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Original Birth Certificates: A Social Justice Issue in Adoption

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

By: Andie Coston, MSW Intern

In 2019, my husband and I finalized the adoption of one of our children. After the court session ended, one of the social workers shuffled through papers and said, “Oh! I could have gotten you your child’s original birth certificate (OBC)! Well. Too late now!” This happened just ten minutes after the adoption documents were signed. A few months later, I texted the child’s First Mother and asked if she had a copy. She did not. The social workers had never let her fill out the information nor granted her access to it. As an adoptee myself, I was frustrated that I did not know any better to specifically ask for it. I knew how vital an OBC can be to an adoptee. I was angry that I was 10 minutes too late, and now we would have to wait years to access it according to our state laws.

Adoption is filled with loss for the adoptee. The loss of an original birth certificate that lists birth names, biological parents, and hospital information is another layer of loss for adoptees. It is a reminder that we did not have consent or agency in our own adoptions. While my husband and I know our child’s biological parents, many adoptees do not have this privilege. Millions of adoptees lack essential information about who they are, from the names of their parents to their family history, medical information, their original names, and even their birthdays.

Before the 1940s, when an adoption occurred, the adoptee’s birth certificate either was not changed nor was it sealed from them. In the 1940s, a woman named Georgia Tann, a social worker, advocated for sealed birth records to “protect the adoptee” from knowing they were adopted, illegitimate, or to protect them and their adoptive families from their birth parents. However, Tann’s motives were nefarious, using the idea of sealed records to cover up her actions trafficking infants and children from which she made millions. By the late 1940s, the Children’s Bureau began recommending sealed OBS and records. Over the next four decades, 48 states followed suit, with only Alaska and Kansas remaining unsealed. 17 states still have restricted access to OBCs and 24 states have compromised access. Compromised means that access to an adoptee’s OBC is limited in some way. Only ten states give access to OBCs for adoptees.

My story about birth certificates doesn’t start with my child. My own adoption was initially closed. When I was two, I had to have major surgery. My adoptive mother says at that moment in time, she knew that this was something any mother would want to know, so she reached out. My mothers started communicating via the agency for the remainder of my childhood. In one of the letters, my birth mom sent a copy of my birth certificate, acknowledging that this is something I may want later in life. She knew I would not have access to it.

But my history with sealed birth certificates goes back farther. After I met my birth father, I learned that his dad, my grandfather, was also adopted. He was placed for adoption at the beginning of the “Baby Scoop” era, and his adoption was closed entirely. He was born in 1933 and trafficked by his adoptive aunt, so there may not have been an original birth certificate. With no male heirs willing to do a DNA test, this is a side of our family that will forever be lost to us. Who are we? Who am I? What is our family name? What was our family’s story?

In my next blog, I will provide practical action steps to gain access to your child’s OBC, your OBC, as well as actions steps to help rectify this social injustice against adoptees. An adoptee’s access to their OBC is a human rights issue as it methodically cuts us off from the foundations of who we are. It is a document to which no one but adoptees lose access. It carries the names of our biological parents and allows us to start learning about our family history. Not having our OBC erases our legitimacy as humans from birth and instead the paperwork seems to reflect that we weren’t human until adoption. Don’t take my word for it. Here are a few quotes from other adoptee’s themselves:

Quotes from adoptees:

“My whole life, my intrinsic curiosity was met by a belief that adoptees have an implicit requirement to passively be satisfied with what their AP provide. However, not knowing where I was from, who I was genetically, and not having any family history caused confusion, difficulty in connecting to my lived experience, and imposter syndrome. I deserve to know the name of who I came from. It should be a right of every adoptee.”

“I was a person before I was adopted, but I’m not allowed to see who I came into this world as. My birth mother had a name for me, my birth family had a name. I am lost in a document I don’t have access to because of a law protecting my adoptive parents.”

“I think my OBC is important because I never consented to it being changed. I didn’t consent to my name changed. Having a rewritten BC has caused complications for filing things like a passport.”


1: American Adoption Congress. (2022). State Adoption Legislation - American Adoption Congress.

2: Child Welfare Information Gateway, & Children's Bureau. (2020). Access to Adoption Records. In Department of Health and Human Services.

3: Luce, G. D. (2022). FAQ: Original Birth Certificates. Adoptee Rights Law Center.

4: Nikos-Rose, K. M. (2021, December 10). How Can U.S. Adoptees Get Their Birth Certificates? UC Davis.

5: Williams-Mbengue, N. (2019, May 19). Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates.


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