From USA Today:
Mom reunites with biological child 77 years later
January 2, 2012
SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. (AP) For most of her 100 years, Minka Disbrow tried to find out what became of the precious baby girl she gave up for adoption after being raped as a teen.
She hoped, but never imagined, she'd see her Betty Jane again.
The cruel act of violence bore in Disbrow an enduring love for the child. She kept a black and white photograph of the baby bundled in blankets and tucked inside a basket.
It was the last she saw of the girl -- until the phone rang in her California apartment in 2006 with the voice of an Alabama man and a story she could have only dreamed.
Disbrow, the daughter of Dutch immigrants, weathered a harsh childhood milking cows on South Dakota dairy farms. Her stepfather thought high school was for city kids who had nothing else to do. She finished eighth grade in a country schoolhouse with just one teacher and worked long hours at the dairy.
On a summer day in 1928 while picnicking with girls from a sewing class, Disbrow and her friend Elizabeth were jumped by three men as they went for a walk in their long dresses.
Both were raped.
"We didn't know what to do. We didn't know what to say. So when we went back, nothing was said," Disbrow recalled.
Months passed. Her body began to change.
Disbrow, who had been told babies were brought by storks, didn't know what was happening.
Her mother and stepfather sent her to a Lutheran home for pregnant girls. At 17, she gave birth to a blond-haired baby with a deep dimple in her chin and named her Betty Jane.
In her heart, Disbrow longed to keep her. But her head and her mother told her she couldn't bring an infant back to the farm.
A pastor and his wife were looking to adopt a child. She hoped they could give Betty Jane the home she couldn't.
"I loved that baby so much. I wanted what was best," Disbrow said.
She never met them, or knew their names. But over the years, Disbrow wrote dozens of letters to the adoption agency to find out how her daughter was faring. The agency replied faithfully with updates until there was a change in management, and they eventually lost touch.
Disbrow's life went on. She married a fruit salesman who became a wartime pilot and drafting engineer and they had two children. She worked as a dressmaker, silk saleswoman and school cafeteria manager in cities spanning from Rhode Island to Minnesota and Northern California before moving to the seaside town of San Clemente an hour's drive north of San Diego.
Every year, she thought about Betty Jane on her May 22 birthday.
Five years ago, Disbrow prayed she might get the chance to see her.
"Lord, if you would just let me see her," Disbrow remembers praying. "I promise you I will never bother her."
On July 2, the phone rang.
It was a man from Alabama. He started asking Disbrow, then 94, about her background.
Worried about identity theft, Disbrow cut him off, and peppered him with questions.
Then, the man asked if she'd like to speak with Betty Jane.
Her name was now Ruth Lee. She had been raised by a Norwegian pastor and his wife and had gone on to marry and have six children including the Alabama man, a teacher and astronaut Mark Lee, a veteran of four space flights who has circled the world 517 times. She worked for nearly 20 years at Walmart -- and especially enjoyed tending to the garden area.
Lee knew she was adopted her whole life, and grew up a happy child.
It wasn't until she was in her 70s that the search for her biological parents began.
Lee started suffering from heart problems and doctors asked about the family's medical history. She knew nothing about it. Her son, Brian, decided to try to find out more and petitioned the court in South Dakota for his mother's adoption records.
He got a stack of more than 270 pages including a written account of the assault and handwritten letters from a young Disbrow, asking about the tiny baby she had cradled for a month.
He then went online to try to find one of Disbrow's relatives -- possibly through an obituary.
"I was looking for somebody I thought was probably not living," said Lee's now-54-year-old son. He typed Disbrow's name into a web directory and was shocked when a phone listing popped up. "I kind of stopped breathing for a second."
On the phone with her biological daughter, Disbrow was in disbelief. Her legs began to tremble. She couldn't understand how a nave dairy farm girl without an education could have such accomplished grandchildren.
A month later, Ruth Lee and Brian Lee flew to California. They arrived at Disbrow's meticulous apartment on a palm tree-lined street armed with a gigantic bouquet of flowers.
Disbrow couldn't get over how Lee's hands were like her mother's. Lee was amazed at the women's similar taste in clothing. They pored over family photo albums and caught up on the years Disbrow had missed.
"It was just like we had never parted," Disbrow said. "Like you were with the family all your life."
Since then, the families have met numerous times. Disbrow has gone to visit grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Wisconsin and Texas. She is planning to travel to Alabama in the spring, where they will celebrate her recently marked 100th birthday.
Disbrow has started sharing her story with members of her church and community. The Orange County Register ran a story about Disbrow's journey in December. The family's improbable reunion also made the local newspaper in Viroqua, Lee's hometown in western Wisconsin.
"It has been such a surreal, amazing experience that I still think sometimes that I will wake up and it will just be a beautiful dream," the 82-year-old Lee said.
Disbrow's daughter Dianna Huhn, 55, of Portland, Ore., said the reunion has filled a void for her mother -- one that for many years, the sharp, stylish woman with sparkling blue eyes kept a deep, dark secret.
"I have never seen my mother as happy," said Huhn.
From The New York Times:
Betty Jean Lifton Dies at 84; Urged Open Adoptions
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: November 26, 2010
Betty Jean Lifton, a writer, adoptee and adoption-reform advocate whose books -- searing condemnations of the secrecy that traditionally shrouded adoption -- became touchstones for adoptees throughout the world, died on Nov. 19 in Boston. She was 84 and lived in Cambridge, Mass.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, her husband, the psychiatrist and author Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, said.
Ms. Lifton, who lectured widely about the potential psychological effects of adoption, was best known for a nonfiction trilogy: "Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter" (McGraw Hill, 1975), in which she recounts her adulthood search for her birth mother; "Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience" (Dial, 1979); and "Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness" (Basic Books, 1994).
An outspoken proponent of open adoption, Ms. Lifton was often interviewed on the issue in the news media. (Nine states now allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates.)
She was a past board member of the American Adoption Congress; in recent years she also worked as a psychological counselor, with a practice centered on adoptees and their families.
When "Twice Born" was first published, there were few books about the adoptee experience. Adoption in general was a veiled topic, and adoptees -- assuming they were told anything -- rarely knew their given names, their birth parents' identities or the precise circumstances of their adoptions.
As a result, generations of adoptees grew up with a void where their personal histories should be and, Ms. Lifton argued, with deep feelings of confusion, grief and loss.
"When I was born, society prophesied that I would bring disgrace to my mother, kill her reputation, destroy her chances for a good bourgeois life," she wrote in "Twice Born."
She added: "I say that society, by sealing birth records, by cutting adoptees off from their biological past, by keeping secrets from them, has made them into a separate breed, unreal even to themselves."
The book's publication, which gave momentum to the emerging adoption-reform movement, prompted an outpouring of mail from people with similar stories. These letters, and subsequent interviews with adoptees, informed the next installments in Ms. Lifton's trilogy, in which she examined the psychological toll that closed adoption can take, and the psychological affinities many adoptees appear to share.
While some critics seemed discomforted by Ms. Lifton's use of mythic metaphor ("I write of perilous journeys of the spirit, of labyrinths, of ghosts, of strangers with mysterious origins, of princesses and princes asleep under spells," she said in "Twice Born"), others praised her willingness to speak frankly about a taboo subject.
Her other books include "The King of Children" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988), a biography of the Polish Jewish doctor, writer and children's advocate Janusz Korczak, who was killed in Treblinka. She also wrote for children, including books about adoption and many titles inspired by Japanese folk tales.
Blanche Rosenblatt, as she later learned she was originally named, was born in Staten Island on June 11, 1926. Her mother, Rae Rosenblatt, who was 17 when Blanche was born, and her father, a bootlegger and bon vivant, were unmarried, a scandalous condition then. (In the first edition of "Twice Born," Ms. Lifton gives her birth mother the pseudonym Bea Silverstein.)
Ms. Rosenblatt eventually gave up Blanche to a foster home. At 2-1/2, she was adopted by a Cincinnati couple, Oscar and Hilda Kirschner, who renamed her Betty Jean.
When Betty Jean was 7, Hilda Kirschner informed her that she was adopted, adding that her birth parents were dead. Such falsehoods, Ms. Lifton later wrote, were par for the course at the time.
Betty Jean Kirschner earned a bachelor's degree in English from Barnard College in 1948; in the 1990s, she earned a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the Union Institute.
In 1952 she married Dr. Lifton, a psychiatrist who went on to write many influential books, including psychological studies of war and the Holocaust. The couple lived for several years in Hong Kong and Japan.
After returning to the United States, Ms. Lifton, long haunted by her opaque past, contacted the agency that had handled her adoption. She learned that her parents were probably still alive and began scouring public records for traces of them. Bit by bit, the information she gleaned led her to her birth mother.
They met several times in the years that followed. Though their communication was often strained, for Ms. Lifton, as she made clear in her writing, it was absolutely necessary. She later searched for her birth father, only to learn he had died not long before.
Besides her husband, Ms. Lifton is survived by their two children, Kenneth and Natasha Lifton; four grandchildren; and a half-brother, Donald Billings.
