New York Maintains Complicated Laws Regarding the Secrecy of Adoption Records


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Adoptions often end joyfully with the creation of a new family, but they often originate from tragedy. A child in an adoption proceeding may have been orphaned or removed from their birth parents’ home because of abuse or neglect. As happy as the adoption may be, the child is likely to have questions about their origins. New York law makes answers difficult to find for multiple reasons. Some of those reasons make sense in the New York of 2017, while others clearly originated in an earlier era. The principles that led to the establishment of these rules continue to influence New York’s family laws, particularly those involving child custody and child support.

Under § 114 of the New York Domestic Relations Law (DRL), records of adoptions involving an authorized adoption agency are sealed upon the completion of the adoption. Access to these records is almost entirely prohibited without a court order, which courts may only grant in very limited circumstances. A court clerk may issue a certificate of adoption to authorized individuals or agencies, but the certificate may only include a child’s new name, the names of the adoptive parents, and information about the adoption proceeding itself. It may not disclose the child’s pre-adoption name, nor may it disclose any information about the child’s birth parents.

The New York County Surrogate’s Court provided an overview of the history of this statute in footnote 34 of a 2007 ruling, Matter of Doe. The court noted that the statute, first enacted in 1924 and amended in 1938, “reflect[ed] in part the mores of the day.” The purpose of sealing adoption records, according to the court, included protection of the adoptive parents from interference by the birth parents, as well as protection of the birth parents’ privacy. Other reasons, however, included “shielding [the birth parents] from the humiliation of public knowledge of unwanted pregnancies or inability to support” and “shield[ing] the adopted child from the stigmatization of illegitimacy.” This type of rationale is, hopefully, less relevant in the 21st century than the 1920s.

A lawsuit in the 1970s sought to allow a group of adoptees to access their adoption records, regardless of whether they could show good cause under state law. The plaintiffs claimed that the laws sealing the records violated the U.S. Constitution. In 1978, a federal judge ruled in Alma Soc. Inc. v. Mellon that the state laws “permissibly limited” the plaintiffs’ “rights to privacy and to receive important information,” and the state had an interest in “balanc[ing] conflicting rights of privacy and…protect[ing] the integrity of the adoption process.” The Second Circuit affirmed this ruling in the following year and reached a similar holding in another case, Rhodes v. Laurino.

Subsequent court decisions have affirmed the near-total confidentiality of adoption records. In 2016, for example, a family court in Queens County denied an application for the disclosure of adoption records made by the adoptee in Matter of Kevin. The applicant already had a relationship with his biological mother but sought a copy of his pre-adoption birth certificate. The court held that he had failed to assert any of the grounds for which disclosure is permitted under § 114.

Family law cases in New York City, such as divorces and child custody disputes, can be legally complicated and emotionally difficult. Child custody attorney Ingrid Gherman has guided clients through New York family law proceedings for more than 30 years. To schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our team, contact us today online or at (212) 941-0767.

More Blog Posts:

Changing Children’s Surnames in New York Family Law Cases, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, April 26, 2017

Court Overrules Gag Order Barring Discussion of Child Custody Case, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, April 7, 2017

New York Appellate Court Reverses Order Requiring Supervised Visitation Between Mother and Teenage Children, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, May 11, 2015


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