A favorite holiday family movie is “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell, as Buddy, and Bob Newhart, as Papa Elf. Buddy is an orphaned human infant who stows away in Santa’s sack. Then, when he is discovered at the North Pole, he is adopted by Papa Elf and raised at the North Pole.

Buddy grows up at the North Pole believing he is an elf, but something just isn’t quite right. He feels out of place, and even refers to himself as a “cotton-headed ninny-muggins.” Then he accidentally learns that he is human and is actually adopted. Although, movie watchers have known all along he’s not an elf, he’s 6’3”! But, for Buddy this is a new revelation and he undertakes a quest to find his biological father in New York City where chaos ensues.

Buddy had the advantage of knowing the identity of his biological father because he was on Santa’s “Naughty” list. However, it is not always that simple for adopted children searching for their birth parents, particularly in North Carolina.

Adoption records are sealed in North Carolina

For many LGBTQ couples, adoption is a path to parenthood. However, in North Carolina, adoption records are sealed, by statute, at the time the adoption is finalized and remain closed to the public.[1] The only time they may be opened is by a court order.

Non-identifying information, such as health information provided by a birth parent at the time of adoption, and identifying information, such as the original birth certificate, may be requested by an adoptee’s parents or an adoptee who is an adult at the time of the request. The individual must first file a motion with the Clerk of Superior Court of the original jurisdiction, the county in which the adoption proceeding was filed, to have the adoptee’s record opened. The court then considers the reason the information is sought, the age, maturity and expressed needs of the adoptee, and whether the birth parents are still living, among other deciding factors. Even then, any non-identifying information provided to the adoptee as a result of a court order is still edited to exclude the name, address or other information that could lead directly to the identity of the parent, or other member of the adoptee’s original family.

If an adopted child wants to obtain identifying information such as the birth parents’ names, they must go through a North Carolina licensed adoption agency that agrees to act as a “confidential intermediary.” In Charlotte, the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services may also act as a confidential intermediary. If the biological parent is living at the time the adopted child makes the request, they must provide written consent to the confidential intermediary before any information is released to the adopted child and vice versa.

Originally, these legal processes were established by the North Carolina General Assembly to protect adoptees and birth parents from finding out identifying information inadvertently. To quote Buddy the Elf, however, for many adopted children seeking information about their biological parents it may feel like passing “through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops, and then the Lincoln Tunnel” to obtain the information.

Open and closed adoptions in North Carolina

Opening a sealed court record may not be necessary if the parties chose to have an open adoption. Having an “open” adoption means that adoptive parents know the name of the biological mother and vice versa, and locations of residence. It could also mean having communication between the adoptive parents and biological mother and/or biological father before and/or after the adoption. The extent and duration of the communication is completely up to the individual parties. This does not necessarily mean that a birth parent is a visible, ongoing presence in the life of an adopted child.

Today, the typical adoption in the U.S. involves some degree of openness. They are what we call “semi-open” adoptions. The communication, if any, is handled through an agency or an adoption facilitator and no identifying information is exchanged between the parties. The birth parents may receive pictures and updates on how the child is doing through the agency, and the birth parents may forward letters, pictures, cards or gifts through the agency.

The main difference between a semi-open adoption and a closed adoption is that in a closed adoption in North Carolina, no information is shared and there is no contact or communication between the biological parents and adoptive parents. Most of these adoptions are handled through adoption agencies and physical and legal custody of the child is transferred to the agency after the child’s birth. The agency then transfers physical custody of the child to the adoptive parents, and legal custody is awarded upon finalization of the adoption.

There is no North Carolina law preventing biological parents from maintaining some form of contact with an adopted child. The adoptive parent and biological parents may agree to the extent and duration of the contact either verbally or in writing, but the “contract” is not enforceable by a North Carolina court, nor may it be used to get a party to consent to an adoption.

Closed adoptions may no longer be private

With the advent of DNA registries, confidential, or “closed” adoptions may be a thing of the past.[2] Some people who register with DNA databases are looking for information about their ethnic origins or exploring branches of their family tree. These databases, however, have become a way for adoptees to find biological parents without the assistance of the court.

Services such as Ancestry.com, 23andMe, DNAadoption.com and organizations such as Touched by Adoption, Inc. offer DNA testing designed specifically to assist adoptees in their search for their birth parents and blood relatives. These registries span the globe and can even assist children adopted internationally. It is important to note that there are many privacy and genetic marker issues involved in using one of these DNA registries, and they require the other parent and/or blood relatives to have registered with the same registry to be effective.

An experienced adoption attorney can help both biological parents and adoptive parents decide on the best type of adoption for their future needs prior to the adoption. Your attorney can explain the advantages and disadvantages of open, semi-open and closed adoptions in the future for the child as well.

If you have questions about adoptions in North Carolina, contact Sodoma Law at attorney@sodomalaw.com.

[1] North Carolina General Statutes § 48-9-102 et seq.

[2] “DNA’s new ‘miracle’:  How adoptees are using online registries to find their blood relatives,” Tara Bahrampour, Washington Post, Oct. 12, 2016.