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In re G.D.L.

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

January 2, 2020

In re G.D.L., Appellant.

          Argued September 16, 2019

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia BKS-117-16 Hon. Yvonne M. Williams, Trial Judge

          G.D.L., pro se.

          Melissa Colangelo, with whom Abraham Sisson was on the brief, for amicus curiae Children's Law Center.

          Before Fisher, Beckwith, and McLeese, Associate Judges.

          McLeese, Associate Judge

         Appellant G.D.L. seeks review of an order denying his request for access to unredacted records relating to his adoption, including his original birth certificate. We vacate and remand for further proceedings.

         I.

         The following facts appear to be undisputed. Appellant G.D.L. was born and adopted in the District of Columbia in the mid-1960s. In 2000, G.D.L.'s biological mother contacted G.D.L., and the two began to develop a close relationship. G.D.L. then also got to know his biological mother's family, including her siblings, G.D.L.'s cousins, and G.D.L.'s grandparents. Through these relationships G.D.L. learned his biological father's identity, and he communicated with at least one member of his paternal family. In 2011, G.D.L. learned through a paternal uncle that his biological father did not wish to have contact with G.D.L. G.D.L. respected his biological father's wish and has had no contact with his biological father.

         G.D.L.'s mother died in 2001, leaving G.D.L. her personal records and diaries. Those materials were extensive, but few covered G.D.L.'s birth and subsequent adoption proceedings. In 2016, G.D.L filed a petition requesting a copy of his original birth certificate on file with the District of Columbia Department of Health, the Superior Court's records of his adoption proceedings, and adoption-related documents in the possession of the child-placement agency.

         The trial court initially granted G.D.L.'s motion in part. The trial court did not specifically address either the request for an order directing the Department of Health to disclose G.D.L.'s original birth certificate or the request for disclosure of the Superior Court's adoption records. Rather, the trial court focused exclusively on records held by the child-placement agency. The trial court appeared to assume, however, that the child-placement agency would have a copy of the original birth certificate. Although the trial court focused on records held by the child-placement agency, it relied on a statute apparently addressing disclosure of court adoption records. D.C. Code § 16-311 (2019 Supp.) (addressing disclosure of "the petition, records and papers in adoption proceedings"). See In re D.B., 133 A.3d 561, 562 (D.C. 2016) (noting questions whether § 16-311 applies to adoption records held by child-placement agencies and whether D.C. Code § 4-1405 (2012 Repl.) applies to such records). Section 16-311 precludes disclosure in the absence of a finding that "the welfare of the child will thereby be promoted or protected." D.C. Code § 16-311. The trial court concluded, however, that the protections of that provision were inapplicable to G.D.L. because G.D.L. was no longer a minor. The trial court therefore viewed itself as free to balance the relevant interests in deciding the motion for disclosure. In order to "protect [G.D.L.'s] birth father's privacy as much as possible," the trial court directed the child-placement agency to give G.D.L. redacted copies of the original birth certificate and "adoption records," omitting his biological father's name and any "information related to" his biological father.

         G.D.L. sought reconsideration, arguing among other things that (1) the trial court did not address the request for an order directing the Department of Health to disclose the original birth certificate; (2) the trial court did not address the request for disclosure of the Superior Court's adoption records; and (3) with respect to the agency's records, the trial court applied the wrong standard and erroneously required redaction of the agency's records. The trial court vacated its original order and issued a new order. The trial court reiterated its understanding that it was required to "protect the birth father's right to privacy as much as possible." The trial court again did not explicitly address the requests for an order to the Department of Health directing disclosure of the original birth certificate or for direct disclosure of the Superior Court's adoption records. Rather, the trial court appeared to assume that the agency would have access to the original birth certificate and the Superior Court's adoption records, and directed the agency to disclose redacted versions of those documents, omitting "identifying information related to the birth father." Finally, the trial court also directed the agency to disclose its records, similarly redacted.

         According to G.D.L., the child-placement agency subsequently provided G.D.L. with eighty pages of copied documents, all of which were in the agency's files. Those documents included a redacted copy of ...


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