Birthright: Rhode Island Adoptees Win Access to Birth Certificates

by by Doreen St. Félix

This past July, Gary Osbrey, 50, drove from his home in Putnam, Connecticut to Capitol Hill to learn his birth name. He and three other adult adoptees stood on the stage of the auditorium at the Rhode Island Department of Health; from the audience, dozens of supporters snapped photos of the group. Gary’s adoptive siblings flanked him, his brother Raymond holding his left hand and his sister Jonna squeezing his right. After completing his remarks, Governor Lincoln Chaffee handed each person a white envelope. Inside the envelope, finally, was his birth certificate. Upon opening it, he took off his black-rimmed glasses and covered his face with his hands. The few seconds it took Gary to open the envelope felt longer than the 15 years he spent navigating—unsuccessfully— governmental barriers to find his birth mother. This was the closest Gary would ever get to meeting her.

“I’m speechless,” Gary later told reporters at the July 2 ceremony. The law called Rhode Island S 478 Sub AA went into effect that day. Passed by Governor Chafee in September of 2011, the law grants adult adoptees born in the state of Rhode Island access to non-certified copies of their birth certificates from the Office of Vital Records. For Gary Osbrey, this means knowing that his birth mother, who passed away in the early ‘90s, was Italian. “It means looking like people,” says Kara Foley, a 27-year-old Providence resident active in adoption-reform organization Access Rhode Island, who was able to track down and meet her birth mother. Across the nation, reformers focused on incorporating the adoptee perspective in adoption policy, see the law as restoring a civil right: the right to know one’s self.


Articles 7 and 8 of the 1989 United Nations on the Rights of the Child state that it is the responsibility of national governments to register each child immediately after birth. The registration is documented as the original birth certificate (OBC); this is the first and most important piece of legal identification a person receives from the government. A birth certificate proves you exist and have rights. The newborn child has the right from birth to a name, the right from birth to a nationality. Birth registration also gives the child the right to be adopted. Prior to July 2012, after the adoption of a child was legally authorized in Rhode Island, the OBC was sealed. It was filed among the 30,000 dating back to the 1800s in the dusty annals of the Office of Vital Records in the Department of Health. The adoptee then received an Amended Birth Certificate (ABC). It lists the adopted parents as parents of birth.

The sealing of birth records as standard practice didn’t exist in America until the mid-20th century. Prior to that time, adoptions were often informal. Sisters raised their orphan nieces during the Depression. During WWII, relatives from the East took in cousins from the West. The ‘60s brought about a national movement to regulate document adoptions. Elizabeth Samuels, Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore, attributes the advent of the anthropology of kinship as the pivot point for the American attitude towards adoption. “The idea became that families formed through adoption should be indistinguishable from those formed by birth,” she said. In her 2001 essay “How Adoption in America Became Secret,” Samuels notes how state legislatures in the ‘70s maintained “birth parents’ life long right to anonymity,” while foreclosing the rights of adult adoptees’ to their birth records. By the ‘90s, OBCs in 45 states were permanently sealed. As of this past July, the number is now 44.

Back in 1944, Rhode Island was one of the first states to pass a law sealing birth records. Before this, virtually no confidentiality or secrecy provisions in adoption law existed in the United States. In the ‘30s, the U.S. Children’s Bureau, a subset within the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1925, began to conduct research on adoption. The reports, compounded with sociological and anthropological study, concluded that an adoptee’s access to birth certificates undermined the idea of adoption. In order for adoption to work, the triad—birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptee—had to be protected from public scrutiny. Lawmakers agreed. So unless an adoption was open or semi-open, it was became impossible for an adult adoptee to find the critical information an OBC registers. Though he attempted to find loopholes, Osbrey was stuck in a legal labyrinth for fifteen years. He consulted genealogists. He dug through city archives. He even registered with the Passive Voluntary Adoption Mutual Consent Registry act. “I was just stopped in my tracks,” said Gary.


