I recently made a Freedom of Information Act request to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. The request was for records related to the state’s Adoption Records Search Program, a program that essentially controls the release of records and information to an adopted person about that person’s biological family, usually a birthmother. I specifically asked the department to provide documentation related to what the state actually does when its “search specialists” work to track down birthparents, as is required by Wisconsin law. I also asked for documents describing the process the searchers follow and what internal documents provide guidance to them in conducting searches.
I wasn’t fully prepared for what I got, particularly in seeing the details of a state program that ultimately feels like a de facto extension of government tracking and surveillance.
But let’s back up. In Wisconsin, a current pending bill would allow adult adopted people like me to request and obtain their own original birth records, as is the law in ten states. If passed, the bill would restore what once was a right for all adopted people in every state in the United States—the right to possess your own birth record. That is, complete a form, pay a nominal fee, and in a few weeks you receive a copy of your own original birth certificate, the factual one that has the details of your actual birth (not an adopted person’s amended birth certificate, which states you were born to your adoptive parents).
I testified in a hearing on the bill in January. As part of that testimony I provided a chart illustrating what happens today when adult adopted people request their own birth records in Wisconsin. The chart demonstrates first that you cannot get that record—it is denied to you because you are adopted. But, if you want to apply for information through the Department of Children and Families and request a “search” for a birthparent, you can do that. You can see the extent of the process in the chart I provided to legislators.
As complex and byzantine as the process is, the chart does not capture the full extent of what actually happens when an adopted person seeks information and a copy of his or her own original birth record—or as Wisconsin calls it, “the impounded” birth record. As I testified in January, Wisconsin has created a complex apparatus using an expansive list of state and private databases to track down and contact birthparents, all typically to ask for information but with one overriding question at its heart: is it OK to release your (now) adult child’s own birth record to them?
It’s backwards, absurd, and often humiliating. And it does NOBODY any good, particularly in how it really works.
Search and Surveillance
When an adult adopted person in Wisconsin is compelled to use the Adoption Records Search Program, the huge machinery of the state steps in. Regulations governing the search program specifically mandate that:
The department or agency shall diligently conduct adodption [sic] searches for birth parents. A search is not considered complete until a birth parent has been located and contacted or all reasonable means for locating and contacting a birth parent are exhausted . . . .Wis. DCF 53.05(2)(a)(1)
The regulations further mandate that, “to the extent allowed by law,” the state agency shall initiate a search for the birthparent, and “search specialists” are given a long list of government, personal, and public databases to use, including:
- The current address on file at the department or agency;
- Known close birth relatives who may know the location of the birth parent;
- Motor vehicle records;
- Marriage and death certificates;
- The family’s physician;
- Occupational licensing boards if applicable to the birth parent’s occupation;
- Church records;
- Public agency records;
- Divorce records; and
- Probate records.
But it goes deeper. In the single document released to me in response to a request for all “internal training documents,” the databases used by searchers also include “ancestry.com, DMV, CCAP, google, peoplefinders, white pages etc.,” though it’s not exactly what additional databases are indicated by “etc.”, other than it likely means any databases “to the extent allowed by law.” (for clarity, DMV is the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles and CCAP is the Wisconsin Consolidated Court Automation Programs, which maintains all state court records, though the extent of a searcher’s access to court records is not indicated in the documents I obtained). Further, in facilitating a search—and in particular for “establishing paternity”— search specialists can create a family tree of the adoptee’s biological family, using a template I received through the FOIA request:
It’s unclear what’s done with this family tree. It is certainly not shared with the adopted person nor, from any documents I’ve been provided, with birthparents, siblings, grandparents, or anyone. Rather, it appears to operate as an internal dossier of the adoptee and the adoptee’s family—kept secret and not provided to anyone.
Searching, Calling, Showing Up at the Door
According to documents I obtained, the Wisconsin search program locates the vast majority of birthparents it seeks. Of 1,562 searches for the years 2016-2019, only 16 birthparents—or roughly one percent—were not found. All others are located, though approximately 36 percent (556) were deceased. In other words, the state’s available databases, as well as its search techniques, are highly effective: it tracks down and finds birthparents.
