that work. I understand the flaws in this–I’m just trying to describe what is done.

    • Yes, I do remember and don’t mean to discount the information. But to my knowledge, parents don’t routinely get a copy of that form. What they do get is a birth certificate issued by the state. And perhaps this is because it is what parents get, it is what school districts and the like want. It’s even what the state department wants when you get a passport.

      I think the use of the word “real” here is confusing. A certified copy of the relevant state birth certificate is quite real. And if you went down to the relevant state office to get a certified copy of a birth certificate for a child who had been adopted, you will typically get the new birth certificate with the adopted (and legal) parents’ names on it.

      I don’t think I could get a certified copy of the federal form to take to the school district and if I did, I’m not sure the school district would take it.

      As I say, I do not mean to discount the existence of these forms and I understand why they could be important. But they aren’t what institutions mean when they ask for a birth certificate. Of course that could change, but I’m not aware of anywhere that it has changed.

  6. In my Canadian province, birth certificates are supposed to be presumptive proof of legal parenthood only. But I think people still rely on them as ‘real’.

  7. I think I could make the same statement about birth certificates here in the US–the are presumptive proof of legal (as opposed to genetic) parentage.

    I continue to think that the use of “real” just makes things confusing. They are real presumptive proof of legal parentage, after all.

    • The federal form gets filled out first before a state birth certificate gets filled out. All State birth certificates should have federal long form counterparts the ones that do not have a federal long form counterpart do not document the birth of anything – it is not a certificate of birth for the person named on it. Its like the pink slip to a car its a change in ownership almost

      In fact it is the birth of a person’s parenthood maybe not the birth of a child.

      • Do we disagree on any facts here? We agree that the federal form exists and that it exists first. Do we agree that (for better or worse) states do issue new birth certificates on adoption?

        One small point: I don’t think the federal form is changed after an adoption so I’m not sure it is true that all state birth certificates “should have federal long form counterparts,” unless you mean that as a statement of how you’d like things to be rather than a description of how things are. As a descriptive matter, it’s only true if you consider the federal long form to be a counterpart of a later birth certificate issued on adoption.

        I’m not actually sure if any of these little quibbles matter at this point. Do they? Why? (I do know you’d like to change how birth certificates work, and I don’t mean to suggest that’s a quibble–that’s a big point.)

        • I was defending my position that the certificates issued upon adoption are fake because of the fact that they appear to be the same sort of document and convey the same sort of information. If you know that the State’s create the short form from the long form then there must be a long form for what you see on the short form only, like you point out, they don’t issue another long form for the person with the adoptive name because its not medically accurate and they don’t need to artificially inflate the number of children born in a year. My point was the amended one does not serve all the requirements of the real original birth certificate which is medical and social there for its a fake and its for a person that does not exist (or an identity that does not exist) I think this is why so many adopted people ahve trouble traveling or with other government agencies because they are not really the person listed on the amended cert.

          • You are not using “fake” in the way that most people use it. If I go to the register of vital statistics and get a certified copy of a birth certificate, most people would not call it “fake.” It is a perfectly genuine and real version of what it is–a Washington state birth certificate. It correctly shows legal parentage, which is what it is supposed to do.

            You are, I think, unhappy about the information the state has decided the birth certificate should contain and I do see your argument. You would rather it show genetic or historical parentage rather than legal parentage.

            I’m also not sure there is any reason why every state birth certificate must have behind it some federal long form. I think these documents do different work in our world. The long form collects data while the state birth certifcate is a proof of legal status. The latter (legal status) isn’t important for the purposes of the long form so there’s no reason to issue a new one.

            Of course you can say what you want and you probably want to continue to say “fake” because you think it makes your point better. Assuming that is so it is time to agree to disagree (again) as I don’t see what further progress we can make.

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