She dedicated "Journey of the Adopted Self" to her two mothers, who, she wrote, "might have known and even liked each other in another life and another adoption system."
From the Wall Street Journal:
Adoptions Get Easier Thanks to 'Open' Agreements
Some Domestic Agencies Say They Now Have More Babies Than Applicants
By SUEIN HWANG Staff Reporter, The Wall Street Journal
(Sept. 28) - It's a problem the nation's adoption agencies haven't seen in 30 years: "We desperately need couples who want to adopt babies in the U.S.," says Sue Will, maternity-services coordinator at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, one of the state's largest social-services agencies.
The organization's plight reflects a remarkable shift in the adoption world. Some agencies say it is becoming considerably easier for some couples to adopt a healthy infant born in the U.S. While there still are challenges, the pool of healthy infants available for adoption appears to be experiencing an uptick in some parts of the country. The key: the growing interest in so-called open adoptions, in which birth parents and adoptive parents exchange contact information and often stay in touch with one another. Many adoption agencies report that open adoption is being embraced by pregnant women who previously might have been reluctant to consider giving up a baby if it meant no chance of contact later in life. [emphasis added]
The open-adoption movement also is splitting the ranks of adoptive parents. Many experts believe adoptive families who are willing to keep birth parents informed of a child's progress have a significant leg up in getting a baby, with openness trumping other factors such as age. While some practitioners say couples hoping to adopt in their late 40s are at a disadvantage, a willingness to stay in contact with birth parents is a far more important variable.
Not only do couples willing to go the open-adoption route tend to find a child quicker, but in some cases they also have a choice of several prospective birth mothers. "I've had families with as few as three choices, and as many as 15," says Ellen Roseman, a San Anselmo, Calif., open-adoption facilitator.
Practitioners in the San Francisco Bay area believe open adoption is part of the reason gay couples often are picked for adoption more quickly than heterosexual couples. Agencies there say gay couples often are more willing to develop a relationship with the child's biological parents.
While there are no national statistics on private, domestic infant-adoption rates, some agencies specializing in open adoption are reporting a considerable rise in activity. Independent Adoption Center, a Pleasant Hill, Calif., open-adoption-only agency, says its placements have increased about 8% in the past five years. Lutheran Social Services, the Illinois agency, says it did a couple dozen placements annually during the 1990s. But the agency -- which recently ran an ad promoting its open-adoption policy -- has fielded 60 inquiries from potential birth parents during the past two months alone.
Some adoption experts -- including Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City and Wright Walling, president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys -- say they too are seeing an increase in the availability of U.S.-born babies for adoption.
For decades, infant adoptions were on the decline. The introduction of the birth-control pill and the legalization of abortion sharply reduced the number of unwanted pregnancies, while the societal stigma attached to unwed motherhood declined as well, leading many women to raise their own children. According to the National Center for State Courts, the percentage of domestic adoptions (excluding those from the public welfare system) fell to 46% of the total 127,000 adoptions in 2001 (the most recent numbers available), from 77% in 1992. Much of the slack was taken up by the growth of international adoptions.
Open adoption appears to be changing that picture in the case of at least some agencies, facilitators and adoption attorneys -- an increasing number of which are offering birth mothers far more say in the adoption process. Often, that even includes the leading role in choosing the adoptive family. By contrast, almost all adoptions were handled confidentially in the past: Neither the birth mother nor the adoptive parents knew anything about the other party.
Open adoption is catching on particularly fast in the Midwest and Western parts of the country. It is less common in much of the East Coast and parts of the South. Mr. Walling of the attorneys' association estimates 80% of domestic adoptions in Minnesota are open adoptions. Today, 18 states have made open arrangements legally enforceable.
The main advantage to adopting domestically is age: it is the primary way parents can secure a child at birth. Internationally, most children are adopted when they are at least a few months old if not older. Additionally, parents adopting in the U.S. have access to more information about the birth parents' medical history, health and lifestyle. Contrary to popular myth, most babies available for private adoption in the U.S. are Caucasian -- not because that is what families want, Mr. Pertman explains, but because "very very few children of color are placed outside of their families."
In January, just 2-1/2 weeks after he and his partner started their adoption search in earnest, Brian Espinoza got a call from a young woman considering giving up her as-yet unborn child for adoption. He and his partner, Ivan Serdar, traveled to meet the woman and her boyfriend, and "had a great time, playing Scrabble, laughing, hanging out," Mr. Espinoza says. "We connected with them instantly," he recalls.
He later received two calls from other birth mothers. Three months ago, Mr. Espinoza and Mr. Serdar adopted Amelia -- born to the first woman they met.
Not everybody is comfortable with open adoption, of course. Mr. Pertman of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute says that while 90% of birth parents want to know about their children after adoption, a survey by his group found that 82% of Americans say their biggest concern about adoption is the birth parent returning to reclaim their biological child. State laws make it next to impossible for efforts like this to succeed, but a few highly publicized cases have caused families to be wary of biological parents.
Adoption practitioners say today's prospective birth mothers are older and increasingly reluctant to give up a baby up if they can't know where the child is going. For instance, when Jennifer Budz found out she had an unplanned pregnancy, she was separated from her husband, raising two small girls and in financial trouble. She says she couldn't have done a closed adoption, however: "I wouldn't have felt secure enough."
Ms. Budz, of Vernon, N.J., gave her son up for adoption to a couple who stays in regular touch. Today, she says she proudly displays her son's pictures on her refrigerator, and visits with him and his family periodically. "I've spoken to birth mothers who gave up their child 20 years ago, and I don't relate to all that grief and loss," she says.
One of the most obvious downsides to open adoption is the process. After months of work, usually involving criminal background checks and gathering references, interested families must write to birth mothers explaining why they would be good adoptive parents. Then, they wait to be chosen -- a wait that can last anywhere from a few days to a few years. It's "like being the girl at the junior high school dance wondering if she'll be picked" says Leslie Bandle, a new adoptive mother.
Once picked, the two sides communicate and decide whether it is a match. Often they each will write up an agreement stipulating how often they might make contact. While arrangements vary widely, they might involve sending an e-mail once a month and a once-a-year visit.
The alternative for many is adopting internationally, which offers a more certain guarantee of a child after a certain period of time but carries other risks as well, particularly when adopting from countries with high rates of drug use or which may place babies first in orphanages before sending them on to be adopted.
"It depends on what your brand of risk-taking is," says Gretchen Viederman, director of the domestic adoption program at Spence-Chapin, a nonprofit adoption agency based in New York City
From the Albany Times-Union:
Adoptees have right to know who they are
By LORRAINE DUSKY
First published: Sunday, June 1, 2003
More than three decades ago, when I was a reporter at the former Knickerbocker News, I was nursing a fresh wound: Only months before I started working in Albany, I had surrendered a child to adoption. And I was bleeding all over the place.
During the day, I took uppers to dull the depression, and at night when the drugs wore off, I cried. I ate. I wallowed in my shame and secrecy. I was "making a new life for myself," just as my case worker said I should.
In time, I crawled out of the hole. Life did go on, but it did not go on without the daughter I did not have. That child is always with you. You stare too long at someone her age at the mall. You see a flower that was in bloom when she was born. You are invited to a baby shower. You don't have a child in your body for nine months and forget.
Records of birth mothers' preferences kept by states, adoption agencies and adoption reform groups indicate that the vast majority of us joyfully welcome our lost children into our lives.
Yet a mother's supposed "right to privacy" is the smoke screen trotted out in opposition to letting adults who were adopted as infants have their original birth certificates. Only six states let adoptees have them for the asking. New York is not among them.
Opponents of open records insist, in some misguided interpretation of the Bill of Rights, that a secrecy-seeking woman's right to privacy trumps an adopted person's right to know the answer to the most basic of questions: Who am I? Identity is many things, but surely it begins with the knowledge of one's own birth and heritage.
It's not just for psychological reasons that adoptees seek their origins. Genetic research is continually expanding heredity's role in shaping our well-being, for genes are turning out to be the biggest window into who we are. Medical histories from birth mothers taken at the time of surrender are by their nature incomplete. All this weakens the argument for birth parents' "right to privacy" from their own children, no matter what we were told, or what the unfortunate circumstances were 20, 30 or 40 years ago, or how deep the secret is buried today.
Short of opening up the records to adoptees, New York and several other states have set up registries that match adoptees and birth parents seeking one another. But overly restrictive provisions, underfunding and understaffing make most registries nearly useless. Since December 1983, when New York's registry was set up, more than 18,000 people have registered; 680 matches have been made. That's a "success" rate of less than 4 percent. But the low number does accomplish what those who push for registries rather than open records want to accomplish: Make it nearly impossible for adoptees to learn the truth of their origins.
Many people with no connection to adoption instinctively grasp that all individuals, adopted or not, should have an unfettered right to the knowledge of who they are, and that such knowledge begins with their original birth certificates. Assemblyman Scott M. Stringer, a Manhattan Democrat who is sponsoring legislation that would do just that at age 18, is one. Many connected to adoption agree, such as Sen. William J. Larkin (R-Orange), an adoptive grandfather who's backing the companion bill in the Senate. Yet open-records bills have died in committee for the last 11 years. Unless enlightenment strikes soon, this year will be no different.
