Mandatory Release vs. Mutual Consent: New Report from NCA

Today I received a link to this recent report from the National Council for Adoption, refuting the findings of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute with regard to open records, in particular the notion that adult adopted persons should have automatic access to the identities of their birthparents. This is a difficult — and hotly debated — issue.  

I’ve touched upon the subject here and elsewhere in the past, and have no desire to rehash the arguments at this time (those who are unfamiliar with the arguments in favor of mandatory open records will find them summarized nicely in this report).  However, there was one point in the NCA report that I thought warranted special mention. In their response to the first “social argument” for mandatory open records, NCA observes:

“Contrary to the picture painted by EBDAI’s misrepresentation of data, the vast majority of birthparents (and adopted persons) support the release of identifying information to the children they placed for adoption based on the principles of mutual consent, not mandatory openness. In support of their argument that “the vast majority of birthparents … support the release of [identifying] information to the children they release for adoption,” the authors of For the Record state, “A 1991 study found that a substantial majority of birthmothers (88.5%) supported access by adult adopted persons to identifying information on their birthparents.”

The study cited is Sadchev’s Achieving Openness in Adoption…, and it does indeed state that 88.5% of the birthmothers surveyed supported the release of identifying information to adult adopted persons. However, the study also found that 75% of birthmothers who supported the release of identifying information prescribed “consent of the birthmother as [a] condition for permitting adoptees access to this information.”

In other words, three out of four birthmothers support the release not mandatory release, but by mutual consent. Furthermore, Sadchev finds, 77.9% of birthmothers, 88.8% of adoptive parents, and 75.5% of adopted persons would prefer sealed records or release by mutual consent to mandatory openness. (NCA report, pg 5)

To date only 10 states have mandatory open records, with 40 states having varying degrees of “openness” with regard to adoption records — some granting non-identifying medical information (some requiring a court order). If you would like to find out the rules in your state, click here. (I’m not sure how current this list is … If you know of something more current, please let me know.)

I’m going to be away from the computer for the next few days, so if your comments do not immediately post, please be patient. And as always, “calm and constructive” get a much better hearing than “snarky and insulting.”  If you want to rant, do it on your own blog. Thanks!

10 thoughts on “Mandatory Release vs. Mutual Consent: New Report from NCA

  1. Mutual Consent Registries have an alarmingly low match rate – which opponents of adoptee access often point to as confirming that most parties do not want contact. This assumption does not take into account the following very REAL problems:

    A – The parties have different or incomplete information with which to make a match. Sibling registries in particular suffer from this. A sibling may not know the exact date or place of birth of the adoptee. Both siblings may be adoptees and neither has access to identifying information on their parents or any information about each other. In some instances, the parents’ recollection is faulty or the adoptee’s amended birth certificate may show a fictitious date or place of birth. New Jersey in particular allows the adoptive parents to CHANGE the place of birth.

    B – One of the parties is deceased. I don’t think even the NCFA could argue that deceased persons are able to register. Further, when a match is made, registries will not release information until both parties RECONFIRM their consent – so both parties must still be alive and have kept their contact information updated.

    C – One or both of the parties may have been falsely told that the other was deceased. During the BSE, mothers were lied to and told their baby was stillborn or died in infancy. Adoptive parents have hid the adoption from the adoptee or told the adoptee their first parents “died in an accident” solely to prevent the adoptee from questioning or searching. Many state laws specifically state that there is no requirement for the adoptive parents to “inform the adoptee that he or she was adopted.”

    D – One or both parties do not know a registry exists or the parties do not sign up for the SAME registry. Adoptees who have found their first parents by other means (and have been welcomed into their lives) often ask the obvious question – “Why didn’t you register?” All found parents were unaware that registries existed. Some had been told years ago that “adoptees never want to search” and never investigated the available resources. Some had contacted their adoption agency to put letters and waivers in their child’s file – but were NEVER told that a registry existed.

