Adoptee Can't See Her Adoption File

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By Julianne Tobin Wojay

March 14 — Medical evidence presented by a 51-year-old woman who had been adopted as an infant that ignorance of her biological family's history was the root cause of her alcohol and mental health problems, and that learning her biological parents' identities would assist her treatment, does not warrant unsealing her adoption file, a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court decided Mar. 11.

Noting that adoption records were public in most states until the middle of the 20th century, the court found that the “evolving confidentiality of Iowa's adoption records has reflected the national trend” to close them in order to promote the formation of the adoptive family. See In re Philip S., 881 A.2d 931, 31 FLR 1535 (R.I. 2005); In re Baby S., 705 A.2d 822, 24 FLR 1176 (N.J. Super. Ct. Ch. Div. 1997).

Also acknowledging that this trend may now be shifting, with the level of confidentiality varying from state to state and some commentators favoring giving adult adoptees greater access to their records, it said, however, that it was up to Iowa lawmakers to decide whether to follow such “changed attitudes.”

The court recognized that a decade after the adoption in this case, Iowa's adoption statute was amended to provide limited conditions for unsealing records and, as pertinent here, records may be opened when necessary to save the adoptee's life or to prevent irreparable harm.

But it pointed out that the amendment also directs that the judge “shall” make every effort to prevent disclosure of the biological parents' identities. Here, the court said, the woman's file contained only her parents' names and no medical information, and thus her request was properly denied in light of the privacy guaranteed to the parents by the statute.

Bad Facts

Reacting to the Iowa court's ruling in a Mar. 14 e-mail to Bloomberg BNA, Illinois attorney Carl W. Gilmore, Chair of the ABA Family Law Section's Adoption Committee, said that “[i]t is human to sympathize with [the woman] R.D., who clearly suffered as a result of not being able to identify her biological parents.”

“However,” he continued, “we know the biological parents intended to place their daughter for adoption under a veil of privacy. Beyond this, not much was certain. The Iowa Supreme Court opinion points out the biological parents were not given the opportunity to object, and that identifying the parents might not have cured R.D.’s problems. Under these bad facts, the Court opted for confidentiality over disclosure.”

Like the Iowa court, Gilmore noted that the “trend seems to be toward openness in adoption, and research supports openness as beneficial to many children. However, the Iowa Supreme Court points out there are strong reasons to protect the sanctity of parental anonymity. Among them are possible stigmatization of biological parents and circumstances where unwanted confidentiality breaches can traumatize the parents.”

Adding that “I wonder what it would take for the Iowa Supreme Court to allow a breach of parental confidentiality,” he observed that it “points out there was no guarantee of R.D.’s improvement if the parents were identified. If the facts were different—if, for example, R.D. was concerned about preventing breast cancer—would her interest have been enough to override the parents’ interest? Questions such as this one are reserved for other cases and other courts,” Gilmore concluded.

Fundamental Right to Access

Also reacting to the ruling, Donaldson Adoption Institute Chief Executive April Dinwoodie stated in a Mar. 14 e-mail to Bloomberg BNA that her organization “believes that every individual should have the fundamental right to access information about their biological origins.”

Dinwoodie said that DAI's “ground-breaking public opinion research shows that 69% of Americans support the right of adopted persons to access their original birth certificate and 71% of people support the right of adopted persons to access biological family medical history.”

Explaining that “[t]here are many reasons we need access to our genetic history related to our holistic well-being and to have insight to our susceptibility to diseases such as alcoholism,” she noted that “[c]urrently, approximately seven states allow adopted persons access to their original birth certificates without restrictions. Ten additional states allow requests for original birth certificates or access to original birth certificates with some element of restrictions.”

“DAI believes that every state should immediately restore unrestricted access for adopted persons to obtain their original birth certificates. From there,” Dinwoodie said, “we must ensure resources are in place for adopted persons who may desire support as they obtain this information.”

Critical Medical Issues

R.D. was adopted in 1965. Her adoption records were sealed pursuant to Iowa Code § 600.9 (1962), which provided:

The complete record in adoption proceedings [ ] shall be sealed by [the clerk of the court], and the record shall not thereafter be opened except on order of the court.

 

R.D. said that after learning of the adoption, the anguish caused by her “lack of knowledge about her origins” resulted in her alcohol abuse as an adult. She was eventually diagnosed with alcohol dependence, anxiety disorder, and depression. Her doctors viewed R.D.'s adoption as the issue underlying her substance abuse and depression, and suggested she try to identify her biological parents.

