A Brief History of Colorado Adoption Records

Introductory note: Since the old common law of England didn't address adoption (English adoption law began in 1926), it existed in the United States only by statute, beginning with Massachusetts in 1851. Many states patterned themselves after the Massachusetts law, including Illinois, which in turn became the source of much of Colorado's initial adoption statute.

1879 - Adoption law began in Colorado under the philosophy that adoption transactions should be "executed, documented and recorded as in the manner of real estate."  Adoption records and proceedings were open to the public. 

1907 - The Colorado General Assembly created one of the first Juvenile Courts in the nation.  The first Juvenile Court was established in Cook County (Chicago) Illinois in 1899, rooted in the doctrines of parens patriae, a Latin term meaning "parent or father of the country" and in loco parentis, which means "in the place of a parent." The doctrines granted the state the inherent power to protect persons such as children, the mentally incompetent, or the disabled who are unable to act on their own behalf.  The doctrines also provided the basis for intervention in the lives of "wayward youth," who were generally tried and sentenced in the same manner as adults throughout the 19th century.  In 1838, the Pennsyvlania Supreme Court (Ex Parte Crouse)  had ruled that the Bill of Rights did not apply to juveniles, which therefore allowed the state to intervene in the child's best interest when a parent was not providing proper care, education and training of a child.  [
Source:  History and Development of the Juvenile Court and Justice Process].

1911 -  The Colorado Session Laws included maternity home guidelines under Child and Animal Protection Laws. 

1920s -  Social workers nationwide became concerned that birth certificates of adoptees designated children born out of wedlock as "illegitimate" or "bastard."  Some began to push for new laws that would allow an amended birth certificate to be issued once the child was adopted.     

1927 - Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsay burned Juvenile Court records after losing an election to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. His stated reason for doing so was to prevent records from becoming a source of blackmail by the Klan. 

1935 - For the first time, the state allowed adopted children to present a certificate of identification to school administrators in lieu of original birth certificates, which still featured a designation of "legitimate" or "illegitimate" on the document.  

1943 -  SB 1 created the amended birth certificate, which was issued upon court approval of the adoption (not the relinquishment of the child). The original birth certificate (OBC) was sealed in Vital Records files, with the provision that adoptive parents, adoptees, and the descendants of adoptees could obtain access with court approval. Adoptive parents were provided written instructions telling them that, in order to obtain an amended birth certificate, they had to bring a copy of the child's original birth certificate and adoption decree to the State Registrar's office. 

1946 -  A study prepared for the Colorado General Assembly's Subcommittee on Courts, Procedures and Statutory Revision recommended updating Colorado's law in order to better protect  children (from unnecessary relinquishment, adoption by unfit parents, or post-adoption interference from natural parents); natural parents (from hurried decisions to give up a natural child, made under special strains and anxiety); and adopting parents (from adopting children about whose heredity and health they knew nothing, and from later disturbance of their relationship to the child by natural parents.)    

1949 -  In response to the 1946 Committee Report, SB 64 sealed adoption records for the first time in Colorado, unless a party with a "direct and tangible interest" could demonstrate "good cause" for opening the file.  However, the adoptee's birth name (usually the mother's maiden name, i.e., "Baby Girl Martin") still routinely appeared on the Decree of Adoption. 
Nothing in the provisions of section 4-1-15 specified that the new law was retroactive, but the measure did include a provision stating that those whose adoptions were in process or finalized on or before May 20, 1949, were exempt.   

1951 -  The Colorado General Assembly passed HB 220, which called for obtaining a more detailed history from birth parents and included a clarifying provision that records were  "not open to public inspection."  

1967 -  For the first time, HB 1001 amended section 22-4-4 to instruct courts to "act to preserve anonymity among the parties" to an adoption, though a court could still grant access to records upon demonstration of good cause. The stated reason behind the change is found in committee notes:

"The new adoptive parent-child relationship will be more stable if there is less possibility for contact with the prior family...Subsection (2) repeats the general requirement that anonymity be preserved throughout and is not found in the present statutes on relinquishment and adoption."   

1978 -  Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, allowing adoptees of at least 25% Native American heritage to obtain their birth records and tribal history.  