    E – Some parties want identifying information but are unsure about contact. One party may want to know more about the other before initiating contact. Once a match is made, that party must either reluctantly agree to exchange identifying information or risk rejecting a potentially beneficial relationship out of fear of the unknown.

    As for the poll question cited in the blog – the answers you get depend on the exact question being asked. Ask “Do you support release of identifying information only with the consent of both parties?” and people respond by considering what OTHER people might want, not what they themselves would be comfortable with. Any person who WOULD consent to their identifying information being given to the other party is mindful that other people might not consent. If the question was “Would you consent to YOUR identifying information being given to the other party on request?” – you would get a different set of numbers.

    Gaye Sherman Tannenbaum
    Born 1953 Staten Island NY


    • Gaye: Thanks for taking time to write. Although (as I said) I’m not interested in re-opening the mandated open records issue, I did want to post your comment because I think you raise some good points about the limitations of MC, which need to be addressed (although I think they can be addressed within the MC paradigm). For example, creating one centralized registry, rather than having multiple listings. Sibling registries are a step removed from parent registries with regard to privacy issues, and there may be a way to integrate this kind of information as well for those who voluntarilyparticipate.

      As I said, the issue of open records is a complex one, one with strong points of view on both sides. And, as you point out, how one asks the question (or interprets the data) can make all the difference. It may be possible — unlikely, but possible — that a birth/first parent who genuinely wanted to reunite with an adult child might not have known about a particular registry. However, other explanations seem far more likely — such as it might be a convenient “out” for those who didn’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings more than necessary, or an unwillingness to rehash the circumstances of the original adoption plan.

      No two triads are exactly alike, and a spectrum of emotions and responses is possible. Not every adult adoptee initiates a search; not every first/birth parent objects to being contacted; in many cases, feelings are mixed. Bottom line: MOR forces information on people who may — or may not — wish to have it, and puts the state in the untenable position of working against itself by establishing the adoptive family bond, then facilitating connections between parties that were once legally severed.

      It seems inappropriate in the extreme (sort of like killing a fly with a machine gun) to mandate open records on the simple possibility that an adoptive parent does not provide sufficient details of the adoption for the adult adoptee to locate his or her first/birth parents. I don’t doubt it happens; however, the state has a legal obligation to protect the permanent nature of the adoptive family bond. Adoption creates permanent families, and should not be treated as long-term foster care (until the child grows up and can be restored to his “true” family). I find it ironic that the feelings of adoptive parents are often completely overlooked in these discussions (or, worse, are painted as “selfish” by MOR advocates). From where I sit, we stand to have the most to lose … and in reality have the strongest legal claim in this matter. Legally, it is the adoptive family bond that must take precedence — not the first/birth family.

      Yes, the adult adoptee may (or may not) have a strong desire to search, one would hope with the blessing of his parents. However, his legal rights extend to information about his ADOPTIVE family, not the first/birth family members. Beyond that, his or her curiosity does not trump the other person’s right to privacy — no matter how nice the other person might be once that privacy is breached. Mutual consent ensures this — and mandated open records does not.

      Gaye: I received your second note, but have chosen not to post it here. As I said, I’m not interested in continuing the dialogue on this subject — but I did want to make my readers aware of the existence of the NCFA report. I’ve learned through previous experience that this is one issue that it is fruitless to dialogue for very long. I’m not going to change your mind on the issue, and you are not going to change mine — and you are unlikely to get a hearing with most adoptive parents, so long as you continue to paint them in sweeping, unflattering generalizations.

      Adoptive parenting is difficult, and each situation is different. I trust my readers to make decisions for their families — with regard to birth parents, and every other situations — based on what is best for their child. When I become aware of various adoption-related resources that I think may be of use to my readers, I list them here. I don’t always agree with everything on the site (such as the Donaldson Institute). But I trust my readers to make up their own minds. Thanks again for writing.


  2. You say adoptive parenting is difficult. You must be very courageous to have adopted. Is it two children?

    How would adult adoptees knowing the situations of their birth threaten the adoptive family bond? I don’t understand why you feel adoptive families have much to lose if their (adult) children learn the circumstances of their births.

