Pennsylvania County Adoption Inquiry Responses

Pennsylvania County Adoption Inquiry Responses

Your county tax dollars at work?

Adoption law is STATE law. In PA the COUNTY ORPHANS COURTS where the adoption was FINALIZED (most often, the county the adoptive parents officially got court approval to be parents to the adopted child, usually where they lived at the time) are the entities who administer the law and have the records. Searching adoptees and birthparents must work with those county courts to attempt to obtain non-identifying information (like the education, ethnicity, etc. of the other party) and file waivers of confidentiality (which state the person filing it does not want confidentiality and wants their contact info given to the other party). A birthparent may need to write to the Bureau of Vital Statistics in New Castle PA in order to ask for the county of finalization- then they know where to file allowed info.

While the law has provisions for these exchanges, the counties interpret it differently. The law states that an adoptee is entitled to non-identifying information- but nowhere does it say it is free. Thus, the procedures and charges levied by the counties vary. Some counties have search agents on staff to assist in search. Many do not, but will appoint one.

To compile a statewide database for searchers, efforts were twice made to contact each PA county court, once in February 1999 and again in April 2001. Each was sent a letter of inquiry on procedures and fees from Glenda Shay, the founder of PAC support group in Pittsburgh. This letter for each year appears below.

April 2001 letter of inquiry

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am writing to inquire about your policies and procedures regarding your requirements for an adopted person to obtain non-identifying and identifying information about their adoption; what fees are involved; whom they should contact, including a name and telephone number, in order to initiate a search for birthparents. I need this information in order to provide information to adopted persons and birthparents who are searching in the state of PA.

Also, what are your provisions for a birth parent who desires contact and reunion with the child they surrendered to adoption? What provision is made for both the adoptee and birthparent for placing a waiver of confidentiality into the adoption file? Do you honor the waiver of confidentiality if both parties have filed a waiver of confidentiality and what is your policy on releasing this information to both parties?

Also, will you please provide the names of the intermediaries who are appointed to provide non-identifying information and conduct a search for the birth parents as provided in Section 2905:

(c) Access to identity of natural parents. (1) Upon petition of an adoptee at least 18 years of age or, if less than 18, his adoptive parent or legal guardian, the court may also, through its designated agency, attempt to contact the natural parents, if known to obtain their consent to release their identity and present place of residence to the adoptee. The petition may state the reasons why the adoptee desires contact with his natural parents,which reasons shall be disclosed to the natural parents if contacted. However,the court and its agents shall take care that none but the natural parents themselves are informed of the adoptee's existence and relationship to them. The court may refuse to contact the natural parents if it believes that, under the circumstances, there would be a substantial risk that persons other than the natural parents would learn of the adoptee's existence and relationship to the natural parents. The court shall appoint either the county children and youth agency, or a private agency, which provides adoption services in accordance with standards established by the Department of Public Welfare, to contact the natural parents as its designated agent.

Thank you in advance for your timely response to this letter.


February 1999 letter of inquiry

Dear Your Honor,

I am the founder of Pittsburgh Adoption Connection, a support group for birthparents, adoptees, and adoptive parents in Western Pennsylvania. Our support group has been in existence since 1987. I maintain a state wide data base of triad members who are searching for one another.

I am frequently asked questions about the policies in the counties in the state and find myself unable to answer these questions since I am not familiar with all of the counties in the State.

Please provide information on what your requirements are for an adopted person or birthparent to obtain non-identifying information about their adoption if the adoption took place in your county. What are the fees involved, if any, and to whom should inquires be sent?

What provision is made for placing a waiver of confidentiality into the adoption file from the adoptee and from the birthparents?

What is your policy regarding releasing information if both the adoptee and the birthparent have filed a waiver of confidentiality?

I would appreciate your timely response. Enclosed is a self addressed stamped envelope for your reply. If you desire any information about Pennsylvania adoption support groups I will be happy to provide you with that information. Thank you in advance.


Of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, by March 31, 1999, 32 responded. In response to the April 2001 letter of inquiry even fewer wrote back.

It is sad to reflect on the apparent truth that some county employees just don't think this is important enough to reply. It's up to us, the searchers, to let them know by our continued polite but ongoing contact with them, that we need a response. Some of the county courts sent instructions in pencil jotted at the bottom of the letter of inquiry, and some counties exhibited a lack of knowledge of the law which is to govern their work. Their responses are posted on the web to tell you what the county said, not necessarily what is legally correct.

If your county did not respond or responded vaguely or inaccurately or unprofessionally, it will be up to you to contact the court, and pleasantly but firmly press to learn what you have to do to file a waiver of confidentiality in the adoption file to be sure they know you desire contact if your lost family member comes looking for you there. And if you are an adoptee, you must also find out what can be done to have a searcher appointed to your case if you so desire.

If a county responded to both the 1999 and 2001 letter of inquiry, both responses are posted on the web. If they responded to only one of these mailings, that alone is posted.



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The last bill in Pennsylvania to look at re-doing adoption law was SB859, open to public hearings in October 2001. Ultimately, trying to please too many people, this omnibus bill failed to make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Among people concerned with adoptee rights and those searching, the bill was discriminatory by offering different rights to adoptees who happened to be adopted either before or after it would pass. On the other hand, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference felt the bill was too liberal. Thus, both sides pulled their support.

It had its good points, but let's talk about search. If you are searching today, this bill wasn't going to do a lot for you unless you were prepared to pay up because it primarily expanded the confidential intermediary system. Translation- with this bill, more people could pay court appointed searchers to search for what should be assessible to them anyhow. It's MY file- how come I can't see it? Why is some third party somehow more qualified to approach contact than I am? You can guess that the people who profit from these searches had a hand in drafting this legislation.

And let's talk about rights. No amount of professional searchers allowed to look on your behalf gives an adoptee a real birth certificate. If you were adopted, your adoption is still regarded as a property transfer, and you aren't allowed to know about it. (Indeed, the birth certificate adoptees get in PA gives them no indication that they even were adopted.)

The bill recognized these injustices, but didn't fully address it, content to do right in the future but not to correct the past. Future adoptees adopted after whenever this bill would have been passed would have been able to get their REAL birth certificates but we oldtimers already born are denied.

So using an equally serious civil rights parallel, you can ride at the front of the bus if you were born after the new law gets passed. If you were born before then, you'll have to buy your freedom, and you still won't have the paperwork to prove it.

Urge your legislators to look at Oregon as a model: adoptees get their unaltered birth certificate upon request -AND- they also receive a Contact Preference Form (CPF) filled out by the birthparent(s) which indicates whether they would a) like direct contact b) like contact through an intermediary c) prefer not to have any contact. That addresses and protects the rights and dignity of all involved without unneeded (and costly) court searchers as middlemen.

Some revised version of this bill may come back to haunt us!

FOR NOW... learn in layman's language about SB 859, write to your legislators (and use a link if you want to read the actual text of it) here.


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Know your rights! Read up on simplified Pennsylvania adoption law here. Into a more formal version? Try this one.