Many Minnesotans have become familiar in recent months with the story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman whose search for her son was documented in the Academy Award-nominated film “Philomena.”
Philomena was not fiction. Minnesota has its own Philomenas. They and their lost children populate real-life tales of adults who seek only to know that their children survived or to know from whence they came — to be able to say to a man or a woman, if they so desire: “I believe I am your child. Can we talk?”
It is little to ask and there is even less reason to deny them these opportunities. Yet Minnesota law does precisely that.
How did we get here?
Every person born in Minnesota is issued a birth certificate. The overwhelming majority of us are entitled, as a matter of law, to a copy of our own certificate. The public at large is not entitled to access our records. This makes sense, particularly in an age of identity theft.
One group, however, is not permitted free access to their own birth certificates: those adopted in Minnesota. Their birth certificates are sealed at the time of adoption. A new birth certificate is issued, containing their new name and the names of their adoptive parent(s). The original is locked away.
This has not always been the case. In 1917, adoptees’ birth certificates were sealed from public view, purportedly to protect the child from the stigma of illegitimacy. Yet the original certificate remained available to the adopted person. In 1939, the original birth certificate and “all papers pertaining” to it were placed under seal, to be opened only by order of the court or the state registrar. In 1945, the records were sealed against all, “not to be open for inspection by any person” except by court order. The law has been modified on many occasions, each amendment adding another layer of complexity.
Today, access to an adoptee’s original birth certificate is determined by a set of laws that consider the date of the adoption, whether a biological parent has filed an affidavit forbidding its release and — in those cases in which such an affidavit has not been filed — whether a judge believes “that disclosure of the information would be of greater benefit than nondisclosure.”
Depending upon which of these barriers one faces, the process can take months to complete, if not years. It can cost several hundred dollars. Even then, it may result in a denial of the adoptee’s petition, if a judge who has never met any of the parties decides that release of the information will not be “of greater benefit than nondisclosure.”
The Legislature will consider this injustice in the current session. If enacted, House File 2440 will provide access to the original birth certificate of any adult adoptee whose certificate has not been placed under permanent seal by a biological parent. A lengthy and expensive bureaucratic search will be eliminated, and the ultimate decision as to whether one obtains his or her information will be removed from the hands of fate and the discretion of a district court judge. The vast majority of adult adoptees will be treated exactly as the rest of us — exactly as they should be.
Meanwhile, as of 2008, the records of approximately 1,200 Minnesota adoptees had been placed under seal in response to requests made by one or more of their biological parents. At present, the people affected do not have any means of challenging that decision. Whether the information is desired to answer fundamental questions about their origins or to address a life-threatening medical situation, access is completely and forever denied. HF 2440 will rectify this situation, in part, by authorizing courts to order release of the information under certain circumstances.
This is not a perfect solution. It is not even, to my mind, a fair solution. But the bill does offer unrestricted access to the original birth certificates of tens of thousands of men and women adopted in Minnesota over the past half-century or more and provide to the 1,200 or so remaining men and women an opportunity to make the case for release of their own.
This is not a partisan bill. Nor is it a liberal or a conservative bill. Its sponsors come from both sides of the aisle. It is pro-family and pro-liberty, an earnest attempt to take government out of the personal lives of its citizens — lives we can manage quite well on our own. The children who were once adopted are now adults, entitled to the same rights, privileges and treatment as any other adult. This bill deserves to become law.
James M. Hamilton, of St. Paul, is an attorney, an adoptive parent and a volunteer with the Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform (MNCAR). The opinions expressed here are solely his own.