    I am asking because I don’t want to overlook the feelings of adoptive parents.


    • First, let me be clear: My objection is not with (adult) children learning the circumstances of their birth, per se. As I’ve said, many times, parents need to be sharing the facts of adoption as they think their children are ready for them. My primary issue is with MANDATORY open records. That is, with adult adoptees being able to get identifying information of first/birth parents without the consent of those individuals. If the birth parents want the contact, and so do the children, that’s a different story.

      Even in these situations, however, there are implications for the adoptive family bond for the simple reason that it adds complexity to the family dynamics. In some families, those complexities can be navigated successfully. Other times, there can be a lot of additional pain — for everyone.

      Have you ever read the book “Because I Loved You” by Patricia Dischler? If you haven’t, I’d encourage you to do so. She writes of her experience in placing her son for open adoption, and the challenges ALL of them faced, especially when the child reached adolescence.

      Every family is different, and what might “upset the apple cart” with one triad may (if the birth/first parent supports the child’s parents) work out for another triad. There are many variables: You could have a birth parent who outright rejects the child, or who comes in and out of the child’s life giving him or her repeated “rejections” and leaving the child angry and resentful (and guess who gets caught in the crosshairs of THAT situation?). Or you have first/birth parents who are all too ready to resume the relationship where it left off … weddings, graduations, grandchildren, etc., as that young adult’s “real” parents. (This is a real concern for foster-adoptive parents whose children’s first/birth parents’ rights were terminated involuntarily.)

      Even when the young adult (adoptee) has a strong relationship with his parents, the reunion can be traumatic. We worry about being further displaced at a time when a child is already developmentally chomping at the bit for independence from us. It’s just one more thing to negotiate.

      Sadly, you can’t always count on birth/first families to support the adoptive family. A few weeks ago I spoke with my children’s old social worker, who foster-adopted a sibling group herself when they were toddlers. Turns out, she had allowed the teenagers to correspond with their first/birth mother who lived in another state … and later discovered that this woman had been plotting with the kids (15 and 16) to run away and come live with her. Another college friend searched for and found her birthmother after she finished school … and promptly broke off all ties to the adoptive mother (who admittedly was rather strict, and she a free spirit) up to and including changing her name.

      It can work … I’ve seen this, too. Another friend (both adoptee and birth mother) found her birth family, and has been building a relationship with them ever since. Her adoptive mother had died, but had been supportive in her search. So now her kids have a paternal grandmother … and a maternal step-grandmother … and a maternal birth/first grandmother. Lots of love to go around, when it works out.

      You might compare the introduction of birth family in young adulthood to what happens to a family when the parents get divorced. You have divided loyalties, animosities, and power struggles. You try to work it out, for the sake of the child. But no one would say that the family bond is unaffected by the experience.

      Dischler’s book describes a best-case scenario, and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to read it and know that these kinds of relationships CAN work (just as there are divorced couples who live side by side and continue to raise their children together). However, if it doesn’t … If our child’s heart is broken, ours breaks, too. And if they find the loving first/birth mother they always dreamed of … well, our hearts break then, too.

      I hope this helps. Thanks for writing.


  3. You’ve described adoption as quite a minefield. I wish I’d had that information when I relinquished my daughter 35 years ago. Thanks for sharing.


    • I think it was Leo Tolstoy who wrote that “all happy families are happy in the same way; all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” The challenges of adoption are unique to each family … but then, so are the joys. One thing I’ve learned through this process is the truth of these words of Jesus: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for each day has cares enough of its own.” Teresa of Avila said something similar:

      “Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you,
      All things pass away, but God never changes.
      Patience obtains all things,
      But she who possesses God wants for nothing,
      God alone suffices.”

      Thanks for writing.


  4. Heidi – as a parent who has shared custody with my ex and his girlfriend/wife since our children were toddlers – I am well aware of the minefield of emotions. We made it work and our “kids” are now young men in their 20s.