Once located, though, a search specialist is required by law to “make at least one verbal contact” with the birthparent. Regulations governing the search program state:
When it appears that a sought−after birth parent has been identified and located, the searcher shall first attempt to make contact with the birth parent by telephone. If the presumed birth parent has no telephone or cannot be contacted by telephone, the searcher shall attempt contact through either a home visit or a letter.
Although literally showing up at a birthparent’s door is an approved approach, the verbal contact appears to be done by an initial phone call, and in the documents released to me, the only guidance provided for that phone call indicates:
Contact bp [birthparent] by telephone if possible. Use the BP line to make out going call and leave that number on voicemail. “My name is —-. I am calling from Wisconsin and trying to reach Mary Smith” If unable to reach by telephone, send the “Call me letter”. Include best time to reach you- hours/schedule and BP line for call back.
The “Call me letter” is simply a letter on government letterhead, stating emphatically that Wisconsin law requires the searcher to contact the birthparent and that the birthparent needs to reply to the letter:
Ms. Birth mother
City, State Zip
Dear Ms. Birth mother:
I have been unable to reach you by telephone. I am writing to you asking you to please contact me.
The personal nature of my contact will be fully explained when I speak directly with you.
I am required by Wisconsin law to speak with you about this matter.
Please call me 608-422-6927 or e-mail me at the following address: email
Finally, Wisconsin regulations state that, if a letter is used, “specifics of the search shall not be revealed in the event that another member of the household opens the mail.” It does not take a genius to understand, however, that any intercepted state-written letter like this will essentially out a birthparent, if not raise questions for any other “member of the household” who probably wonders “what’s a search specialist and what the hell are they searching for?”
You’ve Got Mail
If a birthparent is located and reached by phone, the department sends out a different confirming letter requesting more information and enclosing affidavits that the birthparent must use to authorize any release of information. In documents released to me, that letter is also on official state letterhead of the Department of Children and Families, and the template reads like this (though, as a template, it appears placeholder text is replaced with actual names and other details):
Dear Ms. Birth mother:
I am writing in follow up on today’s telephone conversation. Our program has received an outreach request from your birth son born 1-1-79. Who you named “adoptee name”.
He applied to our program on date and is requesting updated family health history and the identity of his birth parents. He would like the opportunity to be in touch with you. I have enclosed a copy of his outreach statement.
To authorize the release of your name, address and phone number to your birth son, please complete the enclosed affidavit of consent and have your signature notarized.
Please complete the enclosed updated family health history form and return to me. The health information will be shared in a non-identifying format unless you have also returned your affidavit of consent for the release of your identity.
Please let me know if you have questions or need assistance with any of the forms. You may reach me by telephone at 608-422-6928 or e-mail address.
Adoption Search Specialist
Wisconsin Adoption Search Program
Department of Children and Families
There’s a lot to pick through with this letter. First, the letter obviously reveals the circumstances of the birth and adoption, despite regulations (and prior search efforts) to hide those circumstances in case someone else opens the mail. Second, the letter compels contact—which may not even be sought by anyone, let alone the birthparent– first by saying the adopted person “would like to be in touch with you” and then requesting the birthparent’s signature in order to release “your name, address and phone number.” Even calling the contact an “outreach request” is front-loading the issue and making it about a meeting between people, with the state essentially saying “we’ll get you two together if you want, but you need to sign on the dotted line first.”
Finally, the “enclosed affidavit” that accompanies the letter is a state-issued form used to demonstrate consent to release information, and it requests data such as name, current address, home phone, cell phone, work phone, adoption agency, date of birth, name of birthmother and birthfather, court of adoption, date of termination of parental rights, and a statement at the bottom as follows:
I authorize the Department of Children and Families to provide the above named child with my identity as specified in Section 48.433(2), Wisconsin Statutes.
In smaller print at the top of the form is text that, if I were a birthparent or anyone considering submitting such a sensitive form, would be alarming, even if the state may claim such a notice is innocuous: “personal information you provide may be used for secondary purposes.”
