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May 25, 1999 News No Comments

Adoptees demand right to past

Activists fight for access to their birth records, but mothers say they were promised anonymity. Now, two sides take battle to Ore. court.

By Patrick McMahon
USA TODAY

MANZANITA, Ore. – Nothing may seem more central to a person’s identity than a birth certificate, the proof that you are who you say you are.

But for millions of American adults who were adopted as children, their original birth certificates are a state secret. They cannot see the documents without a court order.

Those documents are at the center of an intense battle here after Oregon voters passed an initiative last year to grant wide access to birth records.

On one side is Bastard Nation, an in-your-face group of adopted people dedicated to opening up birth records. On the other side are birth mothers who say they were promised anonymity when they gave up their children years ago.

The initiative, which is being challenged in an Oregon courtroom, has forced some birth mothers to speak from the shadows. Because some of those children were the product of rape or incest, as well as youthful indiscretion, many mothers say they feel disclosure now would wreck their lives.

“We were repeatedly assured that the bond was severed permanently,” says an Oregon birth mother who asked to be identified only as Nancy. She says she was promised anonymity when she gave birth as a college senior in the early 1960s. “Every decision I made was based on promises of confidentiality.”

A right or violation?

If Oregon and other states begin to unseal birth certificates, it “may be a milestone in the history of adoption,” says adoption historian E. Wayne Carp.

Yet to adoptee Helen Hill, 44, getting her birth certificate on request is “a basic civil right, something we can’t compromise. It’s a human right to know where you came from, whether you want to search for your parents or not.”

Last year Hill, an elementary-school art teacher here on Oregon’s coast, led the successful fight for a statewide ballot initiative that would wipe away years of adoption secrecy. The Oregon Initiative, Measure 58, would change the law to say that any adoptee 21 or older, “shall be issued a certified copy of his/her unaltered, original and unamended certificate of birth” upon request.

The measure passed, 57% to 43%, but has never gone into effect. A group of birth mothers persuaded a judge to block the new law temporarily. Their lawsuit alleges the law invades their privacy and breaches the promises of confidentiality that were made to them. A hearing is set for July 14.

None of the unnamed plaintiffs has spoken publicly. But Nancy, who has never married, says she thinks Measure 58 is “cruel. It’s open sesame. The birth mother is in a position of being hunted down. I think a lot of adoptees are in for tremendous disappointment. I don’t see any good that would come from a reunion in my case. It would turn my life upside down.”

Birth fathers are less involved in the debate over access to birth records because relatively few are listed on birth certificates, says activist Jon Ryan, 51, of Punta Gorda, Fla., who led the National Organization for Birthfathers & Adoption Reform from 1968 to 1994. “The birth father, especially in adoption issues, is defnitely a secondary figure,” he says. It’s not always certain who the father is, and birth mothers are usually advised not to list a father, Ryan says, for fear it could complicate the adoption.

In addition to finding their birth parents, gaining access to their birth records is also a matter of self-esteem, says, Shea Grimm, 33, an adoptee and co-founder of Bastard Nation. Founded in 1996 in Kirkland Wash., the group has 2,300 paid members.

“Sealed records perpetuate the stigma that adult adoptees and birth parents still feel,” Grimm says.

Only two states – Alaska and Kansas – give adoptees 18 or over complete access to birth certificates. Neither reports serious problems. Another 19 states allow limited access, depending on the year a person was adopted or whether the birth parents consent.

Although birth records are sealed, most states have set up some kind of registry that allows adoptees and their birth parents to search for each other. But the registries have limited success, depending on how much consent states require from birth parents and adoptees.

In Search of Origins

Retired elementary-school librarian Anita Field, 61, of Skokie, Ill., spent four years and more than $5,000 before she got her records two years ago. A state appointed confidential intermediary in Illinois tried for two years with no success. A private investigator found nothing. Finally, acting as her own lawyer, she persuaded a judge to give her the records.

Field found that her birth parents had died. But she met a half-brother and two half-sisters

“They gave me photographs, and they couldn’t have been nicer,” Field says.

Several states are considering or have approved legislation to make searches easier. But even when laws are passed, they can be difficult to implement. In 1996, Tennessee approved a law opening birth certificates – except for those involving rape and incest – and giving the birth parents and the adoptee the right to veto any contact. But the law was challenged in court by privacy advocates and still has not been implemented.

That law has been tied up in the courts ever since.