One way to make open-records legislation palatable appears to be to tack on a provision that allows birth mothers to file a paper asking for no contact. The adopted individual could still get his original birth certificate but would be informed his mother doesn't wish to hear from him.
Fine. The news might be disheartening, but so be it. Yet some states that have opened their records have also included language that carries an implied penalty for contacting a birth parent who filed a veto, and it's possible that New York will follow suit.
The birth parents named on the birth certificate would, of course, have to inform the police that the child has broken the law by, say, phoning her or him. Punished for contacting your birth mother? We are not talking about stalking, or harassment, for which anyone can get an order of protection, but simply making "contact," however that is. How do birth mothers warrant such special protection? How is this in the state's vested interest?
The state never promised birth mothers anonymity from our own when we signed the surrender papers. Why now? Some people bury their divorces in the past and pray that their exes never return to "out" them. But the state doesn't let them file a "no contact" veto just because they might be embarrassed. Nor are fathers who are sued for paternity likewise protected.
That being the case, the state should not penalize adopted individuals who want answers that only their birth mothers can give. "No contact" vetoes are the repugnant remnants of outdated ideology. Adoptees deserve their original birth certificates as a matter of course. Penalizing them for simply contacting the person who gave them life is both unreasonable and absurd.
Lorraine Dusky of Sag Harbor is the author of "Birthmark," a 1979 memoir that broke the silence of birth mothers. She and her daughter have been reunited for more than two decades.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
The case for adoption openness is strong
First published: Thursday, June 5, 2003
Lorraine Dusky's June 1 article, "Adoptees have right to know who they are," addresses so many important issues, such as the fact that birth mothers were never promised confidentiality, the need for vital information and that adult adopted people are entitled to the same rights as all other U.S. citizens.
I, too, am a birth mother. I lost my firstborn to adoption in 1951 and was joyfully reunited with her in 1976.
My daughter has her original birth certificate, knowledge of information and a wonderful relationship with her original family. Because I know the need for all other adopted people to have this human and civil right, I have been working to change archaic state laws for more than 12 years. Unfortunately, my efforts and those of others have been to no avail.
I am personally deeply grateful to Assemblyman Scott Stringer and Sen. William Larkin for their clear thinking and educated sponsorship of a bill reforming adoption law.
Notwithstanding these accomplishments, the Bill of Adoptee Rights, pending legislation that even has a contact preference request clause, has been consistently stalled in the Assembly Judiciary Committee and has never even come to the floor for discussion. And there is still much undue resistance in the Senate.
I fail to understand why supposedly educated people do not accept the facts proven by nonpartisan studies, such as that:
The lack of genetic information is often life-threatening.
Even if birth mothers were promised confidentiality by an agency or others, this couldn't be legal, as it undermines the civil rights of the adopted person, and a contract signed by two parties (birth and adoptive parents) over the rights of a third party (the adopted person) is unconstitutional.
Adoptions increase, and abortions decrease, with openness, as proven by studies in a few of the states and surrounding states that have opened records.
An astounding number of birth mothers do not want confidentiality. Studies by Cornell University and the Child Welfare League state that between 86 percent and 96 percent of birth mothers want to know their children.
I question whether we are a democracy of majority rule, human need and civil rights.
ELLEN S. DURANT
The writer is legislative liaison for NYSAR, or New York Statewide Adoption Reform.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Allow adoptees to get birth certificates
First published: Thursday, June 5, 2003
Thank you for printing Lorraine Dusky's recent article supporting adult adoptees right to their original birth certificate.
As an adult adoptee from upstate, I know the importance of access to this information. I am frankly surprised that New York is not one of the leading states in opening birth records. It is time to change that for all of the reasons Ms. Dusky so eloquently pointed out.
Wake up, New York lawmakers. It is time to change the antiquated laws and provide adoptees what every other American citizen is entitled to, our original birth certificate.
MARY BETH YORK
From New York Newsday:
Give adoptees the rights to their roots
BY LORRAINE DUSKY
Lorraine Dusky is the author of "Birthmark," a memoir about relinquishing a daughter for adoption.
June 15, 2004
Letting adult adoptees obtain a copy of their original, unamended birth certificates would seem to be a slam-dunk idea whose time has come, but unfortunately that is not the case in New York.
Here adults-regardless of their age-who were adopted as infants are denied their original birth certificates, unless they go to court and show "good cause." Even then they might be turned down, as was a 65-year-old woman last year in Nassau County who was looking for a medical history for both her and her grandson. You can't find such a blatant usurpation of civil rights unless you go back to slavery.
Although a bill has been moldering in the glue that passes for a state Legislature in Albany for decades, getting the "Adoptees Bill of Rights" out of the Judiciary Committee, where it's parked, is proving impossible. Chairwoman Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn) opposes it, and she single-handedly has the power to keep it under lock and key, just like the birth certificates of people adopted more than 60 years ago.
As this session winds down, Assemb. Scott Stringer (D-Manhattan), whose name is on the bill, is maneuvering to force the committee to consider it, but whether he will succeed is far from certain. I'm not holding my breath. The reason for keeping the records sealed always turns on the specter of the woman in the closet, whose life will be "ruined" if she's outed. What if she never told her husband? Or her kids?
But the real reason for the sealed records is so adoptive parents never have to deal with the birth mothers-because most are desperate for a reunion with their children someday. New York's records were sealed during the '30s at the urging of Gov. Herbert Lehman, an adoptive father.
Even if secrecy was assumed, birth mothers were never promised perpetual anonymity by the state.
How do I know? I write as a birth mother-now grandmother-who relinquished her daughter in 1966 in Rochester. If you knew me then, you would assume I anxiously feared ever being "found" and probably desired nothing so much as protection from the state today. At the time I gave birth, I was young and felt unable to care for my daughter, and I was so ashamed that I did not even tell my family in Michigan.
But times change, and people change with them, and the world and I are far different today. Yet the opposition to unsealing the records for adult adoptees is fierce, fueled by buckets of money that adoption attorneys and agencies make from the business of adoption.
Though it's a dirty little secret, they can charge more today when the adoption is "sealed," i.e., when there is no easy way for the adoptees ever to trace their roots, than when the adoption is "open" and all parties know each other all along. They will do anything to keep their business plan intact. Even lie.
They make claims-which they know are false, because the data is in their own records-that abortion rates will rise if states give adult adoptees their original birth certificates.
What they want legislators to believe is that young women today will abort rather than face the prospect of meeting their children decades later. That's a lot of hooey, as anybody who lives in the real world immediately grasps. Few of these young women spend six months in hiding today. They live at home. They go to school and have jobs. The neighbors and relatives know. The birth is no "secret."
Furthermore, the data proves the opposite of their lies: In Oregon, which has had open records since 2000, abortions per capita have declined slightly since then. In Alaska and Kansas, two states that have always had open records, both states have substantially lower abortion rates than the country as a whole. Compare Kansas to the four states immediately surrounding it, and you find a lower abortion rate, and a higher per capita adoption rate.
As for the women like myself, now in their forties, fifties and sixties, all the research to date shows that the overwhelming majority welcome a reunion with the children we lost to adoption.
We sometimes initiate searches on our own, as I did. My daughter and I-and her adoptive parents (God bless 'em)-were reunited in 1981. No more secrets.
New Hampshire passed an open-records bill with a huge margin (223-103) in its assembly a few weeks ago. New Jersey last week just moved its open records bill out of the state Senate committee where it had been parked for 24 years.
New York is past overdue to join the list where all individuals can know the truth of their origins, not just those of us who were not adopted. I'm thankful I'm not waiting for the Legislature to act, but a 65-year-old woman in Nassau County is.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Give closure to adoptees
I was delighted to see Lorraine Dusky's piece "Give adoptees the rights to their roots" [Opinion, June 15], which referred to Assemb. Scott Stringer's (D-Manhattan) bill to help adoptees gain access to their original birth records in New York, but I was dismayed to learn about the predictable opposition based on the usual bromides.
I am a reunited birth mother who surrendered a child in 1969. My birth daughter found me in 1996, and I'm glad she did. Even though I never searched, I wondered always how she was and what had happened to her. It was an enormous relief to find out. She, on the other hand, always wondered if her "fantasy family" would have been better than the one she landed in-a common adoptee problem-and she is now much more at peace with them than before she found me.
While I make no claims that searches and reunions are always successful or even amicable in some cases, all the research on this phenomenon has shown that adoptees have a profound psychological need to know where they came from biologically, and that searching in no way diminishes their love and appreciation for their adoptive parents.
It is the legislated secrecy and maintaining it that makes everyone crazy. I applaud Assemb. Stringer's attempt to change a stupid, miserable system. If Kansas and Alaska have had open records successfully for years without undue trauma and if Tennessee and Oregon can open their adoption records to adoptees, certainly New York can, too.