And finally, rather unbelievably, the form to release information must be signed and notarized, requiring a notary to review the form before notarization. What does that mean? It means a birthparent is compelled to disclose their information to a stranger or, at the least, more publicly then they may want. No wonder more than 40 percent of birthparents who are found and contacted through the Wisconsin search program refuse to sign such a form. It’s a form designed to disclose them, publicly, and also to compel contact between people who may not even want that contact. The whole system reeks, from beginning to end, and it’s an example of how state control over adoptees has gone amok, all because we make a simple request to possess one important piece of paper: a copy of our own unaltered original birth record.
Let’s Back Up Again, for Context
I’ve been involved in numerous legislative hearings on the issue of an adopted person’s right to possess their own birth records. And in nearly every hearing I hear opponents claim that, when adoptees receive their own record they will instantly “pop up at the door” of a birthparent and violate that birthparent’s alleged “right to anonymity.” It’s a laughable if not extremely frustrating trope to hear time and time again, largely because some people actually believe it. It’s laughable because it’s untrue; it’s frustrating because it’s about our own records and no one else’s. And what we do with our birth record is up to us, just as it is up to you.
Wisconsin is not alone in its distrust and mistreatment of adopted people, and its complex “search and contact” system ultimately uses the state’s power to deflect from the real issue of equality for adopted people. Rather than secure that equality by restoring a right to possess our own full identities, the system is built instead to focus on birthparents who relinquished and legally terminated all rights over us decades ago.
That system, while nominally promoted as a “privacy” measure, is ultimately a state-sanctioned surveillance program that tracks down birthparents to secure consent. By the time birthparents are found, however, the state’s muscle and oversight give little incentive for a parent to supply a signature and consent, even if they want to. It is hypocrisy at its height, yet similar intermediary systems exist across the country. Wisconsin’s system is based on Minnesota’s. The District of Columbia has built a search and find apparatus, though it contracts the work out to private and public adoption agencies. Maryland, Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, and other states also have similar search or “confidential intermediary” programs.
These “search and find” programs make things worse, as demonstrated by how far-reaching and intrusive a state can go to track down its targets—mining public and private data, building secret family trees, calling a person at home and work, and sending out demands for action, all directed toward seeking a signature on a notarized form before doing anything else.
I tried to get this issue across to legislators in Wisconsin, by illustrating the ridiculous complexity of its system as well as the hypocrisy of the government doing exactly what it says adoptees should never do—and actually rarely if ever do—show up at the front door of biological parents. Here’s what I said, and it’s a good way to close this issue:
When we as adoptees pursue our own birth record—this single piece of paper I am holding here that contains the facts of my own birth and no one else’s birth—we are told we cannot be trusted with this information. We are told that we do not deserve this information. We are told exaggerated horror stories where a person like me—like your brother or sister or co-worker—has popped up at the door of a scared birthparent, even though a state worker is obligated by law to do that very same thing.
Given that background, let’s be clear about what this issue is about. It is about civil rights and the trust required of those who possess those rights. It is about whether you trust the adopted people in this room and across this state and the world—the six million of us here in the United States—who are your brothers, nieces, uncles, bosses, employees, friends, colleagues, even your parents and grandparents. The primary question before you is not “what about birthparent privacy” but “do you trust us with our own factual birth information?
Because, rather than trust adopted people whose lived experiences establish them as the experts in navigating these issues, you trust the state of Wisconsin and the extensive apparatus it has set up—and for which we pay–to do what a single piece of paper does in its place.
We ask for the same trust you have in your fellow Wisconsinites in regulating their own personal affairs. We ask that you restore a right every adopted person in the United States once had: the right to request and obtain their own original birth certificates—this single piece of paper—by restoring to us the same procedures everyone else follows in the United States to get their own birth record—everyone except people like me.
Ultimately, and I cannot stress this enough, this is not about search. This is not about the complex apparatus the state uses to facilitate such searches. This is about autonomy as people and citizens, and we should, like you, be trusted with what we do with our own truths.