Secrets and Lies: A New Ohio Law Opens the Adoption Closet

Posted in: Family Law

Under a newly enacted law, adult adoptees in Ohio can now seek access to their original birth certificates. With this change, Ohio joins a small number of states that have made an about-face in thinking about the role of secrecy in adoption, and have joined the gradual shift towards greater openness.

Ohio Substitute Senate Bill 23: The Details

The new law, enthusiastically signed by the state’s governor, John Kasich, streamlines a scattered statute that had applied different rules about secrecy depending on when the adoption took place. Individuals adopted prior to 1964 could, upon reaching adulthood, obtain their adoption file from the state Department of Health for $20. Individuals adopted between 1964 and September 18, 1996 could obtain their original records only upon a showing of good cause in court, a difficult standard to meet, or if the birth parents had signed a release. Those adopted after September 18, 1996 could obtain their original records for $20, unless their birth parents asked that the records remain sealed. These three different rules reflect three eras in adoption law—ranging from openness, to forced or strongly encouraged secrecy, and then back again to at least a tentative form of openness.

The new bill, which will apply to an estimated 400,000 people who were adopted in Ohio during that middle period, institutes a rule of open records. It allows an adopted individual who is at least 18 years of age to request a copy of his or her, original birth records. A lineal descendant of an adoptee can also file such a request, as long as the adoptee is, or would be, 18 by the date of the request.

For the benefit of birth parents who do not want their identities revealed, the law’s implementation is deferred for one year, during which time they have the opportunity to request that their names be redacted before the records are released upon any request. Those who opt out, however, must provide the state with detailed, updated medical histories, which can be shared with an adult adoptee who requests the file.

The bill also asks birth parents who have not requested redaction to complete a “contact preference form,” in which they indicate whether they (1) would welcome contact directly from the adopted individual (or lineal descendant) who received the adoption records file; (2) would welcome contact through an intermediary; or (3) would prefer no contact, either direct or through an intermediary.

The bill was passed unanimously by the Ohio Senate and by a vote of 88-2 in the Ohio House. (Some in the pro-life movement were strongly opposed to the bill on the theory that greater openness will encourage unwed mothers to seek abortions, rather than place babies for adoption.) Such strong support is somewhat surprising, given the controversy that similar measures have generated in other states, and in debates about the retroactive opening of adoption records. A New Jersey bill that worked to similar effect was recently vetoed by now-embattled Governor Chris Christie, who felt his state was not quite ready to take this step.

The Role of Secrecy in Adoption

In a 1996 British film titled Secrets and Lies, award-winning actress Brenda Blethyn plays the role of Cynthia, a working-class woman whose somewhat pitiful life is upended by a phone call from a grown woman who is claiming to be the biological daughter whom she gave up for adoption many years earlier. The powerful story revolves around the secrets and lies of the past, and their sudden unraveling. A significant plot point is that the daughter is black, but the mother white. But the secrets and lies relate mostly to the fact of the adoption—and the out-of-wedlock birth that precipitated it—rather than the race of the biological father.

Adoption, as a formal matter, did not exist in the U.S. until the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Every state eventually passed a statute legalizing adoption, which made it possible to create parent-child relationships despite the lack of a biological tie. These early statutes did little more than make legal parent-child relationships between strangers possible. Later statutes were more complicated, and sought to regulate adoption in more respects—regarding the suitability of the parents, the disclosure of child’s diseases or “defects,” etc. Adoptions later become more professionalized, with greater involvement of agencies, child welfare authorities, and private brokers.

In the first several decades, adoptions were a matter of public record, and the parties often knew each other. They were from the same community or even related to each other. But by the middle of the Twentieth Century, adoptions became shrouded in secrecy. States first moved to conceal the details of an adoption, and, indeed, even the fact of an adoption, from the outside world. (Ohio was somewhat late to this game, moving to seal adoption records only in 1964.) The state could not prevent the adoptive or biological parents from revealing that the adoption had taken place, but it could make it possible for them to keep it a secret, under a veil of legitimacy, by sealing the court records and issuing a new (fake) birth certificate listing the adoptive parents as the natural parents. In the normal practice, a child was taken from one family and given to another, with no trace of the first family left behind. The greater use of intermediaries like brokers and churches made it unlikely that birth parents and adoptive parents would know each other’s identity, and the law sealed the records even from the parties themselves.