R.D. petitioned the juvenile court to open her adoption records, indicating that her health care providers recommended that she learn the identities of her birth parents “due to critical medical issues related to [her] short- and long-term health.” She relied on § 600.16A (confidentiality of adoption records), which in subsection (2)(d) provides that:

[A] court may, upon competent medical evidence open [ ] adoption records if opening is shown to be necessary to save the life of or prevent irreparable physical or mental harm to an adopted person[.] [It] shall make every reasonable effort to prevent the identity of the biological parents from being revealed [ ] to the adopted person.

 

R.D. presented evidence from her doctors, and the court found she meet her burden to establish that opening the adoption records was necessary to save her life or prevent harm. However, after examining the records in camera, it found only her parents' identities and no relevant medical information. Ruling that the statute precluded disclosure of their names, the court said that R.D.'s medical evidence did not surmount its obligation to “make every reasonable effort to prevent” divulging her parents' identities.

R.D. appealed, arguing that revealing the identities of her biological parents was necessary to save her life or spare her irreparable harm. (Iowa's adoption statute—unlike those in some other states—does not provide for appointment of a guardian ad litem to represent the biological parents on requests for their identities. Instead, it provides that such parents may file consents or affidavits stating their position on disclosure. This provision did not exist when R.D. was adopted, and her parents have made no such filing.)

Doesn't Make It to Home Plate

Noting that his court had addressed § 600.16A only once before, in In re S.J.D., 641 N.W.2d 794, 28 FLR 1255 (Iowa 2002), Justice Thomas D. Waterman observed that the adoptee there had relied on a different subsection of the statute in (unsuccessfully) seeking access to his adoption file.

Waterman also pointed out that S.J.D. made clear that in balancing the rights of adoptees/adopters/biological parents and the state's interest in encouraging adoptions, the “balance has been struck heavily in favor of keeping adoption records sealed.” Id. at 800.

Here, he said, “[w]e must decide whether the medical showing of the predicted therapeutic benefit to R.D. of learning the identity of her biological parents outweighs the statutory command to protect the identities of the biological parents. Significantly,” Waterman added, “the first sentence of section 600.16A(2)(d) uses the permissive term `may' unlike the next sentence, which used the mandatory term `shall'.”

“Thus, the medical showing R.D. made gets her to first base, not across home plate,” he explained.

Yearning Alone Isn't Sufficient

Finding that, pursuant to § 600.9, R.D.'s parents “presumably believed their identities would remain confidential when they placed her for adoption,” he noted that birth mothers in Tennessee and Oregon filed constitutional challenges to statutory amendments opening those states' adoption records. See Doe v. Sundquist, 2 S.W.3d 919, 25 FLR 1559 (Tenn. 1999); Does v. State, 993 P.2d 702, 26 FLR 1100 (Or. Ct. App. 1999).

Also observing that courts in New Jersey, Rhode Island, and South Carolina “have noted a constitutional dimension to the privacy rights of biological parents who give up children for adoption,” Waterman said that § 600.16A(2)(d) “protects the biological parents' right to privacy.”

Going on to note the state's interest in maintaining confidentiality to protect and encourage the adoption process, he said “[a]gainst this backdrop, the juvenile court correctly denied R.D.'s application to compel disclosure of the identities of her biological parents.”

Although her evidence triggered the discretionary option for the court's opening of her records under the first sentence of § 600.16A(2)(d), disclosure remained subject to the statutory mandate in the second sentence, he explained, saying that R.D.'s yearning to identify her birth parents is “alone insufficient to open sealed adoption records” as there is no assurance that unsealing the file will resolve her problems.

“To hold otherwise would substantially undermine the statutory confidentiality assured to parents who make the painful decision to give up a child for adoption,” he concluded, adding that “while `changed attitudes' may warrant a fresh look at the confidentiality of Iowa's adoption records, `it is not our function “to redraft or interpret laws differently” from what the legislature intended'[.]” S.J.D. at 802.

Chief Justice Mark S. Cady and Justices David S. Wiggins, Daryl L. Hecht, Brent R. Appel, Edward M. Mansfield, and Bruce B. Zager concurred.

R.D. was represented by Peter J. Gardner, of Meardon, Sueppel & Downer, P.L.C., Iowa City.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julianne Tobin Wojay in Washington at jwojay@bna.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David Jackson at djackson@bna.com