Mary K. Chelton
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Regarding "Give adoptees the rights to their roots": I strongly support this law.
My mother did not complete the relinquishment papers, but her family took her out of the country and my adoption went ahead. She spent much of the rest of her life in a mental hospital suffering from severe depression. By the time I traced her, she had died from cancer.
New York State should not deny two adults the right to contact each other.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Adoptions can be opened up
June 23, 2004
Regarding "Give adoptees the rights to their roots" [Opinion, June 15]: Lorraine Dusky comments that adoption agencies and attorneys oppose opening adoption records as they are making "buckets of money."
Clearly she is unaware of those ethical agencies and attorneys who truly care for their clients and whose main purpose is to present non-judgemental, non-directive counseling to a client who might request adoption-option counseling.
The current practice in the adoption field encourages a more open approach where the birth parents are actively involved in selecting and meeting the adoptive parent and having ongoing updates through letters, pictures, videos and possibly telephone calls or visits.
Many adoption professionals support the open-record initiative and think the post- placement services offered by adoption agencies reflect the ongoing support offered to all members of the adoption triad.
Kathleen Dooley Polcha
Editor's note: The writer is an adoption specialist.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
For the children
Once again, Lorraine Dusky has been provided a platform to spew her anti-adoption bias and promote her individual agenda ["Give adoptees the rights to their roots," Opinion, June 15].
Writing about Assemb. Scott Stringer's (D-Manhattan) bill to help adoptees gain access to their original birth records in New York, she would have one believe that adoptees are unable to obtain basic information in relation to their birth parents. That may have been the case 65 years ago, but not today. If an adult adoptee seeks to have a reunion with a birth parent, he or she need only register with the adoption registry. If the birth parent likewise registers, a reunion may come to pass. The issue is not subject to the approval of the adoptive parents.
Editor's note: The writer is co-chairperson of the Adoption Committee of the New York State Bar Association.
From New York Newsday:
ACCESS TO ADOPTION RECORDS
NY laws very strict
BY SEAN GARDINER
May 30, 2004
Only two categories of people in the United States have no access to their original birth certificates - those in the witness protection program and adoptees.
Like thousands of adopted people, Cynthia Gerst Zachary recently discovered that New York has among the oldest, and strictest, laws in the nation that nearly always deny them access to adoption records and birth certificates.
Almost 70 years after New York sealed all adoption records and original birth certificates for adoptees, the state's law remains unchanged.
"All adoption records are sealed under the Domestic Relations Law," said David Bookstaver, spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said. "It has been that way forever."
When adoption regulations began being passed in the United States in the early part of the 20th century, it was to prevent the public from having access to the records. But from the late 1930s through the 1950s, many states followed New York's lead in restricting access to adoption records and birth certificates for those who participated in the adoptions as well.
The laws were aimed at shielding the adopting families from possible interference from birth parents, according to Elizabeth Samuels, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.
By 1960, 20 states still allowed adoptees access to their original birth certificates - which contain the birth parents' names (including the mother's maiden name), ages, addresses and other identifying information. By the mid-1990s, that number had dwindled to three states - Kansas, Alaska and South Dakota, Samuels said.
Since then, however, adoptee rights' groups have started to make legislative in-roads. Alabama, Delaware, Oregon and Tennessee have enacted laws allowing adoptees to obtain copies of their original birth certificates. Montana and Ohio have also passed laws that allow limited access.
The nonprofit National Council for Adoption has opposed the open records laws consistently.
'A confidentiality issue'
Lee Allen, spokesman for the NAFC, which bills itself as a non-sectarian adoption advocacy organization, said the group opposes mandatory open adoption records because it's "a confidentiality issue."
"We believe that many, many people enter into adoptions, birth mothers and adopting parents, with the expectation of confidentiality," Allen said.
NAFC officials have also long-maintained that the loss of anonymity caused by opening records will lead many pregnant women to have abortions instead of choosing to place the child for adoption.
Allen said release of records should be predicated upon consent by both the adoptee and parent who placed that child for adoption.
About half the U.S. states, including New York and Florida, maintain registries where an adopted person or birth parent can place their names for contact. In New York, the registry is run through the Department of Health.
But Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national not-for-profit organization, said it's a long shot at best that both child and birth mother will register.
He said the open adoption record states of Kansas and Alaska disprove the contention that such openness causes more young women to get abortions. Both states have exceptionally low abortion rates.
Pertman also pointed out that polls show most birth mothers say they would like to know what happened to the child they placed for adoption." In addition, he said, "There are lots and lots of adoptees, adopted adults, who want their birth certificate but will never try to reunite with their birth parents. They feel it is their right to know where they came from."
Limits for New Yorkers
Without reverting to bribery, a step many adoptees are forced to take, New Yorkers like Cynthia Zachary are left with little recourse.
Her original birth certificate is located in the Florida Department of Health's Office of Vital Statistics in Jacksonville. But only a New York judge could order it released, if the applicant showed "good cause," according to Josette Marquess, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Good cause applications are rarely granted, Bookstaver said. Even when applicants say they need medical history for their own health crisis, requests often are denied.
Zachary and her family are considering making a good cause argument based on the fact that the original adoption was not legal, having been made through a Miami to New York black market baby ring. An official familiar with the procedures said that appeal probably wouldn't be granted, however.
Assemblyman Scott Stringer introduced a bill 10 years ago to open access to adoptees once they reach the age of 18. Stringer's bill states that the current law denies adoptees access to family medical information needed for preventative healthcare, denies them knowledge of their religious and ethnic heritage and denies them "some of the basic facts of their own existence which most people take for granted." The bill has been pending for nearly a decade.
"It's been a real battle," Stringer said. "People still think we're in the 1950s. It's going to happen eventually but we are just behind on this issue and people just don't understand it and it's very frustrating."
The Death of Genealogy
ADOPTION LAWS THREATEN DEATH OF GENEALOGY
In 4 Generations, Half of Americans' Ancestry Will be Bogus
--by [Attorney] Brice M. Claggett
In "Adoption Laws Threaten Death of Genealogy," an article by Attorney Brice M. Claggett in the National Genealogical Society (NGS) Newsletter, Claggett describes how genealogical research, whether for medical purposes, sociological studies, or hobby purposes, is becoming increasingly impaired with each passing generation by secrecy laws.
In most states, secrecy laws have been adopted in this century which cause the original birth record of an adopted child to be replaced by a bogus record. The bogus record names, as the parents, the newly adoptive parents, and does not reveal in any way that they are not the birth parents. Thus, the researcher has no way of knowing that the apparent ancestry of the child as shown in public records is bogus.
The effect is similar to compound interest in reverese. Attorney Claggett estimates that IN ANOTHER 4 GENERATIONS OR SO, ABOUT HALF THE ANCESTRY OF THE AMERICAN POPULATION WILL BE BOGUS.
Genealogical researchers, as well as medical and other researchers, need to take action to correct this Orwellian practice. Surely all people, whether adopted or not, have a right to be able to trace their ancestry in public records.
[NOTE: The above article and complete newsletters are available from The National Genealogical Society Newsletter is at 4527 - 17th Street North, Arlington, VA 22207-2399.]
U.S. Surgeon General's Family History Initiative
Health care professionals have known for a long time that common diseases - heart disease, cancer, and diabetes - and even rare diseases - like hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia - can run in families. If one generation of a family has high blood pressure, it is not unusual for the next generation to have similarly high blood pressure.
Tracing the illnesses suffered by your parents, grandparents, and other blood relatives can help your doctor predict the disorders to which you may be at risk and take action to keep you and your family healthy.
To help focus attention on the importance of family health history, U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., in cooperation with other agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has launched a national public health campaign, called the U.S. Surgeon General's Family History Initiative, to encourage all American families to learn more about their family health history.
In addition to the Office of the Surgeon General, other HHS agencies involved in this project include the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).
National Family History Day
Surgeon General Carmona has declared Thanksgiving 2004 to be the first annual National Family History Day. Thanksgiving is the traditional start of the holiday season for most Americans.
Whenever families gather, the Surgeon General encourages them to talk about, and to write down, the health problems that seem to run in their family. Learning about their family's health history may help ensure a longer future together.
My Family Health Portrait
Americans know that family history is important to health. A recent survey found that 96 percent of Americans believe that knowing their family history is important. Yet, the same survey found that only one-third of Americans have ever tried to gather and write down their family's health history.
Because family health history is such a powerful screening tool, the Surgeon General has created a new computerized tool to help make it fun and easy for anyone to create a sophisticated portrait of their family's health.
This new tool, called "My Family Health Portrait" can be downloaded for free and installed on your own computer.
The tool will help you organize your family tree and help you identify common diseases that may run in your family.
When you are finished, the tool will create and print out a graphical representation of your family's generations and the health disorders that may have moved from one generation to the next. That is a powerful tool for predicting any illnesses for which you should be checked.
For information on other activities of the Office of the Surgeon General, please visit www.surgeongeneral.gov.
