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Accessing Adoption Records: Part 1

Many adopted children grow up wondering, “Where did I come from?” Until the last 20 years or so, the only way to answer that question was to ask a court to unseal your adoption records, which rarely worked. However, as society has gained a greater understanding of the possible psychological and medical impacts of adoption, new options have opened to help adult adoptees learn their personal histories. There are four different ways for an adoptee to get information about their adoption and birth family: through their adoption agency, through a post-adoption intermediary program, through the courts, or through genetic testing. Going through the courts can be costly and time consuming, so it is usually best to try another option first.

If you were adopted through an agency and you are looking for non-identifying health information that the agency already has, like family medical history, you can reach out directly to the adoption agency. Non-identifying means that the information wouldn’t allow to you find out someone’s name or location. For instance, finding out that you were born prematurely is information that can impact your health but doesn’t help identify a person, so it’s non-identifying. Finding out that you were born prematurely at Moses Cone Hospital could possibly help you to find out who your birth mother was, so it is identifying. An adoption agency must provide any non-identifying health information that they have to an adult adoptee or to the doctor of a minor adoptee if asked.[1] If the agency denies your request, you can ask the clerk of the court where your adoption took place to review whether their denial was reasonable.

If you are looking for information that is identifying, isn’t medical, or that the agency doesn’t already have, you can reach out to a Post Adoption Intermediary Program.[2] Most adoption agencies have their own programs, but if the agency that handled your adoption doesn’t, you can reach out to another program to help you. For a fee, the program can use any information they have to reach out to your birth family to get information about updated family medical history, genealogy information, the circumstances of your adoption, or anything else you are looking for. The program can then tell you any non-identifying information that they find and, if your birth parent has passed, can give you their death certificate. If you want, the program can even ask your birth parents if they agree with you finding out who they are. If they agree, the program can give you their names and contact information.

Recently, another option has become more popular – genetic testing. Companies like 23andMe can give you some information about the genetic health risks that would usually show up in a family medical history. These companies can also connect you with other users who are related to you and tell you how closely related you are. As more people use these services, it becomes more likely that a genetic test will find at least one close relative who can help you trace your origins.

Finding out about your birth family can mean different things for different adoptees. Once you have decided what and how much information you want, you can decide which of the three options we have mentioned will help you get that information. Most people find what they are looking for using just these options without ever having to go to court.

[1] N.C.G.S. § 48-9-103

[2] N.C.G.S. § 48-9-104