This system was thought at the time to be good for everyone. The birth mother could hide an out-of-wedlock birth or unwanted pregnancy; the child could avoid the stigma of what was then called “illegitimacy”; and the adoptive parents could pass the child off as their own biological offspring (in most cases) and avoid embarrassing discussions about infertility, or pity from strangers. Very little was known, however, about the actual desires, 18-20 years after the fact, of either birth parents or adoptive parents. The logic of common social norms shaped this framework.

Modern Adoption: Secrecy Falls by the Wayside

By the end of the Twentieth Century, this system fell apart for a variety of reasons, but chief among them was the desire of adoptees to know their roots. An adoptee rights movement took hold in the 1970s, which sought to unseal adoption records retroactively. The members of the movement filed lawsuits claiming that it was a violation of the adopted child’s constitutional rights to deny him or her information about their origins. These early lawsuits were, by and large, unsuccessful. Courts tended to believe in the merits of a system rooted in secrecy and were unwilling to upend the expectations of the adults who were involved in the adoption.

Despite losses in court, however, adoption ultimately shifted in ways that would upend the secrecy norms. Under pressure from adoptees’ rights groups like Bastard Nation, and birth mothers’ groups like Concerned United Birthparents, many states have taken steps toward disclosure. Many have created registries that would allow adopted children to find their birth parents with the mutual consent of child and birth parents. There are also private registries that help match up children and birth parents (again, with mutual consent), with the largest one being run by the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association.

Disclosure by Law: The New Trend

The first law to require disclosure without consent of the birth parent was enacted in Oregon, through a voter referendum in 1998, which gave “any adopted person 21 years of age or older born in the state of Oregon” the right to request a copy of his or her original birth certificate, with the names and addresses of their birth parents, as well as other identifying information. The law was upheld against a challenge by a group of birth mothers who had different, but compelling, reasons to prevent disclosure. A small number of states filed suit, joining with Oregon in allowing disclosure once adoptees reach adulthood, or requiring birth parents to opt out of disclosure. It is this trend that Ohio joined with its new law.

While laws like Ohio’s new one provide a remedy for many individuals who were adopted during the period of secrecy and who feel aggrieved by the loss of a sense of identity, the more significant change is in new adoptions. The closed, anonymous adoption has been almost entirely replaced by the “open adoption.” That phrase can mean any number of things, but at core it describes an adoption in which the birth parents know, and often times select, the adoptive parents. There are no secrets. This has fast become the most common type of adoption. Although most adoptive parents prefer the 1950s-style adoption, birth mothers prefer openness, and they call the shots because of a veritable shortage of adoptable babies. Birth mothers interested in an adoptive placement have dozens, even hundreds, of families to choose from. And because they are no longer as likely to pretend the unwanted birth never happened, they often make openness, including sometimes post-adoption contact, a condition of the arrangement. This development, more than any effort to unseal old records, has caused the law and practice of adoption to change course.


The yearning to know one’s roots is a powerful force for many adopted individuals. (It is also a force felt by many children conceived with donor sperm, as I discuss here.) Ohio’s law is a logical step to alleviate the pain of hidden identity, with some built-in safeguards for birth parents. Certainly, at a minimum, every adult adoptee should have access to a complete medical history of his or her parents, given what we know now about the importance of heredity in so many diseases. But ideally the adoptees will gain more than that, too: the names of their birth parents, and the possibility of contact with them.

The Ohio law can also be helpful in states other than the five who already have similar disclosure rules. The Ohio law calls for the collection of data about how many birth parents opt out of having their names disclosed, or allow disclosure but request that they not be contacted. We may learn that our assumptions about what typical birth and adoptive parents want with respect to disclosure and contact are not well founded. If so, that could push other states toward forced disclosure, a move that would be welcome by the adoptees’ rights movement. And even if other states don’t follow suit, the information age has made secrecy hard to guarantee.

Posted in: Family Law

  • Susan Anthony

    Great article. One point of disagreement regarding so-called “open adoptions.” Birthmothers do not necessarily call the shots. Often, there are verbal or even written “agreements” that are not legally binding. The adoptive parents can slam the door of openness in the birthmother’s face whenever they choose.

  • ValencySpeaks

    While I appreciate the attention this bill is getting in this journal, the author misses a few key points.

    (1) Ohio is STILL a tiered access state, meaning some adult adoptees can still be discriminated against and denied access to their original unaltered birth certificate.

    (2) Birth parent vetoes are wrong. Period. However, I understand why they are included in bills for some states simply to get the bill passed. As a birth mother myself I hate them, but understand why they are attractive to some.

    (3) Even with “open” adoptions, birth parents DO NOT “call all the shots” as the author states, particularly once they have voluntarily terminated their parental rights. They might “call all the shots” during the pregnancy, but not after that. In nearly every state of the union, postadoption contact agreements for open adoptions are **NOT** legally enforceable for voluntary newborn adoptions. Indeed, rather than remain silent on the issue, some states, including Ohio, have laws that specifically state postadoption contact agreements are nonbinding and nonenforceable. Ohio Rev. Code 3107.65 states, “No open adoption shall…provide for the open adoption to be binding or enforceable.”

    Once the voluntary termination of parental rights papers are signed, the adoptive parents are the ones who “call all the shots” regarding any and all forms of contact for the next 18 years. The adoptive parents can close the adoption at any time they desire, regardless of the promises made to the birth mother, even if they signed documents stating what types and the frequency of promised contact.

    While there are a handful of states that allow legally enforceable post-adoption contact agreements, it is generally for children adopted out of foster care or those who have already established relationships of two or more years with their natural families. A comprehensive .pdf guide produced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and titled, “Postadoption Contact Agreements Between Birth and Adoptive Families” details state statutes and can be found at

  • ingeborg oppenheimer

    “Certainly, at a minimum, every adult adoptee should have access to a complete medical history of his or her [birth] parents, given what we know now about the importance of heredity in so many diseases…”

    correction: at a minimum, all states should require that medical history of both birth parents be given to adoptive parents AT THE TIME OF THE ADOPTION. this can surely be done without identifying birth parents. while such a law does not touch on the many emotional issues generated by adoption, it addresses a vital health issue that is present from the time of birth, not only in adulthood.

    • Sandy Young

      At the time of surrender any health information is incomplete. Both parents and grandparents will be relatively young. Medical information is not a one-way street, either. The death of one of my friends reunited only child recently led to the discovery of a family genetic condition that saved the lives of several extended family members. Family medical history is ongoing and ever-changing, and many of the disabling or deadly conditions won’t manifest until long after young, healthy mothers sign relinquishments. Like it or not, genetics ARE health factors and don’t magically disappear when adoptions happen.

      • ingeborg oppenheimer

        sandy, you make a good point. but what your suggestion would require is either some method of keeping birth family and adoptive family directly in contact with each other, or developing a system for each family to submit new health information as it becomes known so that it can be passed on to the other. that really doesn’t sound hard to do with today’s technology.

    • Marci Purcell

      This is a great idea but one must remember that a birth parent at the time of relinquishment may not have a great deal of family health history or much health history of their own. It is only as we grow older that we become more familiar with our family’s history and accumulate a health history of our own, with many diseases likely to present in later adulthood. .

  • Star Lite

    Does anyone know whom I should contact in Ohio, would it be Vital Statics? And is there any part of this law that would include finding a sibbling? I found my birth parents on my own working with as much memory as a child can have at a year and a half. Now I need help finding my little brother Jack Alsept Hardwick – Hardwick is his adopted name, he has been searching for us for at least 12 years

  • Star Lite

    What gets me so much is that every time I look at my birth certificate, its a big lie, for the most part, its a legalized lie, on a court signed document, Ohio as well as other states commit legal perjury. I went to court in Ohio in 1994 and it took a judge less than 3 seconds to deny me my truth. When I left the court room and walked down the step of the court house it was like my whole world blew up, I felt like I didn’t even exist and my whole life was nothing but a lie, I went back to the hotel we were staying at and opened up a phone book and ran up a $600 phone bill, and using a year and a half’s memory I called and called everyone i could find and found my parent on my own, I found out from my foster mother that the agency was crooked, and that there was a huge demand for blonde haired blue eyed children in Ohio, so they tricked my mother and they put an x down for the signature, and claimed my parents couldn’t write their name and they separated all of us to abusive homes because the state allotted them so much money per child and what they didn’t spend they pocketed. i was used as a slave, and beaten almost daily. My life had no value, I should be grateful they took me in is what I was told. So basically everyone else other than the child benefits from a closed adoption. I am looking everywhere for Jack Alsept, he is my brother his name might be Jack Hardwick now.

  • TKay Michel

    I’m an adopted child from Ohio, born in 1959. In 1978, I decided to try and find my biological mother. I was told that a law was passed in Ohio, two years before my birth, allowing an adopted child to request his/her birth certificate by showing two pieces of ID at the State Dept. of Vital Statistics after reaching the age of 18. This law was rescinded two years after my birth, I was told, but because I was born in the middle of the four-year ‘window,’ I was allowed to see my birth certificate. I wasn’t allowed to make a copy of it, but I was allowed to write down the information while under the supervision of a state worker.