In some states, access varies partly on when the adoption took place. In Montana, for instance, records before July 1, 1967, are available; records from July 1967 to Sept 30, 1997, require a court order, and records of adoptions since then will be open to adoptees at 18 unless birth parents file a disclosure veto.

Bastard Nation is now eyeing Washington, Nevada and Maine as targets for Initiative campaigns, Grimm says. Many other adoption organizations also are pushing for open records nationally. Major supporters of open adoption include the American Adoption Congress, Concerned United Birthparents and organizations with broader focus such as the National Association of Social Workers.

Leading the opposition is the National Council for Adoption headed by Bill Piarce. “We’re seeing confidentiality and privacy eroding across the board,” says Pierce, who opposed Measure 58.

Yet, among professionals in the adoption field, “there is a move toward openness,” says Madelyn Freundlich, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Foundation in New York City. “The field as a whole has come to believe thatchildren of adoption benefit from openness.”

Birth certificates haven’t always been sealed. Earlier this century, Freundlich says, records were open, and birth certificates routinely indicated whether a birth was illegitimate. That began changing in the 193Os as states first closed the records to the public, then to adoptees themselves, Freundlich says.

“People began to think that it wasn’t a good idea to send kids to school with those birth certificates. It added to a stigma,” Freundlich says. Today adoptees in every state are issued new, amended birth certificates bearing the names of the adoptive parents and no indication that an adoption took place.

Historian Carp, author of the book, Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption, says Measure 58 was successful in Oregon “because advocates portray it as an equal opportunity, civil rights issue, and that appeals to voters.”

“The climate of opinion in America is very much against secrecy,” Carp says, particularly when it involves the government. But, he adds, the issue is “a double-edged sword. If you turn this thing around and appeal to the need for privacy; people’s opinions change very quickly.”

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Help us celebrate 20 years of bastardy! Bastard Nation is proud to announce the publication of "The Bastard Chronicles: 20 Years of Adoptee Equality Activism in the U.S.and the Birth of a Bastard Nation", Compiled and edited by Marla Paul, "The Bastard Chronicles" is primer for adoptee equality. It features a diverse collection of Bastard theory, and practice, Bastard and Bastard Nation history, legislative and political action, personal stories, art, and literature. It is the public face of Class Bastard written by Bastard Nationals and those we have influenced. Get yours in time for the holidays. Available at Amazon in print and Kindle today. (After the first of the year the print edition will also be available through the Bastard Boutique.

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Proud Bastard Nation Partner: CalOpen

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Proud Bastard Nation Partner: Indiana Open Access

Proud Bastard Nation Partner: Indiana Open Access

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SAMPLE STATE ORGANIZATION RESOLUTION AGAINST VETOES AND OTHER RESTRICTIONS

SAMPLE STATE ORGANIZATION RESOLUTION AGAINST VETOES AND OTHER RESTRICTIONS

Any political organization seeking to enact true open records legislation should be very clear with both their constituents and the legislators they work with about what the essential provisions of the proposed bill are. Any modification or deletion of the essential provisions of a bill should be immediate cause to have the bill killed.

Any political organization seeking the assistance of Bastard Nation to pass open records legislation must hold unconditional access by adult adoptees to the original record of their birth as an essential provision that cannot be modified or deleted. Read our Mission Statement.

Bastard Nation will not assist any political organization to pass open records legislation unless their governing board or other leadership

passes a written resolution such as the following that commits the board to a strategy of no compromise on key provisions
informs its constituents of this commitment and this strategy
informs the sponsoring legislators of this commitment and this strategy.

WHEREAS we recognize that disclosure and contact vetoes, redactions, mandatory intermediaries and registry provisions are an affront to the dignity of adopted persons everywhere and a violation of their right to due process and equal treatment under the law,

WHEREAS there has been a demonstrable negative effect on the ability to pass unconditional open records in states that have passed veto legislation and/or any provisions that are less than unconditional access on demand by the adult adoptee,

WHEREAS our primary goal is to restore the right of adult adoptees everywhere to be treated as full citizens under the law,

WE HEREBY DECLARE that under no circumstances will we accept the addition of veto, redaction, intermediary, or registry provisions, or any conditional provisions to our legislation that would be less than unconditional access for adult adoptees to the original record of their birth. All legislative sponsors and members of this organization will be informed of our policy on this matter to ensure that the bill is pulled promptly in the event of such revisions.