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Laws ease adoptees' search for their past/Unsealing records stirs privacy issue

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  • Laws ease adoptees' search for their past/Unsealing records stirs privacy issue

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/n...3jan16,1,75618
    72.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed

    Laws ease adoptees' search for their past
    Unsealing records stirs privacy issue

    By Kirsten Scharnberg
    Tribune national correspondent
    Published January 16, 2005


    CONCORD, N.H. -- They came to the dim basement office of the state's Division
    of Vital Records for very different reasons.

    One man had been searching for his birth mother for the better part of a
    decade.

    One woman, the mother of an 18-year-old daughter, had just been diagnosed with
    breast cancer and was desperate to know whether the disease ran in her
    biological family.

    One state lawmaker, an adoptee herself, was there to make a stand for civil
    rights.

    As the result of new legislation in New Hampshire, all these men and women were
    able--for the first time in their lives--to see their original birth
    certificates during the past two weeks.

    The law, which went into effect Jan. 1, makes New Hampshire one of only five
    states to fully open such records to adult adoptees, a move that is hotly
    controversial because it invariably reveals the names of one or both biological
    parents and bucks the country's long tradition of keeping that information
    secret in the interest of privacy.

    "In essence, this law is declaring that those birth certificates and the
    information on them are the property of the adoptee," said Paul Schibbelhute,
    vice president of the American Adoption Congress, an advocacy group for
    adoptees.

    In its first two weeks, the New Hampshire law has touched off emotionally
    charged debate among birth parents, adoptive parents, adoptees, abortion foes,
    adoption agencies and lawmakers in other states considering similar measures.

    Advocates of adoption, for example, suggest that pregnant women will be more
    likely to choose abortion if they do not have a guarantee of anonymity with
    their adoption. Some birth parents--those who have never told anyone about that
    chapter of their past--are fearful of having lives interrupted with an
    unexpected and unwelcome knock at the door. And still others argue that New
    Hampshire's law essentially amounts to a declaration by the state that the
    names on all adoptees' amended birth certificates--their adoptive
    parents--aren't really legal or important.

    "This law sends the message that an adoptive family is not a real family and
    that an adopted person is not a full person until they've tracked down their
    biological family and had a reunion," said Tom Atwood, president of the
    National Council for Adoption, an adoption advocacy group.

    The New Hampshire law was in large part the brainchild of state Rep. Janet
    Allen, a Republican from Barnstead who grew up knowing that she and her brother
    were adopted. Allen had spent years attempting to track down her birth parents
    without the aid of a birth certificate. She eventually succeeded, and when she
    was first in line and became the first person in the state to get a copy of her
    original birth certificate on Jan. 3, none of the information on the document
    was new to her.

    "I wasn't there to have some mystery solved," she said. "I was there because I
    believe it is a basic civil right to be able to get your birth certificate.
    Every other citizen in the country can get their birth certificate except for
    people who happened to have been adopted."

    The battle over which--if any--records from adoptions should be open is not
    new. Most adoption records were sealed in virtually every state between the
    1950s and 1970s, when out-of-wedlock births carried much more of a social
    stigma and when the primary concern was to prevent birth parents from later
    seeking out children they had given up, said E. Wayne Carp, the author of
    "Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption."

    But in the 1970s, as a generation that had grown up during an era of sealed
    records reached adulthood, a movement for opening those records was born. A
    woman named Florence Fisher sued in 1979 to challenge a New York state law that
    said adoptees could obtain their birth records only if they could show "good
    cause."

    The suit failed, and records have remained shrouded in most states ever since.

    Steve Varnum, 52, was a young man in Massachusetts in the 1970s. Although he
    adored his adoptive parents, he wanted to know the circumstances of his birth.
    Varnum went to the state records office and literally sneaked a look at his
    file while a harried clerk wasn't paying attention.

    Reunions vary

    "There are a lot of ways adopted people feel different from other kids, and
    some are as basic as not looking like your parents or as complicated as feeling
    a social stigma," Varnum said. "But I found the act of sneaking a look at my
    own birth certificate the most demeaning thing I've ever experienced."

    Varnum used the information to find his biological mother, and the two remain
    close today.

    But such reunions are not always happy. Atwood said many women who give up
    children for adoption struggle for years with the decision.

    "Being contacted without warning puts these people in a lose-lose situation,"
    he said. "They can agree to see this child even if they are emotionally
    unprepared to do so. Or they can choose to hurt that child who they never
    wanted to hurt."

    New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, who raised two adopted children,
    knows something about that. When his adopted daughter found her birth mother,
    D'Allesandro watched the young woman grieve for months when the mother didn't
    want a reunion.

    "My daughter was crushed," the senator said.

    Still, D'Allesandro, a Democrat from Manchester, supported the new law for one
    key reason: so adoptees could obtain the medical history of their biological
    families.

    "My daughter has had a number of health issues," he said. "And now she has a
    daughter who is experiencing similar problems."

    But those who oppose open-records laws counter that requests for medical
    histories can be honored without identifying the birth parents. Atwood said
    many states will act as an intermediary to obtain medical information for an
    adoptee who is seeking it.

    Further, he said, most states have put in place a system by which reunions
    between adoptees and birth parents can be facilitated--so long as both sides
    are interested.

    New Hampshire's lawmakers put in place a contact-preference provision that
    allows birth parents to attach to birth certificates a notice of how they feel
    about being contacted. They can note that they want to be contacted, that they
    want to be contacted only through an intermediary, or that they do not want any
    contact.

    Still, the provision does not prevent adoptees from ignoring their birth
    parents' wishes. In contrast, Tennessee levies fines against those who ignore
    requests for no contact.

    Perhaps the most watched part of the New Hampshire law is whether other states
    follow suit. Carp, the author, thinks they will.

    "There is definitely a move toward openness," he said.

    Indeed, New Hampshire modeled its law on a similar one in Oregon. But there was
    one key difference: instead of legislators passing the statute, the citizens of
    Oregon approved the law in a statewide vote.

    In addition to New Hampshire and Oregon, the other states to open original
    birth certificates to adoptees are Kansas, Alaska and Alabama.

    Illinois favors privacy

    Illinois has long favored the privacy of those who give up children for
    adoption over adoptees' desire for information.

    In 1995, proposed legislation to make Illinois adoption records completely open
    never even made it to the House floor for a vote. Last year, Democratic state
    Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, an adoptee, spearheaded legislation that allows
    court-appointed intermediaries to do extensive records searches on behalf of
    adoptees. The bill became law on Jan. 1.

    Feigenholtz now is asking Illinois residents to contact her with their thoughts
    on legislation similar to New Hampshire's.

    "I would like to know if there is still interest among Illinois adoptees in
    having access to their original birth certificate," Feigenholtz says on her Web
    site.

    Such legislation affects a large population. Experts have estimated that there
    are 6 million adoptees in the country.

    Even as the national debate intensifies over opening original birth
    certificates, people are routinely using other means, such as Internet sites
    and national search organizations, to find birth parents.

    "In this day and age, I find it hard to believe that any birth parent believes
    that knock on the door will never come," Varnum said.


    -------------------------
    A good friend will come and bail you out of jail . . . but, a true friend will
    be sitting next to you saying, "**** . . . that was fun!"
    -----Unknown
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