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.