Adoption records are generally confidential in New York, but at times they are unsealed for medical purposes. While it is rare for these records to be unsealed for other reasons, courts will at times determine that it is proper to do so in a particular case.
Under New York law, adoption records are sealed “to protect and insure [the] confidentiality [that] is ‘vital to the adoption process’” (Matter of Victor M.I. I., 23 Misc3d 1103[A], at *1 [Sur Ct Nassau County 2009]; DRL § 114). The confidentiality serves several important purposes (Matter of Linda F. M., 52 NY2d 236, 239 ). First, it “shields the child from possibly disturbing facts surrounding his or her birth and parentage” (id.). Second, “it permits the adoptive parents to develop a close relationship with the child free from interference or distraction” (id.). Third, “it provides the natural parents with an anonymity that they may consider vital” (id.).
Notwithstanding the preference for confidentiality, there are circumstances in which it may be appropriate to unseal adoption records (DRL § 114). Indeed, “adoption records may be unsealed upon a showing of good cause” and “due notice to the adoptive parents” (Victor M.I. I., 23 Misc3d 1103[A], at *1 [internal quotation marks omitted]). “Good cause” typically arises for medical reasons, such as a serious health issue (id.). Further, while adoption records may be unsealed for non-medical reasons, exceptions to the rule for non-medical reasons are “rare” (Matter of Lewis, NYLJ, 4/20/2007, at 32 [Sur Ct Kings County]).
Matter of Victor M.I. I. involves one of those rare exceptions (23 Misc3d 1103[A], at *1-3 [Sur Ct, Nassau County 2009]). There, the petitioner sought to unseal adoption records for the purpose of obtaining certified copies of his pre-adoption birth certificate (id. at *1). The petitioner did so “in order to establish his Hungarian lineage [and] become a citizen of Hungary, based upon the status of his biological mother [as] a Hungarian citizen” (id.). In support of his application, the petitioner asserted that he “would benefit from Hungarian citizenship because he frequently travels to Hungary for business and personal reasons and resides there on a part-time basis” (id.). He also submitted an affidavit from his then-deceased biological mother, which evidenced her consent to the requested relief (id.).
Nassau County Surrogate John B. Riordan granted the petitioner’s application, noting that the policies favoring confidentiality did not weigh against the petitioner’s prayer to obtain copies of his pre-adoption birth certificate (id. at *2). As Surrogate Riordan explained, the petitioner’s adoptive parents were deceased, his biological mother had consented to unsealing the records, and the petitioner could not obtain his original birth certificate from any other source (id.). Those factors, when taken in conjunction with the “substantive benefit” the petitioner would enjoy if afforded the opportunity to secure copies of his original birth certificate, constituted “good cause” (id.). Accordingly, the court granted the application to unseal the adoption records to permit the petitioner to obtain copies of his pre-adoption birth certificate (id. at *2-3).
Although the confidentiality of adoption records is favored, there are circumstances in which such documents may be unsealed. Those circumstances generally stem from health-related reasons, but may occasionally arise for non-medical reasons as well. The Victor M.I. I. case makes that much clear.