Why Registries Don’t Work

Close-up of an old typewriter with paperAdoption registries have been instituted by many states in response to adult adoptees’ requests to see their original birth certificate. In Indiana’s case, an adoptee must file a request with the state to see their records. The state then undertakes an effort to find the birth/first parents in vital records. If they are found, the adoptee may choose one from a small list of Indiana confidential intermediaries, who then attempts to contact the birth/first parent to obtain permission to release the records. Also, birth/first parents or adoptees who wish to be found are allowed to leave a letter in their files giving their lost family members the information to contact them. While these registries may sound equitable in theory, in practice they often send adult adoptees on a long, frustrating and incomplete journey. Here’s why HEAR believes these registries are an inadequate system for everyone involved:

  1. The system still treats adult adoptees like children. No other adult US citizen has to ask permission for their basic birth history.
  2. If the birth mother is deceased, no permission can be given. Therefore, adult adoptees are left with no recourse. Information is not released for 99 years, even after death.
  3. If the adult adoptee is deceased, and his or her descendants may need to contact the birth family for genealogical or medical reasons, they have no recourse.
  4. There is no standard level of competence or training for Indiana’s confidential intermediaries. Many confidential intermediaries do good work, and are a valuable resource to adoptees who don’t want to make first contact themselves. However, there is no required standard training on best practices for conducting searches or for how to properly handle contacting a birth relative. Adult adoptees have no way of telling the good from the bad. Fees for services also vary widely, from free, to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. When is the extra cost worth it? Adoptees can never really know.
  5. Birth certificateConfidential intermediaries conduct their work in secret, in a process that is partially or completely hidden from the adoptee. Because the search is supposed to be “confidential,” adoptees generally don’t know how the records were found, what exactly was done to contact the birth/first parent, and if they turned down contact, why. Did they actually talk to the birth/first parent, or did they just leave messages that were never answered? Did they really find the right person? Did they sound like they might change their mind later? Did the intermediary really do the search at all, or did they just say they did? Adoptees can never really know. They just have to “take their word for it.” It’s a dehumanizing position to be in, especially when the information being sought is so intensely personal and life-altering. Even worse, if an intermediary botches a potential reunion or a records release through incompetence, adult adoptees can’t get a “do over” later.
  6. State registries have a very low rate of matches. Because the process is so laborious, many adoptees elect to never start. No matter who does the searching, finding a birth/first parent decades after the relinquishment takes time, resources and determination. Many times, the state registry service does not have the manpower to search for a birth/first parent that may have moved out of state or changed names. The process is spotty at best, and obstructive at worst, and varies substantially from county courthouse to county courthouse.

Opponents of change to closed records access laws often say “we have a registry already, and it’s enough.” For adult adoptees it will never be enough. It won’t be enough until the day they have control over the information that is at the root of their identity.