Three days after he was born in Providence in 1961, Gary was adopted. “I always knew I was adopted. My parents told me everything,” he says. Osbrey wasn’t looking for his birth parents and the history attached to them out of spite, which is what opponents of unsealing OBCs—usually both adoptive and birth parents—often fear motivates adult adoptees. Osbrey grew up in a loving home and secured his adoptive father’s blessing before beginning his journey in 1998. “It’s a crucial piece of information [that I want to know],” says Osbrey. Paul Schibbelhute, the executive director of the American Adoptive Congress, advisor to adoptee-rights’ organizations such as Access Connecticut and Access Rhode Island, and a birth parent himself, conceptualizes this “right to know” in legal terms: “It is a basic human right to have access to a birth certificate,” he told the Norwich Bulletin. “All of us have the right to know who our families are.” Several years ago, he reunited with his birth-son.

Organizations who advocate for the unsealing of birth certificates as a civil rights issue have passionate supporters across the country. Bastard Nation “fights rather than cries,” says Shea Grimm, a founder of the adoptee political advocacy group. Since 1996, he and his cohorts have invigorated the adoptee rights’ movement since with their pugnacious campaigns. These include staging “Bastard Walks” in front of offices of Vital Records across the country, distributing strongly-worded pamphlets called “Bastard Bytes” and appropriating the radical activism of queer politics group of ACT UP.  Shea, a self-described “Bastardette” denigrates media and political depiction of adoptee reformers. “Why is there the fear of the angry adoptee?” she asks. “I’d say that the ‘angry adoptee’ represents to adoptacrats—traditional lawmakers, rich adoptive parents and secretive birth parents—a soft repudiation of their personal humanitarian mission and the accompanying legal and social control that comes with doing something for a ‘good cause.’” For the reader, Shea pauses to indicate which words must be in scare quotes. She and the thousands of supporters of Bastard Nation criticize “adoptacrats” for making adoptees second-class citizens. Indeed, the group’s name is a punchy nod to the stereotypical—if outdated—perception of adoptees: that they are the rootless, pitied products of illegitimate unions.

Bastard Nation published a congratulatory post on their website,, the day after the Rhode Island law was passed. It lauded Kara Foley, who campaigned with Access Rhode Island, a self-described “grassroots campaign to pass legislation in Rhode Island allowing adult adoptees access to their OBCs.” Access Rhode Island initiated campaigning for this legislation in 2005. The group is part of a national advocacy fight for adoptee rights. In recent years, Access Connecticut has appealed to Congress to reintroduce legislation to unseal birth certificates. In the face of opposition from the ACLU and Catholic Charities, the Adoptee Rights Coalition, headquartered in San Antonio, has been organizing civil rights demonstrations for over a decade. The success of Access Rhode Island has reinvigorated these decades-old advocacy efforts. State lawmakers generally remain unwilling to budge. A month after posting about Access Rhode Island, Bastard Nation published one about New Jersey. Governor Chris Christie vetoed a similar adoption bill in October of 2011. “This is just what we expected,” it reads. “This is a nightmare.”


Kara Foley is hopeful that the new Rhode Island law will turn the tide towards favoring adoptee rights across the country. Her bangs fall over her eyes—“my mother’s eyes,” she says—when she considers that “no matter what people find out, adult adoptees now have access to the truth, and that is a very importance step.” Gary echoes Kara’s thoughts. “For me and other adoptees throughout Rhode Island, this movement has to catch on in other states. This is a good thing. This is the truth,” he told reporters at his birth certificate ceremony.

Kara learned from her birth mother that her birth name was Meagan Elizabeth. Even though his glasses were off as he read his birth certificate for the first time, Gary could still make out his birth name.

“That was probably the strangest thing, seeing a different name on the birth certificate,” says Gary. “Mark.”

DOREEN ST. FELIX B ’14 was left at the monastery gate.