For the original version of this article, go to: http://www.hhs.gov/familyhistory/
Adoptees deserve access to family health histories
By Adam Pertman
Originally published February 14, 2005
THE U.S. SURGEON General, Richard H. Carmona, has embarked on an admirable quest. Citing the obvious fact that many diseases are inherited, he has created a national campaign that encourages all American families to learn more about their health histories.
To make this important task easier to accomplish, Dr. Carmona's office has created software that all of us can download at no cost to help track medical information about our parents, grandparents and other relatives. And to underscore how serious the surgeon general is about getting us all to act, he designated an annual National Family Health History Day to coincide with Thanksgiving.
For tens of millions of people, though, this well-intentioned initiative is nothing more than a mirage, an enticing glimpse of water in the desert that they know they cannot reach. Because all of the Americans to whom Dr. Carmona refers do not include the vast majority of those who were adopted, rather than born, into their families.
Adoption in the United States has made enormous strides in the last few decades, moving out of the shadows and becoming an increasingly conventional, normal way of forming a family; that's especially good news for children who need permanent, loving homes.
But progress has been uneven. One way in which adoption has not yet entered the 21st century is the anachronistic reality that most states still prohibit adoptees, even after they reach adulthood, from obtaining their birth certificates or other documents that would enable them to follow the surgeon general's sage advice.
Proponents of keeping these records sealed assert it's a necessary measure to maintain the anonymity that was guaranteed to birth mothers at the time their children were placed for adoption. That argument, unfortunately, is based on cultural myths and faulty stereotypes.
In fact, nearly every shred of research and experience over the last 20 years shows that none of these women was given legal assurance of anonymity; at least 90 percent of them want some level of contact with or knowledge about the lives they created, regardless of what they might or might not have been told verbally; and adopted people are not stalkers or ingrates but simply human beings who want the most basic information about themselves.
The good news is that we have learned an enormous amount about adoption and its participants as the institution has steadily moved into the mainstream, and many positive changes are occurring as a result. Among them are that parents adopting domestically and an increasing number who adopt from abroad routinely receive medical information about their sons and daughters at the outset and - because relationships with birth families are becoming increasingly commonplace - on an ongoing basis as their children grow up. Indeed, providing such information is now a widely accepted "best practice" for adoption practitioners.
Some states have changed their laws to permit adopted people, once they become adults, to gain access to their records. And there has been no hint, anywhere, that the recipients of those records are violating their birth mothers' privacy or otherwise disrupting their lives.
It is a wonderful coincidence that Dr. Carmona's potentially life-saving effort coincides with the recent unsealing of birth records in New Hampshire, the latest state to take such action. It's a propitious time for the surgeon general to use his influence to help break down the legal barriers across our country that for far too long have relegated adoptees to a special, less-privileged class of citizenship.
There's good reason to think he will do it. After all, he did say his medical advice applied to all Americans.
Adam Pertman is the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and the author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America.
MUTUAL CONSENT VOLUNTARY REGISTRIES
AN EXERCISE IN PATIENCE --
By Melisha Mitchell with Jane Nast, Barbara Busharis and Pam Hasegawa
Originally published in Adoptive Families January/February 1999
Three years ago, when I began searching for my then 28-year-old birthdaughter, a friend told me she'd heard there was some sort of adoption registry in Illinois. Maybe they could help me locate my birthdaughter? I called over half a dozen government listings before I was able to ascertain that the entity I was seeking was the Illinois Adoption Registry (IAR). I then called three more government agencies before reaching someone at the State of Illinois' main switchboard who was finally able to provide a number for the Registry's headquarters, located within the Department of Public Health. When I called the number I'd been given, a gruff-voiced civil servant answered."I'm looking for the Illinois Adoption Registry," I explained. 'The Illinois WHAT?" I repeated my request a second time, more slowly, and heard the receiver clunk onto a desk. 'Hey," the employee barked to his colleagues, 'Does anybody know anything about an adoption registry?" About five minutes later, I heard a pair of feet shuffle to the desk. The receiver was picked up and hung up. Although this encounter alone would have probably been enough to give me second thoughts about signing up with the Illinois Adoption Registry, over the next few days I learned that the IAR was one of the most ineffectual registries in the country and, depending on the source, had matched either 35, 78, or 1 10 adoptees and birthparents in its 10 years of existence. Needless to say, I never called back again.
Underfunded. Understaffed. Underpublicized. It's a lethal combination that characterizes the majority of the less than two dozen state-level mutual consent voluntary registries (MCVRS) in the United States. Also known as passive registries, MCVRs are the cumbersome, bureaucratic band-aids that legislators began "offering' to original birth-certificate-hungry adoptees in the late 70s. They are based on the principle that, if adoptees and birthparents really want to meet each other, all we need to do is create a governmental message center where everyone can express their wishes regarding contact. Build it and they will come, they said. But most adoptees and birthparents stayed home.
To try to understand why MCVRs have encountered so much indifference in the adoption community, the American Adoption Congress (AAC) conducted a survey of 21 passive adoption registries in 1993. The survey was repeated in 1996 and again 1998. Each time, directors of mutual consent registries from Maine to Oregon were sent a questionnaire asking them to provide statistics on the total number of registrants and matches since their registry's inception, as well as general information on cost, basic provisions, and operation. Although several registries did not participate in the 1993 and 1996 studies, all 21 states submitted responses in 1998.
WHAT IS AN MCVR?
MCVRs allow adoptees, birthparents, and in some states, birth siblings, who have been separate by a adoption to register with a government agency in the state where the adoptee was born and/or adopted and then wait for a match. By registering, eligible triad members can indicate their wishes regarding contact with specified biological and adoptive relatives. At least two parties to an adoption must register independently before names or other identifying information can be released.
While the concept seemed simple, it encountered much opposition within the adoption reform movement. The same basic concept, "I'll call you, if you'll call me" had been initially introduced in the mid-50s by Jean Paton, an adoptee and social worker whose visionary non-fictional work, The Adopted Break Silence was published in 1955. Paton founded Orphan Voyage, the first adoptee/ birthparent support group in the nation, and operated the first-of-its kind adoption registry from her home.
However, while national adoption registries (such as Adoptees' Liberty Movement Association Registry founded by Florence Fisher in New York in 1972 and the International Soundex Reunion Registry established by Emma Mae Villardi in Carson City, Nevada, in 1975) operating with a similar approach have reunited thousands of triad members and enjoyed support within the adoptee/ birthparent community over the past two decades, state mutual consent registries have become increasingly unpopular with everyone.
The paradox seems to be grounded in the raison d'�tre for MCVRS, which historically appears NOT to have been to facilitate the reunion process but rather to stall progress of the original access-to-records bill, the Model State Adoption Act. Drafted by an HEW-funded panel chaired by New Jersey Assemblyman Al Burstein during the Carter Administration, 'The Model 'Act would have given adoptees aged 21 and older the right to access their original birth records.
To combat this progressive piece of legislation, the National Council for Adoption (NCFA), a Washington, D.C-based adoption agency trade organization, began promoting passive mutual consent registries throughout the United States, touting MCVRs as the "only" acceptable "compromise" to the adoption reform conundrum. NCFA recommended outrageous provisions (limiting registries to adoptees over the age of 25, requiring all parties to the adoption to register annually before a match could be made), and confused enough undereducated legislators to successfully implement passive registries in many of the states which are the subject of the AAC study.
Not only was this "wait and see" approach to birthfamily reunification passed before most 'adoption reform" laws were enacted, but, as the only post-adoption option offered in many states, it had a number of obvious drawbacks. Dead people may vote in Chicago, but they certainly don't apply to adoption registries! The often complicated registration procedures are impractical for elderly or seriously ill adoptees and birthparents. Registries don't work well for adoptees who are unaware they were adopted or for birthparents who have been told their child is deceased. And, to make matters worse, behind the scenes, legislators and registry administrators who, like most NCFA member agencies, were not as keen on facilitating search and reunion as those actually affected by these laws, began making the kind of budgetary and protocol decisions that would doom all but two of these state registries to single-digit reunion rates.
UNDER-STAFFED, UNDER-FUNDED AND UNDER-PUBLICIZED
When AAC conducted its first survey in 1993, only one state reported both adequate funding and staffing for its MCVR. Five years later, registries in ten states continue to be plagued by underfunding and/or understaffing. A handful of states are still shuffling 5 x 8" index cards to figure out if they have a match, and have yet to computerize their registries. Others complain that archaic database programs, which can only be run on pre-Microsoft computers, make their job unnecessarily tedious. South Dakota and South Carolina both claimed that staffing and funding for their registry were "adequate" but South Dakota still has no official, or unofficial, count on the number of registrations or matches realized since its registry opened its doors in 1984, and South Carolina wrote that 30 days was "not enough time" to gather the information requested.
