You always have to jump through a few hoops to obtain your birth certificate, but if you were adopted, it may be even harder and, in some cases, impossible. Many states "seal" the birth records of adoptees, replacing the certificate with one bearing the names of the child's adopted parents. This practice was originally intended to save unmarried parents from the shame of having illegitimate children. Some states have changed their laws and allow children access to their original birth records unconditionally, but others have not.
History of Sealing Birth Records
Having a baby "outside of wedlock" was a cause for shame through most of the 20th century, especially for the mother of the child. Families would send their daughters away to give birth in secret, then place the baby with other parents. These adoptions were also kept secret, and in the United States as well as most of the Western world, governments began the practice of "sealing" the original birth records permanently and replacing the birth certificate with one bearing the names of the adoptive parents. That meant that even when the child grew up, she couldn't learn the names of her actual parents.
In modern times, the stigma of illegitimacy has faded in many parts of the country. The practice of sealing birth records of adoptees is also fading, although not as rapidly as some would like. Currently, a handful of states have changed the law to permit adoptees to obtain original birth documents, but many more have not. If you live in one of the states where it's possible to obtain the records, you usually need to file an application swearing to your identity as an adoptee and must provide documentary identification.
Sealed Birth Record Laws
You may think that there's a uniform policy in place regarding who can see a sealed birth certificate and the procedures for doing that. But there isn't. Each state is free to enact its own laws. There's not even a specific agency you can visit to figure out your state's rules. Sometimes this will be listed on the state's Department of Health or Vital Statistics website. That's probably the place to begin a search. Your state government website may also offer information on their sealed birth record laws.
Several groups and organizations advocate for more access to these birth records and may be able to offer information about your state. These include the Facebook group "Seymour Fenichel Adoptees" and the organization Unsealed Initiative. You can find these online.
How to Get a Sealed Birth Record
If you were born in a state that permits all adoptees to obtain birth information, you're in luck. These include Kansas, Alaska, Alabama, Oregon, Maine and New Hampshire. Adult adoptees can receive birth certificates that have birth parent names on them. There is a procedure to request and obtain the sealed birth certificate.
In some states, like Washington, an adoptee who was born in Washington or born elsewhere and adopted in Washington can get a noncertified certificate unless the person's birth parents filed a "contact preference form."
If you were born in a state that still maintains sealed birth certificates, you may be able to get copies of the certificate if your birth parents didn't request nondisclosure and you meet other requirements. Otherwise, you're simply left to join lobbying efforts by adoptees seeking access.
- Washington State DOH: Adoptee Request Original Birth Certificate
- ABC News: The Nation's Adoption Laws and Unsealing Birth Certificates
- KATV News: Law Plans to Unseal...
- Oklahoma: Birth Certificates
- Washington State DOH: Original Birth Certificate for an Adopted Person
- Washington State DOH: New Adoption Law
- Unsealed Initiative
With a Master's in English, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's law school, Teo Spengler is up on education. She splits her home time between San Francisco and France. A perpetual student and frequent teacher, she is also a writer and world traveler. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Arizona Central, Fairmont Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites.