The government is preparing amendments to the Family Act to give adopted children the right to know they've been adopted in the future. Right now, people may learn whether they were adopted when they become adults.
As things stand, adopted children will only learn of the fact if the people who adopted them decide to share it. If a child's adoptive parents fail to say anything, they may not learn they have another biological family somewhere.
Irje Tammeleht, team leader for foster and adoptive families evaluation at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said that it is currently possible for a child to have memories of a different family, while their adoptive parents can still decide not to share any information.
"I recently spoke to an adult who as a child remembered fragments of another home. However, their adoptive parents had assured them that they remembered wrong," Tammeleht said.
People used to believe that keeping adoption a secret was in the best interests of the child. Margit Sarv, senior adviser at the children and youth department of the Office of the Chancellor of Justice, suggested the thinking has now changed.
"The secrecy of adoption fails to make it clear the adoptive parent should tell the child of their adoption. Most adoptive parents realize the importance and tell the child they are adopted today, while the law allows the information to be kept back in full. This is definitely not in the best interests of the child," Sarv suggested.
She pointed out that the Constitution guarantees inviolability of private life, and that a person's identity forms one part of that, including their past. The Constitution also provides the right to self-determination, which also touches on a person's background and right to know who their parents are.
Helen Saarnik from the Estonian Union for Child Welfare said that a child must have the right to have a say in decisions that affect their life.
"And one prerequisite for informed decisions is having information. If a child is unaware of the fact they are adopted, it takes away their ability to fully participate in decisions that affect their life," Saarnik suggested.
Plan: Adoptive parents must reveal fact of adoption
The government now plans to amend the Family Act. The plan for a draft bill would give all adopted children the right to know of the fact of their adoption, with adoptive parents urged to bring the matter up sooner rather than later.
Helen Jõks, in charge of child rights policy at the ministry, said that it is still being discussed when exactly adoptive parents should tell children about their biological parents. One option is to lay down a specific age by which children need to be told, another is to have parents bring it up as soon as it is deemed sensible, which is the case in Norway, for example.
"We are leaning toward telling children when it is sensible. Revealing the fact of adoption should not be a one-off event but rather form a part of bringing up an adopted child where a child knows from the first how they became a member of the family," Jõks said.
Liis Saarna, chairman of the board of NGO Oma Pere, said that the Social Insurance Board and support groups already urge guardians to reveal the fact of adoption to children as early as possible.
Experts say there are not many parents who still keep adoption a secret. Both Saarna and Tammeleht pointed out that many children initially go to foster families based on care contracts where their biological parents' custody has not been removed in full yet and they have a right to stay in touch with their child, which state agencies tend to favor.
Adopted children may still face social difficulties
Helen Saarnik said that adoption was kept secret in the past to protect children. "Society has changed now. Adopted children are no longer looked down upon. The secrecy of adoption was also necessary to protect adoptive parents who may have been stigmatized for their inability to have biological children," she explained.
But Siiri Urbas, working as head of development for NGO Oskar Alliku Kodu in Tartu and as a kindergarten special education teacher, said that the Estonian society is not quite ready yet.
Urbas learned that she was adopted at the age of 25. She had a different name and different parents when she was born and said that, in a way, she's even glad she only learned of her adoption after reaching adulthood.
"It wasn't easy to learn I was adopted even when I was 25. I also cannot imagine how difficult it would have been to live knowing something like that in today's society. I come into contact with children in foster care. I have heard of incidents where teachers have made remarks about someone being from the foster system in front of the class. This is damage caused by a modest level of awareness in society. The ignorance of the people around me still hurt me when I was 25," she said.
Urbas said that while it is not wrong to tell children about their background, this should only be done after careful consideration and in cases where it causes no harm to the child. She suggested that telling children they're adopted should be tailored to individual children and families, which is why laying down a legal requirement is not right.
She said that society must be ready to receive adopted children before revealing the fact of adoption can be made mandatory. According to Urbas, the Estonian society needs more awareness and better mental health support for minors.
"It seems to me we are doing the right things but in the wrong order. It is like we're sending adopted children out there to fight for social change without considering whether they are ready to defend their identity by themselves. They cannot yet protect themselves or give an answer when their peers ask why their parents decided to give them away or why they have two families. It is our role as adults to protect them in these situations," she said.
Adults would be given the right to know their parents' identity
The plan for draft legislation also prescribes giving new adoptees the right to get their biological parents' information from the Social Insurance Board upon reaching adulthood at the latest.
Two options are mulled here. The first would see adopted persons given their biological parents' information without the latter's consent, while the second would require consent, except in cases where the court finds that the information is vital for health reasons or to avoid relatives marrying.
Helen Jõks said that the ministry is rather leaning toward the former option.
Children can already turn to the Social Insurance Board to learn whether they are adopted or not. But the identity of biological parents is only shared with their consent.
In 2022, the board gave 57 persons confirmation of their adopted status.
"How should I put it – the walls have ears. Growing up in a small community, it is often the case that everyone else knows before the person does or guesses. That is when they come to us for confirmation. Perhaps they have spent decades wrestling with the question of whether they even want to know," Irja Tammalehet said.
Tammeleht added that requests for information have come from 18 and 80-year-olds, with people sometimes waiting until their foster parents are dead in fear of hurting their feelings.
"It goes to show the extent of human tragedy, pain and reevaluation of one's identity keeping the fact of adoption secret can cause. We have seen people who learn of their adoption in their sixties with tears in their eyes and must reevaluate their whole lives," Tammeleht said.
Last year, all 57 persons' biological parents agreed to their information being shared. The year before, applicants numbered 61, while the biological parents of ten people refused to be identified. The current law allows the Social Insurance Board to only share details that do not allow biological parents to be identified in such cases.
Liis Saarna described it as a problem. "Imagine learning from the board that you have a late father but three surviving sisters. But if they refuse to allow their details to be shared, that is all the information you're getting," she remarked.
People searching for their roots today to be made none the wiser
Changes being sought by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Justice would only concern new adoptions, meaning that children whose biological parents are hiding from them today will not be given the right to know.
Helen Jõks said the matter of changing existing adoption legislation is a sensitive one. On the one hand, the right of adoptees to know their origins. On the other, biological parents' right to anonymity.
"When a mother gave away her baby at the hospital, she may have been promised it would never be known," Liis Saarna from NGO Oma Pere said. While foster families are in the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Social Affairs, adoptions are handled by the Ministry of Justice.
Jõks and Elisabet Mast, PR adviser for the Ministry of Justice, said that whether the new law could concern past adoptions needs more analysis as it is a highly sensitive matter and one that requires interfering in people's private lives.
Editor: Marcus Turovski