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Access to Tennessee adoption records

The question came up at the Tennessee Genealogical Society seminar this past Saturday, as it so often does.

How can we as genealogists get access to adoption records?

The particular question in this case was directed to adoptions in Tennessee. And The Legal Genealogist gave the lawyer’s favorite answer to almost any question:

TN.adoptIt depends.

And, in Tennessee, the big part of what it depends on is the date of the adoption.

There’s a bright orange dividing line in Tennessee law between adoptions that occurred before 16 March 1951 and those that occurred after that date. That’s because those pre-1951 adoption records were never sealed by statute, but only by the internal practices of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

When it changed the adoption law in 1995, effective 1996, the Tennessee Legislature said:

It is the intent of the general assembly that all adoption records, court records, sealed records, or sealed adoption records, and post-adoption records and other records or information, except as may otherwise be provided in this part, and that are contained in any information source on and after January 1, 1996, and that were in existence on March 16, 1951, be made available to eligible persons as provided in this part, and that to that end this is remedial legislation.1

The eligible persons for those pre-1951 adoption records were identified by the statute as the adopted person, the parents and siblings of the adoptee, lineal descendants and ancestors of the adoptee, and legal reoresentatives of the adoptee or those family members.2

In addition to the general provision that pre-1951 adoption records were to be available, the law also made public records of “an organization known as the Tennessee children’s home society-Shelby County division”3 — a scandal-ridden adoption mill implicated in kidnapping of children and illegal adoptions.4

For adoptions after the 1951 bright line date, the new law provided that:

• “All adoption records … shall be made available to the following eligible persons: (i) [a]n adopted person … who is twenty-one (21) years of age or older …; (ii) [t]he legal representative of [such] a person …”5

• “Information … shall be released … only to the parents, siblings, lineal descendants, or lineal ancestors, of the adopted person …, and only with the express written consent … [of] the adopted person….”6

• Any parent, sibling, spouse, lineal ancestor, or lineal descendant of an adoptee could register a “contact veto” that would prevent contact by the adopted person.7

The law further provided that any adoptee over age 18, the adoptive parents or guardian of an adoptee under age 18 and “biological or legal relatives” or “lineal descendants” of an adoptee were entitled to receive non-identifying information, including:

“(1) The date and time of the birth of the adopted person and such person’s weight and other physical characteristics at birth;
(2) The age of the adopted person’s biological relatives at the time of such person’s birth;
(3) The nationality, ethnic background, race and religious preference of the biological or legal relatives;
(4) The educational level of the biological or legal relatives, general occupation and any talents or hobbies;
(5) A general physical description of the biological or legal relatives, including height, weight, color of hair, color of eyes, complexion and other similar information;
(6) Whether the biological or legal parent had any other children, and if so, any available nonidentifying information about such children; and
(7) Available health history of the adopted person, and the person’s biological or legal relatives, including specifically, any psychological or psychiatric information that would be expected to have any substantial effect on the adopted person’s mental or physical health.”8

The statutory change was challenged in court but the law was upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1999,9 and by the federal courts.10

So the rules in Tennessee vary depending on which side of the 1951 bright line the case falls on. For Volunteer State adoption records, a request must be made in writing to

Department of Children’s Services
Post Adoption Unit
436 6th Avenue, NW
8th Floor, Cordell Hull Building
Nashville, Tennessee 37243-1290
(615) 532-5637

And for more information on access to Tennessee adoption records, there are rules, forms and more available on the website of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.


SOURCES

  1. Tenn. Code §36-1-127(a)(2).
  2. Tenn. Code §36-1-127(b)(3).
  3. Tenn. Code §36-1-127(a)(3).
  4. See Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Tennessee Children’s Home Society,” rev. 21 Aug 2014.
  5. Tenn. Code §36-1-127(c)(1)(A).
  6. Tenn. Code §36-1-127(c)(1)(B).
  7. Tenn. Code §36-1-128.
  8. Tenn. Code §§36-1-133(b)

    Some types of information require a court order, even for the adoptee. Identifying information won’t be disclosed without specific court permission if, for example, the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.[8. Tenn. Code §36-1-127(e)(2).

  9. Doe v. Sundquist, 2 S.W.3d 919 (Tenn. 1999).
  10. See e.g. Doe v. Sundquist, 106 F.3d 702 (6th Cir. 1997).
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