When a child is adopted and the adoption is "finalized" in court, the adoptive parents have the legal right to change the child's entire name, including first, middle and last names. After the finalization, the original birth certificate becomes a SEALED RECORD in most states, and the name given by the adoptive parents is placed on a new birth certificate.
The name given to every child, adopted or not adopted is very important to that child, because the name is an integral part of the identity. Even perfect strangers respond to a person's name with preconceived ideas of what a "Larry" or a "Francis" is like; consequently, the choice of a name should be made very carefully.
Naming an Infant
If the child is a new-born infant, he or she may have been given a name by the birthparents. Even if the birthparents do choose to name the child, it is unlikely a name change would be detrimental to the adopted infant.
In some cases of OPEN ADOPTION, the adoptive parents and birthparents both choose the child's name or share the naming of the child. Opponents of this practice believe it could create a problem of ENTITLEMENT for the adopting family and a false sense of control for the birthparents. Supporters believe it is a positive act of sharing and acceptance. In the majority of cases, adoptive parents choose the child's name.
Adoptive parents may choose a name for the pleasant sound of it or may choose a name with Biblical or religious meaning; for example, "Matthew" means "gift of God" in Hebrew.
Other parents may choose the names of a favorite relative, such as a grandparent or cousin, thus adding a sense of family belonging, not only to the adoptive parents and later to the child but also to the extended family.
Says author Cheri Register,
Giving a family name to an adopted child also makes a statement to the extended family: The parent claims the right to share the family heritage with a child who is not a blood relative.
Occasionally, relatives will disagree with the choice of name, believing "family names" should only be reserved for blood relatives. Register describes an incident in which an adopted child was named after the adoptive parents' fathers. Later, when a child was born to the family, an uncle was angry that the names had not been "saved" for the child with the genetic link.
If the child has been adopted internationally, the family may opt to choose a name that is common or acceptable in the birth country of the child. Some families who have adopted Korean-born children have chosen to use a Korean middle name; for example, Register named her daughter "Grace" and "Keun Young" for her first and middle names. According to Register, some countries require adoptive parents to name their child with at least one name common to the country of origin. (This requirement is, however, not enforceable once the child has relocated to the United States.)
Naming an Older Child
When the child who is adopted is not an infant, the child almost invariably has been given a name by others. As a rule, if the adopting parents can retain the child's original first and middle names, it would probably be best for the child. Almost inevitably, the child's last name will be changed. To change a child's first and middle names, along with changing the child's environment, could theoretically affect the child's identity as well.
Although she was not adopted, actress Patty Duke has discussed and written about the dissonance and the dismay she felt when her original name "Anna" was replaced by "Patty" and how this name change affected her identity and feeling of selfhood. It seems likely that an adopted child whose name is changed against her wishes or desires would also feel negative or confused about her identity.
There are exceptions; for example, if the child detests his first name or normally goes by his middle name, then he may desire a legal name change. Sometimes the adoptive family will retain the child's first birth name and opt to give the child a family middle name, in an effort to retain the child's original identity and also bond the child with the new family.
One adoptive family finalized the adoption of their 10-year-old child over the summer vacation. She was very eager to have her last name changed to match the name of her parents because she wanted to go to school with the same last name as theirs.
Cheri Register, "Are Those Kids Yours?": American Families with Children Adopted From Other Countries (New York: Free Press, 1990).
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©2000 by Christine Adamec and William Pierce, Ph.D. Reprinted from The Encyclopedia of Adoption, 2nd Edition (2nd Edition) with permission of Facts On File, Inc.
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