Tennessee’s adoption records are some of the most accessible adoption records in the country. The rules were drawn in an effort to balance the various competing interests and are thus a little complex. The law attempts to give adopted adults most of the information in the adoption record, while protecting all members of the “Triad” (adoption-talk for the birth parents, adoptive parents and the adopted person) from unwanted contact with the others. The first premise is that any person, including an adopted person, has a right to know about their history and heritage. The second premise is that all members of the adoption triad should be permitted to decide if they want to be contacted by one another, and that violation of the expressed desire not to be contacted should carry criminal and civil penalties.
Role of Attorneys
If the adopted person was not either born in Tennessee, in state or agency custody in Tennessee, or placed for adoption or adopted in Tennessee, Tennessee will not have a record of the case and the adopted person will need to undertake their search in the state or states where they were born, placed for adoption and adopted.
Unless court action is required under T.C.A. § 36-1-138, there is not much for an attorney to do. Most inquiries are best handled by referral to a Tennessee adoption search support group and the DCS Post-Adoption Services Unit. The addresses for the statewide adoption search group, Tennessee Coalition for Adoption Reform, and for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services post placement services unit are below. Except in medical emergencies or other cases where waiting for DCS to respond to a request for information is not appropriate, it is only necessary to file a legal action to open records if the searching person has exhausted the other avenues.
On January 1, 1996, records of adoptions or attempted adoptions that existed pre-March 16, 1951, and all records of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society were opened to adopted persons and their birth and adoptive relatives. The March 16, 1951, date was used because prior to that date, no adoption records were sealed. Adoption records were sealed on that date by legislative action, but interestingly the legislature never expressly sealed the records retroactively. The pre-1951 records were sealed by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services anyway. All Tennessee Children’s Home Society records were opened in recognition of the scandalous practices of that state-chartered adoption agency.
An important aspect of the law is the provisions regarding access to non-identifying information.
Non-identifying information is generally information that would not lead to discovery of a person’s identity. The section lists information that is considered non-identifying, and requires the Department to release the information upon written request to an adopted person 18 years of age or older, the adoptive parents of an adopted child under 18 years of age, biological or legal relatives of the adopted person, or the adopted person’s lineal descendant. Birth parents can also receive information under this section. Listed as non-identifying information is:
- The date and time of birth of the adopted person and such person’s weight and other physical characteristics at birth;
- The age of the adopted person’s biological relatives at the time of such person’s birth;
- The nationality, ethnic background, race and religious preference of the biological or legal relatives;
- The education level of the biological or legal relatives, general occupation and any talents or hobbies;
- A general physical description of the biological or legal relatives, including height, weight, color of hair, color of eyes, complexion and other similar information;
- Whether the biological or legal parent had any other children, and if so, any available non-identifying information about such children; and
- Available health history of the adopted person, and the person’s biological or legal relatives, including specifically, any psychological or psychiatric information which would be expected to have any substantial effect on the adopted person’s mental or physical health.
This information is available without judicial action or demonstration of any particular need for information. The fee for this information is currently $45.
The Department is required to serve as intermediary for transmitting updated medical information between the birth and adoptive families. There is no fee for this service.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-127(c) requires release of all information including identifying information to adopted persons, 21 years old or older, upon the adopted person’s request, proof of identification, payment of a fee, and written acknowledgment of contact veto rules including an agreement not to contact anyone eligible to file a contact veto. If the person obtaining information wants to contact someone eligible to file a contact veto, they must have the contact veto registry checked and get clearance to make the contact before any contact is made. No judicial action or demonstration of a particular need is required to obtain information under this section.
Effective July 1, 1999 any person about whom information could be released pursuant to T.C.A. § 36-1-127(c) can file a request to be given advance notice before any record containing information about them can be released. The notice of impending release is to be mailed to the registered person 15 days prior to the release of the information to the party that requested it.
The process for making the written request is set out in T.C.A. § 36-1-128(h). The address is found at the end of this page.
Identifying information is never given out in the following situations without a court order:
- If the adoptee is under 21 years old;
- If the records show that the birth mother was a victim of rape or incest and has not consented to release of the information;
- If the requesting party’s or such person’s representative had their parental rights to the adopted person involuntarily terminated for cause; or
- If the record indicates that the requesting party or that person’s relative neglected or committed a crime of violence against the adopted person;
The following information is not available at all:
- The adoptive parents’ home study (this is documentation of the underlying investigation; but the court report, which is a summary of the investigation, is available); and
- Crisis pregnancy counseling information regarding the birth parents.
Contact Veto Registration
A contact veto is the recorded intention that the filing party does not want to be contacted by anyone (or by specifically designated persons) from whom he or she was separated by adoption. A contact veto only expresses a person’s willingness or unwillingness to have contact and has no effect on release of information, identifying or otherwise. The following people can file a contact veto or otherwise register their preferences:
- Birth and adoptive parents;
- Birth and adoptive siblings;
- Lineal ancestors of the adopted person;
- Lineal descendants of the adopted person;
- The adopted person’s spouse; or
- The legal representative of these people.
Adopted people do not have to file contact vetoes. Their contact veto is assumed unless a contrary intent is recorded. Others, including birth parents, must express an intention. If they cannot be found by DCS to ask, contact is allowed. Once a contact veto is filed, the person filing it is notified every time anyone requests contact with them.
If the person with whom contact is sought is not found, there is no prohibition on contact unless the person to be contacted is the adopted person. Adopted people are assumed not to want contact unless a contrary intention is expressed.
Penalties for Violation
If there is a contact veto, or in the case of an adopted person, if there is no registration of a desire for contact and such person is contacted, the person contacted can sue the person who contacted them in circuit or chancery court for injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages. The prevailing party shall also be entitled to attorney’s fees and court costs.
If information obtained under the open records statute is used to cause injury to a person whose name was obtained, it is a Class C misdemeanor and subjects the person who used the information to civil penalties.
Birth Certificates, Court Records and Agency Records
Those eligible to get identifying information from DCS will also get a letter authorizing them to obtain their original or amended birth certificates from the Department of Health, court records, adoption agency records and adoption records from any other information source.
The Tennessee Code provides a judicial process for access to identifying information based upon a showing of best interest of the adopted person or the public, plus one of the reasons enumerated below:
- for purposes of treating or preventing a physical, psychological or psychiatric condition affecting any person,
- for purposes of establishing legal status or standing for inheritance or for property rights determinations or for the determination of legal relationships for third parties,
- for the movant to prosecute or defend a legal proceeding,
- movant is any public agency which requires the disclosure of the information in such record for the purposes directly related to its authorized duties,
- movant is an individual who has sought disclosure under the provisions of §§ 36-1-127(e)(2) or (3); or,
- movant is a lineal descendant of a deceased adopted person.39
STATE POST ADOPTION UNIT ADDRESS:
(For information regarding adoption records.)
Department of Children’s Services
Post Adoption Services
UBS Tower, 9th Floor
315 Deaderick Street
Nashville, TN 37243