The Court of Appeals in In re G.D.L., decided on January 2, 2020, addressed the legal criteria to have the adoption records unsealed.
The appellant who was no longer a minor sought a court order release of his adoption records, original birth certificate, and biological parental information.
The trial court in balancing all interests involved in deciding the motion for disclosure ordered to protect G.D.L.’s birth father’s information and directed the child-placement agency to give G.D.L. redacted copies of the original birth certificate and adoption records. The biological mother’s information was already known to the appellant and not subject of the court filing.
The trial court reiterated its understanding that it was required to protect the birth father’s right to privacy as much as possible even placing that apparently above the petitioner/appellant’s interest. The Court of Appeals disagreed.
The relevant Statute § 16-311 provides that access to the petition, records and papers in adoption proceedings shall be sealed and may not be inspected or disclosed unless and except upon order of the court, and only when the court is satisfied that the welfare of the child will thereby be promoted or protected.
The Court of Appeals in its analysis first included in the definition of word “child” in the statute to extend the adoptees who are or have become adults. A critical expansion of the definition as the trial court did not properly balance the interest of the appellant as he was no longer a minor at the time the motion to unseal was filed.
That is, the term “child” in § 16-311 extends not only to minors but also to adoptees who are adults at the time of the request for disclosure.
The Court also created somewhat of a road map to be used by the trial court, specifically:
- The trial court ruling on a motion for disclosure under § 16-311 must make a threshold determination that disclosure would promote or protect the adoptee’s welfare,
- If the trial court so determines, the trial court has discretion as to whether to disclose the adoption records in whole or in part.
- In exercising that discretion, the trial court must consider the interests of all affected persons, and the trial court is not limited to considering only the welfare of the adoptee.
Moreover, the Court of Appeals appears to have increased the interest of the child-adoptees for disclosure above the interests of the biological parents’ right to non-disclosure.
That is, barring unusual circumstances, the trial court should have no reason to doubt that disclosure of an adoption record of an adult who seeks disclosure of his or her own adoption record.
Also, that the adoption statutes generally give greater weight to the interests of the adoptee than to the interests of biological parents.
The Court of Appeals in this case did open a path to have the adoption records unsealed when the petitioner-adoptee has reached the age of majority, and when there are no compelling reasons to protect the privacy interest of the biological parents.
Refer to our Washington DC Family Law page for more detailed information on this subject matter.