When staffing and funding are BOTH insufficient, even locating a phone number where interested parties may obtain further information about a given registry can be a grueling test in perseverance. Locating a staff member knowledgeable about registry operations in at least half of the 21 states surveyed required 8 to 10 phone calls. In registry offices across the country, automated voice mail systems, often used to counterbalance staffing inadequacies, also act as a barrier for those seeking to inquire anonymously about registry requirements. Oklahoma, overwhelmed by unexpected interest in their new registry-cum-confidential-intermediary program (registrants may initiate a $400 search after a six-month stint on the registry), claimed that it would take "at least another year" for them to process the estimated 6,000 applications that have poured in since the law was enacted in November 1997.
Budget restrictions are also responsible for the 'lack of adequate publicity" cited by at least half of the registry coordinators we spoke with. To the question, "How does your office publicize the existence of your registry?' most respondents answered "brochures" or "newspaper article." One state indicated they were "listed in the Yellow Pages.' Only three states had made any noticeable effort to actively promote their registries and had some vague semblance of a media plan. And, although six of the 21 states (Maryland, Rhode Island, Texas, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois) purported to be 'on the Internet," none of the top four Internet search engines was able to locate more than three of these state registries (but each
Web search netted hundreds of private Internet registry sites!) Once located, four of these six Web sites provided little more than sketchy information on their registry's operation, and only three included downloadable application forms.
ADDING INSULT TO INJURY
When understaffing and underfunding aren't enough to weed out all but the most tenacious applicants, many states further fuel their poor performance records by building pernicious provisions into their registry statutes (many of them inspired by NCFA "recommendations"). New York limits registrations to adoptees who were born and adopted in that state, leaving those born in New York but adopted out-of-state in registry limbo. Rhode Island and Missouri require written permission from the adoptive parents before they will forward names and addresses to birthparents and adoptees who have been matched by the registry. Nebraska, too, requires adult adoptees between the ages of 21 and 25 to get signed authorizations from their adoptive parents before reuniting them with their birthfamilies. And a new law in Texas subjects potential matches to an hour of counseling (but eliminates the "face-to-face" meeting with a social worker that was mandated for all registrants up until 1996now out-of-state applicants can get their pep talk over the phone). And, as appears to have been NCFA's original plan, in 15 of the 21 states currently offering an MCVR, their existence seems to have stymied the introduction of more progressive legislation (such as the "search and consent" programs, also known as "active registries" currently available to interested triad members in two dozen states). Like Oklahoma, 4 of the 6 states which have averaged more than 5 matches per year since their registry's inception (LA, OR, OH, and FL), now also offer some sort of search assistance to adoptees and/or birthparents-which technically, puts them in the 'active," rather than passive, registry category.
1098 STATISTICS-MORE BAD NEWS
With so much going against them, and so little going for them, it's a wonder passive mutual consent registries ever find anyone. West Virginia has only made 2 matches in its 7-year history. Arkansas, which had one reunion during its first 6 years of operation, has matched up 14 times as many adoptees and birthparents since 1993, but still has a 1.5 percent success rate.
Overall, mutual consent adoption registries have made only minimal progress since the early 90s. Reunion rates in all but two of the states included in our survey are still well under 10 percent and pale in comparison to other, more active, post adoption solutions (most government and agency-sponsored search assistance programs, for example, boast an 80 percent or higher "find" rate). Even though the overall number of registrants has increased considerably in many of the states we surveyed, these improved statistics have not translated into higher reunion rates for their registries (see chart). And, even though states as diverse as Florida, Illinois, Idaho, Maine, New York, Texas, and Utah reported fractional improvements in their 'reunion rates" for 1998, Maryland and Rhode Island are barely maintaining the status quo, and the Missouri, Nevada, and Ohio registries performed better, match-wise, in earlier surveys than they did in 1998. New York and Texas appear to have inexplicably lost registrants since the 1996 survey, but the lower 1998 numbers are most likely attributable to recent legislative reforms. Texas has begun centralizing its state registry and no longer includes guestimates of private agency registration numbers in their totals. New York's loss of over 500 registrants since the 1993 survey is probably due to the fact that previous statistics included adoptive parents (who were excluded from the registry five years ago).
Fee-wise, there have been few changes over the past 5 years. One third of the 21 registries are still free, and the remainder charge between $10 and $75. The average cost is still $25 per registrant. Additionally, although over half of these MCVRs have opened up their rolls to birth siblings and/or adoptive parents in the past decade, this expanded access has had little impact on the number of registrants or the reunion rates in those states. Nine of the 21 registries are still reserved to birthparents and adult adopted persons.
At first glance, only two states, Louisiana and Indiana, seem to have truly separated themselves from the pack. Both states have tripled their number of applicants over the past five years. They are also the only two states with double-digit "match rates"(14 percent and 13 percent, respectively). However, since 1993, Louisiana has added on-request search assistance for adult adoptees to their palette of post-adoption options, thereby disqualifying their registry from "passive" status. Recent changes in the Indiana Adoption Medical History Registry (IAMHR) have made it difficult to accurately gauge that state's reunion rates. While some of the unique "perks" added to the Indiana registry in 1993 might be considered steps in the right direction (particularly its emphasis on the exchange of medical information and a provision that allows adoptees matched with their birthparents via the registry to access copies of their original birth certificates and other adoption files), these innovations may be skewing, rather than actually improving, the registry's reunion statistics. It appears that some adoptees and birthparents are using the IAMHR not to find one another, but to use the registry's back-door access to birth records to obtain their original birth certificates, after they've been reunited. And, too, when you consider that the focus of the Indiana registry is on the exchange of vital medical data, its 13 percent success rate is very disappointing. For someone who's dying of a mysterious, genetically-linked disease, odds this slim, combined with a total lack of search assistance, can ring like a death knell. So, even Indiana's better-than-average results (9,000 new applications and over 1500 matches since 1993) are not necessarily a sign that the times are "a changin."
Even if persistent funding and staffing concerns could somehow be resolved, it is clearly the passive nature of mutual consent voluntary registries that is most responsible for their failure. When an adoptee or birthparent decides to register, they are, in most cases, really saying they have begun thinking about actively searching. Applying to a registry (or several) is usually the first leg of an often long and frustrating journey. Asking adoptees and birthparents to "sit and wait" just as they've begun to move forward is blatantly unrealistic. Unless MCVRs are proposed in tandem with more active options, signing up is about as effective as tossing an SOS into the ocean.
A DUBIOUS 20-YEAR MILESTONE
States like Oregon, which recently passed a ballot initiative that would have allowed adoptees born there to begin accessing their original birth certificates by the end of 1998, and Tennessee, which passed an open records bill inl995, have already left totally passive registries way, way behind. As adoption reform activists in Texas, Washington, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and elsewhere begin gearing up for their 1999 open records quests, many of the 21 states with the most repressive adoption laws seem to be locked in the same, unshakable apathy that characterizes passive mutual consent registries.
However, a bill introduced by Michigan Senator Carl Levin may supplant most of these ill-conceived state registries by creating a National Voluntary Mutual Reunion Registry. While a national registry would be far from a panacea, its higher profile and greater accessibility would at least open up the registry process to many currently excluded from state registry rolls (e.g. adoptees who were born in one state and adopted in another).
Although Nevada Adoption Registry, the oldest passive state registry, celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1998, there were probably no triad members rejoicing. Only 101 birthfamilies have been reunited since Nevada enacted its passive registry legislation in 1978. For two decades now, Nevada triad members, along with tens of thousands of adoptees and birth relatives from Reno to Bangor, have been stuck in the dark ages of compromise legislation. In all of the states that chose the mutual consent route back in the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, registered adoptees and birth relatives have gone from skeptical anticipation to disappointment and ultimately, resignation, as their long wait for a match has stretched out over months, then years, and now decades. Unless these triad members--or their state legislatures--seek out more pro-active solutions, fewer than 4,000 of the 65,000 adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth relatives currently enrolled with passive, mutual consent adoption registries will have any hope of ever reconstructing their family trees.
Jane C. Nast, an adoptive mother, is President of the American Adoption Congress and a member of the board of the New Jersey Coalition for Openness in Adoption. Pamela Rolande Hasegawa, an adoptee, has worked for adoption reform since 1975 when she joined ALMA. She is a founding member of the New Jersey Coalition for Openness in Adoption. Barbara Busharis, an adoptee, is an attorney, active with the AAC since 1991. She is currently updating a booklet co-authored with Jane Nast, which outlines the laws governing access to adoption records in all 50 states. Melisha Mitchell, a birthparent and member of AAC, is President of the Illinois Coalition for Truth in Adoption and Deputy Executive Director of The Family Tree Initiative, a post-adoption resource program.
From Time Magazine:
Can DNA Reveal Your Roots?
Yes, to some degree. And for many seeking their ancestry, that's good enough
By Anita Hamilton
Tuesday, Jul. 05, 2005
Growing up in Appalachia in the 1950s, Brent Kennedy always believed that he was of English and Scotch-Irish descent, just like everyone he knew in his hometown of Wise, Va. But when he saw the film Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, he noticed that his family looked more like the Arabs in the movie than the British. Kennedy had inherited his father's light blue eyes, but he had his mother's black hair and in the summer would get a deep tan. He had heard a story about his great-grandfather being barred from voting in the early 1900s because his skin was too dark. "I thought, What's wrong with us? Why do we look funny?" When he asked his mother, "I was told to shut up. I really didn't know who I was," he says.
