In the 2013 film Philomena, Dame Judy Dench plays Philomena Lee, a woman who gave birth to a son in an Irish convent for unwed mothers in 1952. Without Philomena’s knowledge or consent, the child, Anthony, was sent to the United States to be adopted in 1955. The film portrays Philomena’s efforts to find Anthony, and highlights the challenges of both birth parents and adopted children finding each other.


Philomena’s Search


Well into the early 2000s, the nuns at Ireland’s Sacred Heart Adoption Agency refused to give Philomena any information about her son, other than that he “was no longer alive.” Philomena discovers that beginning in 1977, Anthony (whom his adoptive parents had renamed “Michael”) had made several visits to Ireland to look for her. Michael was told that his mother had abandoned him at birth, when in fact she had nursed him for two months and had daily contact with him until his adoption at age three-and-a-half. The nuns withheld the fact that Michael’s birth mother was looking for him, and did not inform Philomena of Michael’s inquiries.


The story, and subsequent book and film, took a dramatic turn which highlighted the decades of anguish experienced by both Philomena and Michael.


Is Open Adoption the Answer?


Recent trends in “open” adoption and in making original birth records available to adopted adults aim to eliminate the heartache suffered by Philomena and Michael. Birth parents now play a more active role in selecting adoptive parents, and it is increasingly common for adoptive and birth parents to enter into a formal post-adoption contract that provides for some form of contact and information-sharing. The psychosocial benefits of open adoption are emphatically supported by extensive research and longitudinal studies, including the large-scale California Long-Range Adoption Study.


While many countries – and some U.S. states – allow adult adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth records, in California, these records are sealed upon adoption, and made available to adoptees through a court order, issued only upon “good cause”, which courts have held must be something more that “mere curiosity”. According to California legislators and courts, the benefits of obtaining adoption information must be balanced against the right to privacy granted under the state’s constitution.


As more adoptions occur in California each year than in any other U.S. state, the number of Californians affected by adoption is in the millions, with at least three million adopted adults whose birth records are sealed.


The Carlsbad adoption attorneys of Fischer & Van Thiel, LLP have experience handling a wide variety of adoption cases, and can assist in structuring open adoptions and obtaining release of birth records. To discuss your circumstances with us, please schedule a free consultation by calling (760) 722-7669.