    I did find my biological mother, and it wasn’t really a positive experience. Frankly, the best thing my bio-mom did was give me up. I know now that my REAL mom was the woman who took me in and raised me, loved me, gave me every possible opportunity she could to have a great education and a better life. I believe adoption is often the best option for the child, especially if the birth mother is still in her teens, lacking both the psychological and financial resources to raise a child. And contrary to what many believe, I think the opportunity for more open adoption may actually encourage some mothers to consider the process, since it no longer means a lifetime of exile between biological mother and child.

  • marilynn

    You know what would be even better than giving adopted people access to their original birth records? Correcting the medically false content of their amended birth certificate under HIPAA law that allows people to have errors in their medical records corrected. A birth certificate is a medical record according to DHS and CDC at the federal level and they are the departments that dictate the information states have to collect and include on birth certificates. So rather than begging states to give them access to their original birth records simply ask the state to correct the false information on their current birth certificate. Bio parents are obligated to be named on the birth records of their offspring, its a matter of public health its where we get the nations birth and fertility stats for the general population. The original is the one that gets sent to CDC because its suppose to be biologically accurate for statistical purposes – the feds don’t collect info off the fake amended ones. Well if they are of no use to the feds for medical purposes they are certainly of no use to the people named on the certificate for medical purposes. Removing the names of adoptive parents from the amended certificate does not undo the adoption – the adoption decree signed by the judge is proof of the adoptive relationship. There is no need to ever put adoptive parents names on adopted people’s birth certificates in the first place. We need to pass a law that prohibits people from putting their name as a parent on the birth certificate of a person who is not their own offspring. Better to leave it blank than put the wrong name down. There are other ways of demonstrating parental authority. Adoption decrees should not be used in lieu of a birth certificate, the adopted person should just have their regular normal birth certificate for ID purposes like everyone else. They should not have to wait 18 years for it either, nobody else waits 18 years to have access to their birth certificate – they need it to apply for a drivers license at 16.

    Anyway all the stuff adoptive parents say about needing their names on a birth certificate to get adopted kids passports or to enroll them in school is a big fat lie. Go to the federal governments website on getting passports for kids and adoption decrees and guardianship paperwork are acceptable documentation to prove parental authority – the birth certificate is what the kid needs to prove who they are. The adopted kid’s birth certificate proves who they are which is the child of their biological parents and the adoption decree proves their adoptive parents have the right to sign them up for a passport. Same for every school district in the country or college and private entity – the kids birth certificate can be unaltered from birth and whoever has legal parental authority over them just needs to show their court paperwork to enroll the kid in school or soccer. If they don’t like how they got parental authority that is their problem, they don’t have to have their names on the birth certificate to handle the business of raising the kid. If they don’t want everyone to know the kid is adopted, that is their problem and its easier for them to get over their anxiety about who they are and why they have parental authority than it is for the adopted person to loose their identity and legal kinship in their biological family. Stop amending birth records upon adoption, its optional actually so people can opt out of the practice and save their adopted kid a life time of trouble if they act like reasonable adults. All we have to do is change the law to stop certificates from being issued with adoptive parents names on them and it would resolve most of the human rights violations against adopted people.

  • marilynn

    If a pre op trans gender minded person can now go get their gender changed on their birth record as a matter of preference then adopted people can certainly go request their adoptive parents names be removed from their birth certificates and that their biological parents names be written in their place so that they no longer forced to live life under an assigned false identity. If birth certificate content is now a matter of personal preference rather than medical fact adopted people should say their preference is for medical accuracy and their bio parents have no say in that – they were obligated to be named on the original for medical purposes and the medical relevance of that information has not expired and won’t because access to the accurate biological lineage in vital records is something that goes on for generations. Bottom line is that nobody with offspring has a special protected right not to be named on their offspring’s birth record, its certainly not a requirement of adoption that they no longer be recognized as the biological parent of the child. There is other paperwork proving their parental authority was terminated, and that their child is now an adopted member of another family. The birth parent does not need to worry about having to pay child support if their name is on the birth certificate of an adopted child. Nobody has a legal right to pretend they don’t have kids if they do – if they don’t want to interact with them that is their business to manage, maybe they should change their name if they want to hide out so badly. I reunite families separated by adoption and in the rare case a parent wants no contact other relatives often do very badly. Grandparents aunts uncles and siblings can all be looking hard for an adopted person even if the actual parent is a looser and a louse. They need to be able to find their adopted relatives records and should still be treated as legal kin. Why should they loose legal recognition as kin just because the parent’s rights were terminated. Their relationships exist regardless of the adoption taking place and should not be reduced in force because the parent did not raise the kid.