Last December he finally got some answers. After taking a $199 DNA test offered by DNAPrint Genomics in Sarasota, Fla., Kennedy was told he was 45% Northern and Western European, 25% Middle Eastern, 25% Turkish-Greek and 5% South Asian. "I felt freed," he says. "Suddenly there was an explanation for a lot of the shame and embarrassment in the family." As an adult, Kennedy had learned that his mother's family belonged to a mixed-race group called Melungeons who lived in the Appalachians. While their exact ethnic origins are unclear, Melungeons were united by their dark complexion and the discrimination they faced from lighter-skinned neighbors. Kennedy became so interested in his heritage that he wrote a 1994 book called The Melungeons. But it wasn't until he took the DNA test, he says, that he felt he had unlocked the mystery of his ancestry.
More than 100,000 Americans, including such celebrities as Oprah and Spike Lee, have sought to do the same by taking genealogical DNA tests now offered by commercial labs. Starting at $95 and using a sample of cells swabbed from inside the cheek, the tests can answer questions ranging from whether you have Native American or African ancestry to whether you are related to someone with the same last name. One of the newest services, launched by the National Geographic Society in April, provides a glimpse of your ancestors' migratory history and helps fund a five-year research project aimed at mapping the migratory path of modern humans.
While the test results can pack an emotional wallop that brings many to tears--especially adoptees, descendants of slaves and others who previously had little knowledge of their roots--skeptics have raised questions about their accuracy. "When genetics becomes a direct-to-consumer product, it gets oversimplified and oversold," says Hank Greely, an ethicist and lawyer at Stanford Law School who specializes in genetics and biotechnology. Although it is relatively easy to determine African or Asian ancestry, it's more difficult to pinpoint roots in, say, the Ivory Coast or Sri Lanka. Accuracy will improve as genealogical databases acquire more samples, but many in this nation of immigrants and ethnic hybrids are happy to have even approximate answers to that universal question, Who am I?
Underlying the DNA tests is the idea, accepted by most scientists, that modern humans evolved in Africa some 100,000 years ago and then spread out across the globe, picking up genetic mutations along the way. Researchers have been trying to determine when and where various mutations occurred. Genetic genealogists track these mutations and compare them with a database of DNA markers culled from thousands of people with deep roots in specific regions of the world, such as the Aborigines in Australia or the Basques in Spain. If an individual's mutations match those of an indigenous group, a link may be established.
For some, DNA tests help confirm an ancestry that was suspected but never proved. William Sanchez, a Catholic priest in Albuquerque, N.M., always knew that he had a Spanish heritage but says he also felt a spiritual connection "to Israel and the chosen people." Although he was raised Catholic, his mother followed many Jewish traditions, such as covering mirrors in the house when someone died. But it wasn't until Sanchez took a test from Family Tree DNA in Houston that he learned he had inherited genetic markers for the Cohanim, Jewish high priests said to be descended from Moses' brother Aaron.
First identified by Michael Hammer at the University of Arizona, markers for the Cohanim show up in more than 80% of people who report that lineage but in less than 1% of the rest of the population. After getting his results, Sanchez learned from relatives that he descended from "converso-Jews," who pretended to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition in order to avoid persecution. On learning of his Jewish origins, Sanchez says, "I felt happy, because it proved an ancient ancestry."
Genetic testing has a special attraction for African Americans because most have no other way to trace their lineage; the slave trade did a thorough job of severing their African roots. Washington-based African Ancestry aims to re-establish these links by telling its customers whether their DNA matches that of any of hundreds of ethnic groups in Africa, from the Hausa in northern Nigeria to the Ashantis in Ghana. For Juanita Thompson, a real estate agent in Arlington, Va., the test had special significance because her mother had been adopted as an infant and her birth family was unknown. "There was always a void," says Thompson, 61. "Having this DNA test gave me a connection to my mother's side of the family. I feel good about finding another piece to the puzzle of who I am."
As satisfying as it was for Thompson to be told that her mother's family descended from the Yorubas in Ghana, it is exactly this kind of precision that has critics fuming. "I think it is a disgraceful thing to try to tell an African American that you can match them to any group in Africa now," says Bruce Jackson, a geneticist at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and co-director of the African-American DNA Roots Project, a nonprofit research group that is digging into the genetic history of American blacks. Jackson says making such classifications is premature because not enough people have been tested to establish distinct markers for each group. "Every ethnic group in Africa is a mix that we don't understand yet," says Jackson.
Rick Kittles, African Ancestry's scientific director, defends his company's work, saying he compares customers' DNA with a database of more than 20,000 DNA samples from nearly 400 indigenous African groups. The company reports a match, he notes, only if the statistical probability is 90% or higher. "I'm doing the same thing everyone else is doing, but I am doing it on people of African descent, and I get criticized," says Kittles, who adds that some 3,000 people have taken his $349 test.
One of the less controversial aspects of genetic genealogy is its ability to help people fill in gaps in their family tree. Leo Little, a retired engineer in Austin, Texas, had used historical records to trace his lineage back to his great-great-grandfather Thomas Little, who was born in Alabama in 1816. Then, he says, "I hit a brick wall. I knew my Littles were from the South, but there were a lot of Littles from the South, and it was impossible to sort out." After he took a DNA test from Family Tree DNA, he began leading one of the company's 1,900 surname projects, in this case checking test results on Littles. As a result, he has identified three distant cousins. By pooling their family records, the cousins have been able to trace their roots all the way back to 1680.
While members of the Little family were happy to share genetic information, some people worry about unauthorized sharing. DNA-test companies say they will keep results confidential, but at least one, DNAPrint, requires customers to sign a consent form acknowledging that results "may be subpoenaed by court order." Another complaint is that some of the most common tests reveal only a sliver of ancestry. The Y-chromosome test, for example, traces only the patrilineal line (your father's father's father and so on, but not your father's mother). Similarly, the mitochondrial-DNA test, which looks at DNA passed from the mother's egg to both her male and female children, illuminates only your mother's female ancestry. "If you go back 300 years, you have more than 1,000 ancestors. They are telling you about 1 in 1,000 of your ancestors. I think they should make that clear," says Stanford ethicist Greely.
Those flaws haven't deterred amateur genealogists like Charles Kerchner of Emmaus, Pa. The retired electrical engineer says he has spent about $3,000 testing himself and nine distant cousins in order to confirm relations that historical records had already indicated. Was it worth it? "Absolutely. It is like a high-tech Bible entry," says Kerchner, referring to the tradition of recording names and birth dates in family Bibles. Using historical records, he has been able to trace his roots back to Switzerland and Germany in the early 1500s. But Kerchner, 60, says he will not rest until he finds a German ancestral village where he can sit down someday and have a beer--hopefully with a local member of his clan. Having exhausted the paper trail, he says, "my only hope left is DNA testing."
For the original version of this article, go to: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1079508,00.html
From The Observer (UK):
Discovering birth parents creates two happy families
Sunday, June 05 2005
For decades many adopted adults have looked for their birth family in secret or avoided searching, such is the fear of hurting those who brought them up. But new research has found that 80 per cent of adoptive parents are pleased when their children seek their roots.
The study found that 97 per cent of adopted people felt the reunion had not changed how they felt about their adoptive parents - and two-thirds of those parents become friends with the birth family.
'Studies on reunions have tended to focus on adopted people and birth mothers. But we wanted to know about adoptive parents' perspectives too and if it was true that reunions upset them as much as people have hypothesised.' says Dr Fiona Kyle, research fellow at the University of Cambridge and co-author of the five-year study. The research, focusing on adoptions in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, is the first British study to explore the individual experiences of all key players in the adoption, search and reunion process.
Julie Holguin-Rodriguez, 41, was contacted 12 years ago by a half-sister who had also been adopted. She discovered their birth mother had died, but contacted her natural father, Gerry. Both Julie and her adoptive mother, Ruth, have since built up relationships with her birth family.
'I think my [adoptive] mum was a bit worried when I initially heard from my half-sister, but she's fine now,' Julie said. 'It feels like one big family. In fact, as my father had died by the time I married, my birth father gave me away. It feels really good to know him and my history.'
Ruth, 69, said: 'It clearly helped Julie to meet her half-sisters, and later her birth father, and I'm pleased about that. It's nice to see her with peace of mind. It's nice for me too that we all get on together. I see Gerry three or four times a year and I've been on holiday with his mother.'
The study shows that reunions are satisfying for the great majority of all involved and that they stand the test of time, with 86 per cent still in contact eight years on.
'Even those who had lost contact said they gained from the reunion,' says Julia Feast, adviser to the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) and co-author of the report. 'For birth mothers, much of the guilt had been relieved by having the opportunity to explain why they made the adoption decision. Adopted people said the experience had answered crucial questions. For most adopters, the benefit came from their fears - which included wondering if they might be rejected - being unfounded.'
