November 03, 2008

Writing About Adoption to Take My Mind Off the Election...

A recent piece at Harlow's Monkey has me stewing yet again about the persistent stigma faced by people who were adopted.

She notes some recent examples of adoptees having their birth certificates challenged when they go to apply for a passport or a driver's license. These problems aren't new, especially for people born overseas, but in the current political climate, documents that prove identity and/or citizenship are receiving even more scrutiny than in the past. Which means more adopted people, including those born and adopted in the United States, are facing trouble. For no reason other than the stupidity of a broken-down system.

For those of you who might not know, when an adoption is finalized in the United States, a new birth certificate is issued with the adoptive parents' names replacing the first parents' names. It creates a weird hybrid document that makes it look like the adoptive mother gave birth to the child. It is called an amended birth certificate. In almost all states, when the amended birth certificate is issued, the original one is sealed for good, meaning pretty much no one has access to it. The only other Americans who have their original birth certificates put under lock and key like that are those in the witness protection program.

Each state handles amended birth certificates a little differently. But they can cause problems for adoptees when for all sort of reasons because they can look a little "off." Sometimes the registration date on it is months or years after the birth (because that's when the adoption took place), which raises eyebrows. Or the location of birth is blank, as in the case of my friend's daughter, who was born overseas and re-adopted in the U.S.

What happens is that when an adoptee tries to establish citizenship and/or identity for some basic thing--like applying for a passport, getting a driver's license, or establishing work eligibility--they are challenged because their birth certificate looks suspicious. Or because a particular law specifically requires an original birth certificate--which they can't get because they are sealed. The same system which created the amended certificates in the first place turns around and treats adoptees like criminals when they try to use them.

Harlow's Monkey urged adoptive parents to advocate for open records and for changing state laws to recognize amended birth certificates as proof of identity/citizenship. I heartily agree. I'd also like to share some things that T and I are also doing in hopes of preventing our kids from being treated like second-class citizens when they're happily applying for their first driver's license or filling out the paperwork for their first job.

When you're still a pre-adoptive parent, you have a shot at getting a certified copy of the original birth certificate before the adoption is finalized and the records are sealed. You can't do it yourself, but you can enlist the help of people who can. If your agency is not willing to assist you with this, work with a lawyer who is. Both agencies we used provided us with a certified copy. Our children's first moms were also able to request copies before they signed any relinquishment papers. Try to get more than one if you can, especially if you don't live in an open records state. That way your child's first parents can keep one for themselves and you have an extra in case one is lost. They need to be certified copies, since uncertified ones aren't really useful in proving identity or citizenship.

Once the adoption is finalized, keep the certified copy of the adoption decree somewhere safe and handy. In other words, not stuffed in with the reams of paperwork you collect during the adoption process. We were able to request an additional copy from the courts for a small fee after we adopted Puppy, so we'll have one to give to him when he moves out someday. If the amended birth certificate is questioned, you can often use the adoption decree to help explain why there are discrepancies. (This helped me at the Social Security office when I was changing the name on Puppy's card.) Also, sometimes when a government agency won't accept an amended birth certificate, it will accept an adoption decree. They're also useful in the short-term while you're waiting for the amended birth certificate to show up. Puppy was eighteen months old before we got his amended certificate, so there were a couple of times I used his original certificate along with the decree.

We also got a passport for Puppy (and will for Firefly when her new birth certificate finally arrives) and plan to keep it renewed. We figured if the State Department is going to put up a fuss over the amended certificates, we'd rather get the argument out of the way now while the kids are little. Even if you're not planning on traveling, a current passport can often be used in place of a birth certificate at the DMV and other places you need to establish identity. So having it might allow your kid to avoid pulling out the amended birth certificate in the first place. And with the changing regulations at the Mexico and Canadian borders, it is a useful thing to have on hand anyway. Minors still need to reapply for passports after age sixteen (instead of just renewing), but the previously issued passport counts as proof of citizenship. The passport card is a cheaper option, but it is so new that most state laws haven't changed to recognize it as proof of identity yet.

Eliminating the closed records system (or better yet, coming up with an alternative to amended birth certificates altogether) is obviously the more just and permanent solution. But T and I are hoping that getting our ducks (or, in this case, documents) in a row now will help our kids avoid potential problems in the future. Or at least have some ways of fighting back. They never agreed to having their birth certificates messed with in the first place, after all.

7 comments:

a Tonggu Momma said...

Heather, thanks for clarifying this further. I linked up to Kim Jae Ran's post a couple of days ago.

Since we adopted from China after 2004, we didn't understand all of the pitfalls associated with this system... first, because the Tongginator's original birth certificate (which we have) does not grant her US citizenship, does not list the names of her first parents on it anyway and it contains the word abandoned. Also, we received a Certificate of Citizenship automatically through the mail.

I didn't even think of the challenges that would face domestic adoptees. Thanks so much for going into further detail.

Thorn said...

This is a real priority for us, too. My partner wasn't officially adopted by her bio grandparents until she was 12 and so her birth certificate is dated 12 years post-birth while her parents' (birth grandparents) given ages at birth are well into their 60s. I don't see how a birth certificate like this could AVOID raising eyebrows.

Whether or not other people's birth certificates can "pass" better than hers, it's just totally bizarre to me that this is common practice. Thanks for explaining in such great detail. This will be a good post to send people to when they need a run-down on what goes on.

Ungrateful Little Bastard said...

Thank you Heather.

The adoption decree is vital. Mine sadly was destroyed during a household flood when I was a child, along with a bag full of other adoption and baby ephemera (lock of hair, hospital bracelet, baptism gown, etc). And now I can't get a copy of it, because my county deems it confidential information, and me too dangerous to have it because I'm an adoptee.

But even more vital is just speaking up. All it takes is a phone call or a letter to your state legislator. Every sealed records state desperately needs residents to speak up.

Anonymous said...

before my son's adoption was final (it took 8 months there was plenty time), I just went on line to the state's page where you order copies of birth certificates, and just ordered one. I paid my money and got my copy it was that simple. Where it asked my relation to the person, I just said guardian, which was 100% true during that period of time. So, I never mentioned that any adoption was in the works or anything like that (which possibly would have caused a holdup)

I find that when trying to navigate the mazes of bureaucracy...sometimes playing it straight and dumb has advantages.

heather.pnr said...

@anonymous - Good idea! Every state's process is different, but it's worth a try.

Lavonne said...

Thanks for your advice while in the pre-adoptive process. I believe the State we're adopting from destroys the original birth certificate which makes me irate. I will do everything humanly possible to get my hands on an original copy. I don't know if it will make a difference in the driver's license or job application process here in Canada, but it is simply this child's basic right to have access to the document!

Kendra said...

Heather, thank you for writing this. There is so much I still don't know, and now I will absolutely be looking into this.

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