    • Greg

      Parents are not listed on the OBC in an adoption but they maybe listed on the Amended Birth Certificate. The birth parents are the people listed on the birth certificate. I’m not sure what purpose could be served other than legally annulling the familial relationship by getting rid of their parents names off the Amended Birth Certificate.

  • bill23birthmother

    As a birth mother impacted by Ohio Bill 23 I just heard about it yesterday morning at 5:00 am. A short statement was made by a Cincinnati reporter that I had until March 20th to file a redaction form if birth mothers did not want names provided on adoptees original birth certificates. Thankful for that reporter. I’m surprised that an action that impacts so many families was not given more press. I looked back on local news and paper reporting history and it had a short comment a year or so ago before this. I’ve been doing a lot of research since yesterday and this is the first site I found where discussion is covering the “What If” scenario. I’m not sure yet what I want to do. Do nothing and see what happens, fill out a redaction form that only hides my name but not my parents home address which is where I lived at 14 years old in 1970. I verified this with the Job and Family services/ vital statistics department today. The redaction process doesn’t protect my privacy. All one has to do is a basic internet search for that address and known residents will be provided. Or use the County auditor sites. I want my adopted child to have medical history. The redaction process, as it is now, does not allow me to provide that in a private manner. Did no knowledgeable official review how this process would be implemented or did they just want to see how many birth mothers would submit the form? I’ve told my husband that I had a child when I was 14 but not my children. Has anyone thought about the women who didn’t tell their husbands and siblings etc. I was sent to a home for unwed mothers and through much expense and secrecy no one knows but my parents and husband. I had to sign under oath that I would never try to contact my child or locate the adoptive parents. And yes what about the adoptive parents in this. I’m still absorbing this and trying to come to a decision, but one thing is sure, this bill has taken the one option of pertecting my privacy away.

    • Adopted

      As an adopted child I pray everyday that my biological parents don’t block me. My adoption itself should have never happened to begin with at least not to the adoptive parents it did. I replaced their dead child. Adoptive mother was always sick and died before I was ten. Adoptive father didn’t want me to begin with and even less after she died. People always say they gave a child up because it was best for the child but why then would you even think to block a grown adult from knowing their mother other than selfishness. Knowing who you are and where you came from shouldn’t be such a hard thing to give your child. I look at my two children and think I could never not know what happened to them. To the parents that do decide to not let their children find them they will only be hurting their children again because if they weren’t wanting to know you they won’t file for the information.

    • Todd

      I am an adoptee, birth date 08/05/1969. I have thought about this process for a while now. I am a parent of a young boy that I cannot inform of his lineage. I truly understand your reasoning, I would hope that you would understand that some of us just want to know where we came from.

    • AdamATL

      bill23birthmother — My partner was adopted in 1978. He had a heart attack at the age of 32 that could have been prevented. Simply providing exacting, thorough family medical records and history should be the bare minimum. He (my partner) has no interest at all in meeting his birth parents. I’m not judging you for having a child at 14, but you’re an adult now. It’s time behave like an adult. That may sound harsh, but all of this secrecy nearly took the life of the man I’ve been devoted to for 18 years. How anyone or any court of justice can defend hiding vital medical information is despicable.

    • txcg

      What is missing from all of these discussions is this : DNA is reconnecting biological families. Today i promise you, a search angel and adoptee are working on the adoptees dna matches and contacting the birth parents families to discover the biological connections. Not very private to have YOUR 2nd and 3rd cousins contacted and discussion about YOU and your history,is it?

      You did not mention the biological father Either. Did he know? does he have rights? There are connections being made between mother’s and the adoptres even when the adoptee was conceived thru rape and incest. the dna reveals an incest conception so the adoptee will know long before getting in touch.

      Even without dna there are social media reunions. Adoptees holding up signs with all the non id are routinely reunited.

      You only think that your husband and parents are the only ones who know. Someone else at least suspects that you were pregnant.

      We are all charged with knowledge of the laws as they change. New laws come into life every session.

      I hope you have gotten into therapy with a specialist and joined a support group. I hope you told your inner 14 year old that you are an adult now and will take care of her and handle this.

      And most of all I hope you can get thru the shame and guilt that has plagued you all these years.