Personal stories from adoptees spark legislation to open adoption records
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Personal stories from adoptees spark legislation to open adoption records

Date: April 30, 2009
By: Valerie Insinna
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SB 53HB 48

JEFFERSON CITY -- Ina Lewis, an adopted woman, says she wants a birth certificate that isn't a work of fiction.  

The 76-year-old resident of Blue Springs has known since childhood that she was adopted, even though her birth certificate states her adoptive parents gave birth to her.

Missouri made much of the information contained in adoption records confidential in 1941 -- after Lewis was born. Before the law changed to restrict the personal information of the biological parents, Lewis' adoptive parents obtained her birth parents' names. 

When she turned 16, Lewis said she began wondering about her origins.

"At the time my (adoptive) mom had the record in the safety deposit box, so she went to the safety deposit box and retrieved that for me, and I was able to read it," she said. "I've always known my original name, my birth parents' names and facts about them."

Born at Willow's Maternity Home in Kansas City, Lewis was originally named Phyllis by her mother, a 16-year-old high school student.

Lewis said that as a teenager, she was more concerned with learning about her birth than about her medical records.

But after her adoptive parents died, Lewis could not find any of her adoption records, including the identifying information of her biological parents and their medical history.

Because Missouri has closed adoption records -- even to adoptees -- Lewis is unable to access any further identifying records, which include parents' names, dates of birth, places of birth and last known addresses.

Stories from Lewis and other adoptees have propelled Missouri legislators to draft bills that would allow adopted adults to access their original birth certificates. 

A House bill from Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-St. Charles County, would open adoption records for adults over the age of 21.

Davis has argued that closed records violate civil rights. 

"There's something inside all of us that knows what the truth is," she said. "It's important for some people to ask questions and know their history."
 
Davis said birth parents are not given the option of indicating whether they'd like to keep records open or not.

"Most birth mothers I've spoken with are not afraid of their children coming back and finding them," she said. "In fact, to the contrary, in states that have opened their records, the rate of adoption has gone up."

Despite her personal viewpoints, the bill she sponsored was never sent for debate to the House Children and Families Committee, a committee which Davis chairs.

The bill has come under fire from adoption groups that argue adoption records should not be opened retroactively.

Christine White, assistant child welfare director for the Lutheran Family and Children's Services of Missouri, said adoption agencies make a promise with birth parents ensuring that their names stay confidential. 

"One (birth mother) contacted us and said, 'You know, that was a stone in my heart never to be overturned,'" White said. "I think that's how a lot of birth parents feel ... they put that away."

Even though White said she believes breaking that promise would be detrimental, she said adoption now carries less social stigma for birth parents than it had in the past.

"The real issue is adoption years ago was very different," she said. "It was very closed and often, you know, birth parents were sort of sent away, and they delivered, and they came back."

Under Missouri law, adoptees can access non-identifying information, which includes the medical records, physical description, nationality and religious background of the parents.

According to White, the medical information is only as good as the information collected from the birth parents at the time of the child's birth. Medical history is not updated and could be incomplete if the adoption agency did not think certain medical details were important.
 
Adopted adults can try to obtain identifying information in various ways.

The state Social Services Department runs a free information registry linking adoptees with their birth parents. In order for information to be distributed, Missouri law requires consent from both adoptive parents and both biological parents. 

The department does not make an effort to locate unregistered biological parents to ask for consent.

Arleasha Mays, assistant communications director for the Social Services Department, stated in an email that 19 people found biological relatives through the registry in 2008.

Adopted adults can also petition the court to receive more current medical records and can also utilize private investigators or private adoption agencies in order to locate biological relatives.
 
Caroline Pooler, an adopted Kansas City resident, said she hired a private investigator to research information concerning her biological parents.
 
"A private investigator can look at the file," she said. "He has the right to charge me thousands of dollars. What's right about that? It's my information."

Pooler said hiring an investigator can cost anywhere from $300 to $5,000, with less expensive investigators usually requiring an additional hourly fee.

After the death of her adoptive parents, Lewis said she obtained her non-identifying records at the Jackson County Courthouse and paid for a court searcher to look up her biological family.

The court searcher notified Lewis with news that her birth mother died in 2001. However, Lewis was able to use clues given to her by the court searcher to find other family members, eventually locating two half sisters in Oregon.

Lewis said she decided to contact her half sisters in 2005. She wrote them a letter explaining the details of her birth and asking for current, detailed medical records.

"(My birth mother) released me immediately for adoption, which was a courageous thing to do and without a doubt the only avenue open for her," Lewis stated in the letter. "I do not even know if she was able to see or hold me."

"My baby book opens with me at 3 weeks of age. I have no idea where I was during that three-week period."

Five days after Lewis wrote the letter, she received a response from one of her half sisters. Shortly thereafter a letter from her other half sister arrived.

Neither of her half sisters had known that their mother had given up a child for adoption, Lewis said.

"They called all the other family members, and everyone else knew but them," she said. "How they kept that a secret all those years, I don't know. The one cousin told them she just thought they always knew. But they didn't."

A similar account of a secretive adoption prompted another Missouri lawmaker to pen a bill opening adoption records this legislative session.

Sen. Rita Days, D-St. Louis County, said that when constituents contacted her about the issue of adoption records, she reflected on her own mother, who learned she was adopted late in life only after her adoptive mother made a deathbed confession. Days' mother -- like Lewis -- was unable to access her birth certificate due to current law.

Unlike Davis' bill, which would allow any adopted 21-year-old to access their birth certificate, Days' bill is not retroactive.

Instead, Days' bill would open records to 18-year-olds who were adopted after Aug. 28, 2009. For adoptions before that date, records would be opened only after the birth mother's death. 

Her proposal came before the Senate General Laws Committee, but it did not receive a committee vote and has not been debated on the Senate floor.

The St. Louis County senator said her mother lived in Louisiana but believed she was born in Alabama, making the process of obtaining her adoption records even more difficult.

"I know that she was very distraught by that process, because when you begin to talk about your ancestors and your ancestry, she could not participate in a conversation such as that," she said. 

During the bill's hearing, Larry Weber, a lobbyist speaking on behalf of Catholic Charities, expressed support of Days' bill even though the organization has opposed legislation that would open adoption records after the fact.

Nonetheless, Days said she is not holding out hope that her legislation will ever be passed.

"I sense the temperature of this body, I sense it very well, and I think they have no intention of passing anything like this," she said. "They are very concerned about the religious agencies that have done these adoptions in the past and their commitment to keeping everything a secret."

Davis said she's hopeful that her bill will pass in future sessions, even though it's unlikely to pass this year.

"It's getting too late in the session for it to pass, so I'm not holding out on getting it passed this year," she said. "But I am holding out for phenomenal groundwork for next year."

For Lewis, a connection has been made with her biological mother's family, but she said she's still working toward obtaining her original birth certificate.

"We need our original records, where we came from, our beginnings," she said, adding that making those records available would do more than just assist adopted adults in searching for lost relatives. "It's just to know where we came from and how we came into this world."

Lewis said she and her half sisters now have a wonderful, loving relationship. 
 
"We're planning to get all of our families together this summer for a big reunion, so everybody can meet everybody," she said.
 

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