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Off the records: Old laws keep many adoptees from obtaining birth certificates

Bob McDowell drove up I-44 toward Kansas City, Mo.--where he was born--from Tulsa, Okla., while a blizzard swelled around him. It was February 2003, and his youngest son, Daniel, then 40, had just been diagnosed with leukemia.

While filling out a form asking for his family’s medical history, McDowell gave as much information as he had.

“I don’t know,” he wrote.

With that, McDowell, now 81, embarked on a quest he’d considered whenever he visited a new doctor, or took his biennial pilot’s license physical. He contacted the courthouse that issued his adoption order in 1926 to request the unsealing of his original birth certificate, so he might learn who his birth parents were and get some medical history. The judge declined, he said, because the records were only to be opened in an emergency.

With his son facing an aggressive and unusual form of cancer (it was later found to be Burkitt’s lymphoma), “Well, I don’t know any other emergency you could have,” said McDowell, a retired oil and gas producer.

Open adoptions, which allow various levels of contact between birth parents, adoptive parents and adopted child, have become commonplace recently. But adoptees like McDowell, born when adoption evoked terms like “illegitimate,” find themselves with birth certificates doctored to appear as if their adoptive parents were present at their births. Their medical history is buried in legalities, available only with a judge’s consent.

Adoption laws vary from state to state. “Unfortunately, it’s all very checkered,” said Eileen McQuade, president of the American Adoption Congress (AAC), which advocates for openness. “At this point it’s almost a matter of happenstance, depending on where you were born.”

Kansas and Alaska have never sealed birth records, but well-meaning legislators in the remaining 48 states sealed them to save children--and their parents--from the stigma then associated with adoption, said Professor Ellen Herman, who runs the Adoption History Project at the University of Oregon. Those records became inviolable in most states between 1917 and the 1960s.

After World War II, Herman said, unsealing original birth records became a signal issue in adoption. It pits those adult adoptees who view access to birth certificates as a fundamental human right against those birth parents who believe they were promised anonymity.

While the open-access movement has been vocal, just six states--Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Oregon and Tennessee--have made their adoption laws more open, and only in the last 12 years. At least six other states have similar legislation pending. “Open access” doesn’t mean “public access,” but rather access for the three parties of the adoption. Restrictions remain, depending on when the adoptee was born.

Missouri State Rep. Cynthia Davis proposed an open access bill in March after meeting McDowell at a Republican Assembly banquet in St. Louis in August 2007. “Nowhere else except in cases of international security do we deny people personal records,” she said. “The idea that they create and falsify a new document is also appalling.” Her bill, which would allow adoptees over age 21 access to their original birth certificates, is still in committee; McDowell testified in support.

Ina Lewis, 75, of Blue Springs, Mo., also testified. A member of the AAC, Lewis said that those birth families that don’t wish to be found should have that right--she found her birth sisters through an investigator in 2001, visited them in Oregon and got some medical history. “I have half of mine now and I was able to give it to my doctor for the first time,” she said.

Pam Davidson, vice president of government relations for National Council for Adoption, views bills like Davis’s differently: she said they strip birth parents of their right to privacy. “We don’t oppose open adoptions or the open exchange of information--as long as both parties agree,” she said, adding that NCFA supports the release of non-identifying information.

But Fred Greenman, legal adviser for the AAC and a birth father whose daughter found him, said there never was a promise of confidentiality. “No such agreement has ever been produced in writing,” he said. Arguments that birth parents would be harassed or adoptions would decrease and abortions would rise if records were unsealed don’t hold water, he said.

He cites a 2007 report by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute that analyzes the effects of unsealing birth certificates. “It’s not perfect, we haven’t had enough time to fully study the effects in those states that have amended their laws recently,” said Executive Director Adam Pertman. “But it all points in one direction…and we can now look and show what actually happens. The good news is, the answer is: basically nothing.”

NCFA disputes two points in the 31-page report. Most importantly, Mark Zappala, the group’s assistant director of research, said the report misrepresents one 1991 study, claiming that it shows 88.5 percent of birth mothers support adult adoptees' access to information identifying their birth parents. He said the 1991 study actually shows that the majority of birth mothers support granting adult adoptees access to the information only with permission from the birth mother.

Unsealing records is necessary, Greenman, of the AAC, said, but the only way to truly obtain a medical history--which evolves over a lifetime--is to speak with the birth family, especially if the parents have died. Davidson, of the NCFA, is concerned about the effect that information will have on other members of the birth family, but she acknowledges that any promise of confidentiality most likely didn’t extend beyond the birth parents.

Some states give the birth parents the choice of filing a form choosing whether to be contacted by the adoptee directly, through an intermediary, or not at all. Few parents file such forms, Greenman said, and these options did not exist when adoptees like McDowell were born, nor did comprehensive medical histories.

McDowell’s son, Daniel, is in remission. He lives in Kansas City, commuting to his job as an airline mechanic in Dallas. His doctors are optimistic after five years in remission, but still require McDowell’s medical history for later tests. “Without that,” said McDowell, a licensed pilot, “they’re just flying blind.”