Biological parents in 1965 adoption still secret, says Iowa Supreme Court

by Ryan Koopmans | March 11, 2016

By Ryan Koopmans

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled today that a Linn County court was correct to deny a woman’s request to find out the identity of her biological parents who gave her up for adoption in 1965. 

The case, In the Interest of R.D., was brought by a woman whose identity was also kept confidential.  She was born in Iowa in 1965 to a married couple who consented to her adoption as a newborn.  A few days later, the adoption was finalized and her adoption records were sealed by the court. 

According to the Iowa Supreme Court, the woman grew up in a loving and supportive adoptive family and she achieved academic, professional, and personal success – earning advanced degrees, serving on the faculty of a prestigious university outside Iowa, and being married to a supportive husband for decades. But she has also struggled with depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse, which her psychologist believes are traced to her underlying issues with being adopted.  Her psychologist recommended that she try to identify her parents, based on the opinion that this could help her address her mental health issues.  So the woman wrote to the Linn County District Court, asking that her adoption records be unsealed.  The district court denied her request.

On appeal, the Court’s unanimous decision was a relatively straight-forward question of statutory interpretation.  The statute, Iowa Code section 600.16A, requires adoption records to be kept sealed and confidential, except under limited exceptions.  The woman argued that she fell under an exception for revealing information when “necessary to save the life of or prevent irreparable physical or mental harm to an adopted person.”

But the justices disagreed, reasoning that even under the exception, the court “shall make every reasonable effort to prevent the identity of the biological parents” and R.D. failed to prove that the revelation would be necessary to save her life or to prevent irreparable harm.  The revelation of her parents’ names would “assist the treatment of her alcoholism and related depression and anxiety,” Justice Waterman wrote, but R.D.’s treating medical professionals could  “offer no assurances that her problems will resolve upon her discovery of the identities of her biological parents.”

The Court recognized that this result might not align with “changed attitudes” about adoption, and that these changing attitudes might warrant a “a fresh look at the confidentiality of Iowa’s adoption records,” but it stressed that any change would have to come from the legislature.  “[I]t is not our function to redraft or interpret laws differently from what the legislature intended solely to reflect current values or lifestyles,” the Court explained.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that R.D.’s legal fight was for naught.  If her biological parents learn of her request through the Court’s written opinion (and reports of it), then they can consent to the disclosure of their names.   So if a couple who gave up a newborn daughter for adoption in Linn County in 1965 hears about this decision, and wishes to identify themselves, they could give their consent to the court. 


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