From The Washington Times:
Adoption battle rages
By Cheryl Wetzstein
June 29, 2005
Advocates of open adoption records say they'll continue fighting for the rights of adopted children to discover the identity of their birth parents, despite recent setbacks for their cause. Earlier this month, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, signed a law on "sealed" birth records in adoptions. Lee Allen of the National Council For Adoption (NCFA) says the Colorado law is a hard-fought victory for upholding birth parent confidentiality and privacy. "It's really a common-sense thing," he said. Denver adoption activist Rich Uhrlaub and other adult adoptees say the new law "accomplished nothing in terms of adoptee rights" because it still doesn't allow them their original birth records without someone else's permission. "It's about a piece of paper and adulthood," Mr. Uhrlaub said. "Everyone named on [birth records] should have equal access to it. States shouldn't intervene when everybody's an adult." What Colorado's adoption battle shows is that, even after 35 years of debate, the "open records" issue is still personal and volatile. The Colorado law, for instance, was introduced as a bill giving adult adoptees access to their original birth records upon request. But at the last minute, lawmakers voted to change the bill and keep birth records private unless birth parents authorized their release. This, of course, is a Catch-22 for most adoptees because "it's hard to get consent from someone whose name you don't know," Mr. Uhrlaub said.
In the past century, adoption-record policies have gone through similarly dramatic changes. Birth records used to be public, which meant anyone could see anybody else's birth certificates, including those stamped "Illegitimate." Eventually, states started sealing birth records so the public couldn't snoop and birth parents couldn't track down the children they had given up for adoption. However, even under these restrictions, adoptees were always allowed to see their own birth records as a normal and natural right, according to research by Elizabeth J. Samuels, who teaches at the University of Baltimore School of Law. In the 1950s, states slowly began sealing original birth records to everyone, including adoptees, unless they had a court order to open them, Ms. Samuels said in a paper published in 2001 in the Rutgers Law Review. The primary motivation for these sealings was to stop birth parents from finding and "interfering" with adoptive families, she wrote. But there also was an intent to support the new idea that secrecy was good for adoptive families and their children, who would be protected "from any possible stain of illegitimacy." Contrary to modern arguments, "lifelong privacy rights" of birth parents wasn't a concern when the records were sealed, Ms. Samuels noted. By the 1970s, only two states -- Alaska and Kansas -- allowed adoptees to see their original birth records. The resulting outrage, written in books and articles by distraught adoptees such as Florence Fisher and Betty Jean Lifton, launched the "open records" battles. To date, four states -- Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and, as of January, New Hampshire -- have joined Alaska and Kansas in allowing adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates upon request. Another state, Delaware, gives adult adoptees their original birth certificate unless their birth parents file a veto with the state. In some states, birth parents can file "contact preference" forms for adoptees, which indicate whether the birth parents want to be contacted, either directly or by an intermediary, or do not want contact. NCFA and its adoption-agency allies say state lawmakers should refrain from opening sealed records. Eighty percent to 90 percent of all adoptees don't search for their biological parents, Mr. Allen said. For those seeking information on their biological parents, there are registries for people to file their contact information and confidential intermediaries who will conduct searches on behalf of adoptees or birth parents. It is only a "vocal minority" of people who want "wide open" records, he said. Mormons, pro-life groups and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also oppose open records. Each open-record opponent has its own motivations: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints believes adopted children are permanently "sealed" to their new families and that old ties are best forgotten. Pro-life groups think that unless a pregnant woman is promised anonymity in adoption, she might choose abortion. The ACLU, which is actively opposing an open-records bill in New Jersey, believes a woman has the right to choose an abortion, parenthood or adoption, including the right to confidentiality. "It's strange bedfellows, all right," Mr. Allen said. Adoptees and their allies admit that they have suffered many legislative defeats, including failed efforts this year in Rhode Island, Nevada and Texas, as well as Colorado. But bills remain alive in New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey, and more bills are planned for next year, said Carolyn Hoard, president of the American Adoption Congress. Also, New Hampshire opened its records in January. "I was ecstatic. It was wonderful what they did," said open-records adoption activist Pam Hasegawa, who is backing New Jersey's bill. The momentum is behind opening the records, said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Most adoption agencies offer open adoptions, in which birth and adoptive families know each other. Also, "as people see other states pass [open-record laws] and see that the dire consequences that were predicted aren't coming true, it provides impetus to keep going," he said. The trend in adoption may indeed be toward more openness and state experimentation with "conditional access systems" for birth records, said Susan L. Pollet, executive director of the Women's Justice Center at Pace Law School in New York and author of a January article on open records in the New York Law Journal. However, she said, it's "still too soon" to predict what kind of system will prevail.
For the original version of this article, go to:
From The Telegraph (Nashua, NH):
Rush is over, but adoptees still finding gold in birth records
By ALBERT McKEON, Telegraph Staff
July 31, 2005
Not as many anxious faces appear before the Formica counter nowadays, but adults continue to take a life-altering step at the state vital records office: obtaining essential clues to their beginnings.
Seven months have passed since the state allowed adoptees to access their birth records. After an initial rush of requests -- 343 in the first month -- demand has expectedly slowed, with 19 applications filed this month as of July 22.
But the process will have emotional significance and practical importance long after the novelty has faded, and it's almost as natural as registering a car, adoption-rights advocates said.
"People stop me on the street and say how good it is," said state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, who crafted the legislation and is an adoptive father. "I couldn't have been happier for these people. It's a nonpolitical thing. It's good public policy."
Of the 701 people who have requested birth records to date, there have been many warm stories of reunions and second chances, advocates said.
D'Allesandro will never forget a local television station videographer who thanked him for creating an opportunity to find his birth parents, he said.
Of course, not every adoptee has had success when finally armed with the information. Biological parents can advise the state, even before an adoptee accesses a birth certificate, that they don't want to be contacted.
Some adoptees have likely approached their birth parents and received tepid, if not cold, responses.
Adoptees can also encounter dead ends despite having their parents' names, lacking a current residence and not having any other clues.
"There is always another side," said state Division of Vital Records Administration Director Bill Bolton. "There are not always success stories, but some tragedy. But we're not aware of the tragedy. It's generally a positive experience."
Sara Anne Ross hopes for a personal triumph. The 21-year-old Californian recently received her birth certificate and wants to reach out to her parents. Born in Nashua in August 1983, she was adopted and moved out west in second grade.
Ross has since had a falling out with her adoptive parents, she said. She's a single mother raising 3-year-old Micah.
"I spoil him," she said. "He's my only family, and I'm his only family."
Her birth name was Mary Ann Condo. The birth certificate also revealed she had an older biological brother named Toby. She hopes her birth family still lives in New Hampshire, but she has no idea. Internet searches have provided only details similar to those on her birth certificate.
"I don't expect to gain an instant family," Ross said in a telephone interview from her Vacaville, Calif., home. "I really don't need one. I'm doing my own family. I just want more answers to move ahead. It's hard not knowing who you look like, where you get certain qualities from. I have kind of a blank page."
Some state legislators opposed D'Allesandro's bill, citing privacy rights of biological parents, who for various reasons needed to lead lives separate from their children.
D'Allesandro said he understands the resistance, but also points to how, at the very least, adoptees can acquire necessary health information.
"We know so much more about medical history now that we can react to any health problems," he said.
The vital records office allows birth parents an opportunity to update their medical histories, and 26 birth records have been revised.
The process mirrors one used in Oregon, a state that pioneered opening birth records in 1998. Alabama, Alaska and Kansas have also followed suit. D'Allesandro has testified in Rhode Island and Massachusetts championing the initiative, and will soon speak to Maine legislators.
For $12, an adult adoptee will receive a pre-adoption record anywhere from one day to six weeks after forwarding the application.
The parents of 52 adoptees have filed a contact preference form, with 36 wanting to directly reunite with their children and five through an intermediary. The parents of 11 adoptees have asked not to be contacted.
Bolton can't remember if there was a particular birth certificate his office couldn't track down. The office has good relationships with the state courts and town halls, and they willingly search for records that aren't in the vital records archive. Most records are right on hand in the Concord office.
When the process started Jan. 2, the vital records office bustled with excitement and relatively long lines; 149 people requested birth certificates in the first week. Since then, requests have ebbed: 43 in May, 19 in June and 19 in the first three weeks of July.
Bolton initially had staff eschewing their regular duties to help at the front desk, but now the office has captured its breath. In the first week, requests helped the office capture $5,000 in revenue, when typically the vital records office will gain about $1,000 to $3,000 a week, he said. To date, requests have brought $8,412 in revenue.
Dealing with all sorts of records that affect the chain of human history, Bolton's staff usually puts "blinders on" -- trying not to invest emotionally in the stories of their work, he said. But seeing people taking a leap, wanting to put pieces of their puzzles together, creates for the staff "a sense of enjoyment, a sense of worth," Bolton said.
REQUEST FOR BIRTH RECORDS
The state began allowing adoptees to access their birth records in January. Demand was high at the start of the year, but the number of requests has declined since then. Here is a list of requests for records by month.
Note: July total is through July 22.