1978 - As a result, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) began advising adoption agencies that they could not guarantee birthmothers anonymity from their own offspring. The CWLA stated in its Standards of Excellence that an adoption agency "cannot make firm assurances of confidentiality, in view of possible or future changes in the law or its interpretation.." [Standard 2.4 (1978)]

1978 - Colorado adoptees filed a class action lawsuit seeking access to their original birth records.

1978 - State Representative (later Denver Mayor) Wellington Webb received death threats for sponsoring a bill that would grant access to records for adult adoptees. [Source:  Wellington Webb: The Man, the Mayor and the Making of Modern Denver (Fulcrum, 2006)]. 

1981 -  The State of Colorado agreed to allow adult adoptees access to original birth records in a settlement of the lawsuit, but the legislature rejected it. 

1983 -  HB 1411 established a mutual consent registry, allowing people interested in finding each other to register with the State Registrar of Vital Statistics.

1989 -  Colorado became the second state to establish a Confidential Intermediary Program, allowing a party to petition the court for appointment of a trained third party to access adoption records, perform a search for the sought party, and obtain consent for the release of identifying information. 

1992 - With no motion before him, Judge Dana Wakefield, Presiding Judge of the Denver Juvenile Court, declared the new law unconstitutional and stalled the processing of some 350 requests for appointment of a Confidential Intermediary.  The Rocky Mountain News and Westword published stories about the Judge's personal family link to the issue, and critics called for the Judge to recuse himself. 

1993 - The Colorado Supreme Court censured Judge Wakefield for "impermissible exercise of judicial authority."  [In re Tomlinson, 851 P.2d 170 (Colo. App. 1993)]     

1996 -  Colorado's Task Force for the Recodification of the Children's Code recommended access to original birth certificates and adoption records for adult adoptees.  The related 1998 bill, intended to re-codify the entire Children's Code, was sponsored by Senator Dottie Wham and died under the weight of multiple difficulties and controversies. 

1999 - The Tennessee Supreme Court (Doe v. Sundquist, et. al., 2 S.W.3d 919) ruled in favor of the state's 1995 law granting access to sealed adoption records. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals' judgment and upheld the trial court's judgment that (1) adoption law did not impair the vested rights of birth parents in violation of the State Constitution, and (2) adoption law did not violate state constitutional right to privacy.  
1999 -  HB 1188 granted direct access to OBCs and adoption records to adoptees whose adoptions were finalized on or after September 1, 1999 (unless a birth parent requested confidentiality within three years of the date of the Final Order of Relinquishment).  It also allowed retroactive access to records for those cases in which the sought party is deceased, or by mutual consent of the reunited parties. 

2001 - The Oregon Court of Appeals (Jane Does v. the State of Oregon, 164 Or. App. 543, 993 P.2d 822), ruling on Measure 58, a 1998 ballot initiative which provided unrestricted access to original birth certificates for Oregon adoptees, stated in part: 

"Although adoption is an option that is generally available to women facing the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy, we conclude that it is not a fundamental right. Because a birth mother has no fundamental right to have her child adopted, she also can have no correlative fundamental right to have her child adopted under circumstances that guarantee that her identity will not be revealed to the child...

We recognize that a birth mother may well have a legitimate interest in keeping secret the circumstances of a birth that is followed by an adoption and also that an adoptee may have a legitimate interest in discovering the identity of his or her birth mother.  Legitimate interests, however, do not necessarily equate with fundamental rights. We conclude that the state legitimately may choose to disseminate such data to the child whose birth is recorded on such a birth certificate without infringing on any fundamental right to privacy of the birth mother who does not desire contact with the child." 

2005 -  HB 1287 as introduced would have granted unrestricted access to adoption records for adult adoptees who were adopted  before 1999. It was amended by the House of Representatives to include a window during which a birth parent can request confidentiality. However, the bill was gutted in the Senate and a replaced by a measure creating a more restrictive version of the Contact Preference Form (CPF). The CDPHE reports that, out of some 20,000+ adoptions finalized since the measure became law, only a small number of CPFs have been filed. 
For what may have been personal reasons that only became public later, the Governor Bill Owens' staff took a special interest in the bill, which was the last one of the session to be rushed through in a final vote. The bill produced an additional unintended and unjust consequence: the law was intended to give birth/first parents access to the OBC, but, because of a language ambiguity in the statute, birth parents who did not apply for a copy of DOCUMENTS THEY SIGNED prior to January 1, 2007 were denied access to those records without a court order. 

2009 -  The Colorado Court of Appeals [In Re J.N.H., 209 P.3d 1221, (Colo. App. 2009) - Case no. 08CA1235] ruled that, for adoptions finalized between July 1, 1951 and June 30, 1967, adult adoptees now have direct, unrestricted access to their original birth certificates and all documents in the court file.  Appellant Jeff Hannasch was the first adoptee to receive his OBC at a victory party held June 23, 2009.   

2014 - After sixteen unanimous votes in committee and on the House and Senate floors, Governor John Hickenlooper signed SB 14-051 (Tochtrop/Saine) and HB 14-1042 (Saine/Tochtrop) into law on May 22!

  • Effective July 1, 2014, SB 51 provides access to certain adoption records held in court and state agency files. The State Registrar is authorized to conduct a search for the death certificate of a sought party. Original birth certificates held in CDPHE Vital Records files that are already available under existing statute and case law will continue to be available under the same conditions.  Original birth certificates become available to birth parents who signed them on July 1, 2014. On January 1, 2016 original birth certificates from previously restricted time periods will become available to adult adoptees and certain other eligible parties after a "phase out" period for the current version of the Contact Preference Form established in 2005.  
  • Effective August 7, 2014 HB 1042 provides birth/first parents with access to relinquishment documents they signed, and medical records related to the pregnancy and birth of their relinquished child, including the original birth certificate, starting August 7, 2014.  

 2015 -  Two more bills supported by AIS-CTC were passed unanimously by the Colorado General Assembly:  

  • As a result of an alleged ambiguity in the new law by few juvenile court judges,  HB 15-1106 (Saine/Sonnenberg) was passed and signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper March 30, 2015.  The bill clarifies that adoption records (including "non-identifying information") as defined in the statute that are to be released under SB 14-051 must not have identifying information redacted.   
  • As a result of testimony provided by an adoptee in the House Public Health Care and Human Services committee,  HB 15-1355 (Saine & Singer/Marble & Newell) was given late bill status and passed through both houses in only about two weeks.  The bill, dubbed "The Heritage Bill" provides access to records for those who were residents of the state home for dependent and neglected children, regardless of their adoption status.  It also allows adult siblings who were adopted by different families to obtain a non-certified copy of the original and amended birth certificate of their sibling upon demonstration of proof of at least one shared parent.   

Vote History Summaries

We are pleased to provide the following vote history of each bill. All four of these bills passed unanimously through both legislative chambers!    


Summarized History for Bill Number HB15-1106

(The date the bill passed to the committee of the whole reflects the date the bill passed out of committee.)

01/15/2015 Introduced In House - Assigned to Public Health Care & Human Services
02/10/2015 House Committee on Public Health Care & Human Services Refer Unamended to House Committee of the Whole
02/13/2015 House Second Reading Passed - No Amendments
02/17/2015 House Third Reading Laid Over Daily - No Amendments
02/19/2015 House Third Reading Passed - No Amendments
02/25/2015 Introduced In Senate - Assigned to Health & Human Services
03/11/2015 Senate Committee on Health & Human Services Refer Unamended - Consent Calendar to Senate Committee of the Whole
03/16/2015 Senate Second Reading Passed - No Amendments
03/17/2015 Senate Third Reading Passed - No Amendments
03/20/2015 Signed by the Speaker of the House
03/20/2015 Signed by the President of the Senate
03/20/2015 Sent to the Governor
03/30/2015 Governor Signed

Summarized History for Bill Number HB15-1355

(The date the bill passed to the committee of the whole reflects the date the bill passed out of committee.)
04/13/2015 Introduced In House - Assigned to Public Health Care & Human Services
04/21/2015 House Committee on Public Health Care & Human Services Refer Unamended to House Committee of the Whole
04/23/2015 House Second Reading Passed - No Amendments
04/27/2015 House Third Reading Passed - No Amendments
04/27/2015 Introduced In Senate - Assigned to Health & Human Services
04/29/2015 Senate Committee on Health & Human Services Refer Unamended - Consent Calendar to Senate Committee of the Whole
04/30/2015 Senate Second Reading Special Order - Passed - No Amendments
05/01/2015 Senate Third Reading Passed - No Amendments
05/14/2015 Signed by the Speaker of the House
05/18/2015 Sent to the Governor
05/18/2015 Signed by the President of the Senate
06/05/2015 Governor Signed


SB 14-051

Senate Judiciary Committee heard SB 14-051 Wednesday January 29 in a "testimony only" hearing, and voted unanimously (5-0) in favor of an amended "strike below" version (L.017) of the bill Monday February 17.  Key amendments include a longer "phase out" period for changes to the Contact Preference Form, a new legislative declaration clarifying the intent of the bill, and language changes exempting counties, attorneys, and adoption agencies as "custodians of records." The core acccess provisions of the bill remain intact. 

Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously (5-0) to move SB 14-051 forward on Tuesday, February 25.  

Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously (5-0)  Friday, March 7.  

Senate Second Reading passed without objection on Second Reading Consent Calendar March 12.

Senate Third Reading passed unanimously (33-0, with 2 excused) March 13.    We are honored and thrilled that a bipartisan list of 20 Senators signed on as co-sponsors, including Senate President Morgan Carroll, Senate President pro Tempore and Judiciary Committee Chair Lucia Guzman, Majority Leader Rollie Heath, and the entire Majority Leadership. 

Co-sponsor(s) added: Aguilar, Carroll, Guzman, Heath, Herpin, Jahn, Johnston, Kefalas, Kerr, Lambert, Lundberg, Marble, Newell, Nicholson, Rivera, Schwartz, Steadman, Todd, Ulibarri and Zenzinger 

Deepest thanks for your support!

House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee voted unanimously (12-0, with one excused) in favor of the bill Tuesday, March 25. No opposing testimony!

House Finance Committee voted unanimously (13-0) to move the bill forward to Appropriations Wednesday, April 2. 

House Appropriations Committee  voted unanimously to move bill to consent calendar Thursday, April 17.

House Second Reading Special Order approved Thursday, April 17.  

House Third Reading passed unanimously Monday, April 21! Deepest thanks to the following Representative who signed on as co-sponsors: 

Co-sponsor(s) added: Representative(s) Ginal, Hullinghorst, Kraft-Tharp, Lebsock, Ryden, Schafer, Singer, Young, Speaker

Signed by Senate President Morgan Carroll and House Speaker Mark Ferrandino and sent to the Governor May 12.  

Signed by Governor John Hickenlooper May 22!  


HB 14-1042 

House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee voted in favor of HB 14-1042 (12-0, one member excused) Tuesday, Jan. 21.  Moved to Finance Committee. Listen to public testimony and discussion on HB 1042. 

House Finance Committee  voted in favor of HB 14-1042  (12 - 0, one member excused) on Thursday, Feb. 5.  

House Appropriations Committee voted in favor of the bill (13 - 0), after amending it to include standard administrative language related to State Agency fiscal appropriations,on Friday, Feb. 21.   

House Second Reading passed with amendments Wednesday, March 5.  The core provisions of the bill remain intact.

House Third Reading passed unanimously (61-0, with 4 absent/excused) Friday, March 7! Deepest thanks to the following legislators who have signed on as co-sponsors so far:  House Speaker Mark Ferrandino;  Assistant House Majority Leader Dan Pabon; House Majority Caucus Whip and Health, Insurance and Environment Committee Chair Beth McCann;  House Judiciary Committee Chair Dan Kagan; Vice Chair of the House Public Healthcare and Human Services Committee Dave Young, Representative Joann Ginal, and Representative Bob Rankin. We appreciate your support!      

Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill (5-0) Monday, March 17.  Listen to public testimony and hearing

Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill (5-0) Tuesday, March 25.  

Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously (5-0) to move the bill to the Senate consent calendar Wednesday, April 16.    

Senate Second Reading Special Order passed Thursday, April 17. 

Senate Third Reading passed unanimously on consent calendar Monday April 21! Deepest thanks to the following Senators who signed on a co-sponsors:

Co-sponsor(s) added: Carroll, Guzman, Heath, Kefalas, Kerr, Newell and Nicholson.

House Considered Senate Amendments and Concurred. Re-passed Tuesday April 22. 

Signed by Senate President Morgan Carroll and House Speaker Mark Ferrandino April 25.  

Sent to the Governor April 28.

Signed by Governor John Hickenlooper May 22!