    I’ve read and reread what you’ve written and all I’ve seen are birth/first parents who make it work – or the ones who do not, in various ways. I don’t know what objection you have to first parents being invited to celebrations of the child’s life – graduations, weddings, etc. You DO invite aunts, uncles, friends and grandparents – don’t you? I have NOT seen you write about adoptive parents who close the adoption for no reason or are abusive. You are an able advocate for (adoptive) parents but I’ve yet to see where you even entertain the idea that some tiny minority of adoptive parents may NOT be doing things in the child’s best interests. Having heard from adoptees who were physically and even sexually abused by adoptive parents – I know it exists. Not all first parents are saints – and neither are all adoptive parents.

    PS – I still don’t know how a deceased first parent can register and allow the adult adoptee access to identifying information.


    • Actually, I have written about parents (including adoptive parents) who fall short of sainthood. All of us fit that description at one time or another. My book “Raising Up Mommy” is about that very issue — the seven deadly sins through the lens of motherhood.

      With regard to milestones, as I’ve mentioned NUMEROUS times, each adoptive triad is different. What works for one doesn’t work for another, and there are varying degrees of openness and interaction. My husband and I have talked to several social workers and counselors about whether it would be wise to allow visitation. Without exception, in our situation, the response has been uniformly negative. (The first/birth parents are also legally prevented from seeing the kids before they reach adulthood.)

      Yes, we invite (birth)siblings as well as (adoptive) aunts, uncles, friends, and grandparents to such celebrations … but we are the only set of PARENTS present.

      I think you’re right about needing to address child abuse, and needing to get more resources for parents who feel “on the edge”. I know that horrible things have happened in adoptive families, especially when attachment problems arise in previously institutionalized children. Actually, it’s something I’ve pondered before from a couple of different angles. I’ve written about domestic violence and the effect on children (I think that was on Mommy Monsters) … but this is different. Thanks for the suggestion.

      P.S. A quick Google brought up this form, registration for extended (surviving) family of deceased birth parents: Not sure if this is what you’re talking about, or whether Illinois is unique.


  5. I still don’t see the logic for avoiding mandatory release of ADULT adoptees original birth certificates. It has no bearing on pre adult reunions or involving first parents with the adoptive family while the adoptees are children.

    If it is an adult’s wish to know the their origins, they deserve the opportunity to navigate the complexity of the family dynamics. Reunions are fraught with challenges somewhat similar to those of adoptive families. That is the lot of an adoptee. They have to deal with a great deal of loss and deserve respect when they reach adulthood. They deserve to determine how and when they define themselves, to be treated like any other adult.

    The continued support of their adoptive families as they confront their personal realities is commendable.


    • “They have to deal with a great deal of loss and deserve respect when they reach adulthood. They deserve to determine how and when they define themselves, to be treated like any other adult.”

      Adopted children deserve respect and support throughout their lives, and it is the adoptive parents’ job to make sure they get it. And when they become adults, they deserve to be treated like any other adult … with the same right to privacy as their birth parents.

      I understand that you are frustrated, and that you feel the “system” is letting you down. But in point of fact, there are at least four or five people in every adoption triad: adoptee, birth parents, and adoptive parent(s). The rights of all three sides must be taken into account once all three parties reach adulthood.

      There are really two issues at stake here, and mutual consent addresses only one of them – not the rights of the adoptive parents, but the rights of the birth/first parents. Retaining the seal on the records would protect the rights of the adoptive parents, but at the expense of the other two sides of the triad. Mutual consent, while not ideal, seems to be the best possible solution at this time – although to be effective, it would need to be tied to a well-publicized national registry, rather than a state registry.

      When original birth records are restored (either by mutual consent or mandatory open records), the adoptive parents are affected primarily in the case of younger siblings, who automatically gain access to the information at the same time their older siblings do. My children’s oldest brother is now 13 … which means that my daughter could potentially have contact with her birth mother as young as age 12.

      The comment box on this post is now closed. Thanks for writing.


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