Tuesday, March 4, 2008
MICHIGAN: Adoptee--Unseal Birth Records
March 4, 2008
Jerry Robertson always wanted to know who his birth parents were.
Born in 1945, Robertson was adopted during the first year that birth certificates of children adopted in Michigan were permanently sealed. That era ended in 1980, but it left thousands of people without access to their original birth certificates and clues to their ancestry.
Today Michigan lawmakers will begin contemplating one of the most heated questions within the adoption community -- should upwards of 20,000 people be allowed to access family information that has been kept secret for decades?
Bills in both chambers of the Legislature would allow people adopted between 1945 and 1980 to obtain their original birth certificate. It also would allow birth parents to tell the state whether they want to be contacted, and how. A hearing on the matter will be held today before the House Families and Children's Services subcommittee.
Robertson died in 1996 without knowing his family roots, but his daughter, Terri Koch, hopes a change in the law will allow her to fulfill his wish.
"It was excruciating and heart-wrenching and so unfair," said Koch, of Battle Creek, who continues the search for her father's birth parents. "He was the most caring person who ever lived but he was also the most tortured soul. I will never give up searching."
Opponents counter that the records should be kept secret to keep intact the parameters that were promised to birth mothers years ago.
They support opening the records but only if there is consent from both sides.
"The main concern is that the adoption was done at a different time, under certain rules that promised birth mothers confidentiality," said John VanValkenberg, spokesman for Bethany Christian Services, a Grand Rapids adoption agency with offices in 30 states.
"It's a balancing act," he said. "The rights of adoptees to have access (to their adoption records) is an important part in shaping their identity. We recognize those rights, but they must be balanced by the rights of the birth parents who were promised confidentiality."
Concerns now 'unfounded'
As society has become more accepting of childbirth outside of marriage and Internet tools have helped reunite families separated by adoption, a growing number of adoptees are pushing their states to open records to help them trace their genealogy.
Since 1996, six states have allowed adoptees access to their adoption records, including three states in 2007, according to Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York. Kansas and Alaska have never closed adoption records.
In November 2007, the Adoption Institute released a study examining reasons why some oppose releasing adoption information to adoptees once they become adults, such as concerns of violating the birth mother's anonymity, increased abortion rates and decreased adoption rates.
"The concerns that people had about allowing access simply are unfounded," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the institute. "The bottom line is, if adopted people want these birth certificates for some legitimate reason and there's no negative consequences, then why not do it?"
Michigan has allowed anyone adopted after Sept. 12, 1980, to acquire their original birth certificate when they become an adult, so long as there isn't a confidentiality request from their birth parents.
But those adopted between 1945 and 1980 only have access to a birth certificate with their adopted parents' names on it. Original birth certificates cannot be released without a court order, according to Nanette Salyer, adoption inquiry specialist at the Michigan Department of Human Services.
That has prompted people such as Pamela Hewitt to try all kinds of strategies to find their birth parents. Hewitt is glad she found her birth mother in 2001, thanks to the Internet. But it took 26 years.
"There were a lot of dead ends and a lot of closed doors," said Hewitt, who lives north of Port Huron. "It was very, very sad."
Search program not enough
Michigan also changed its adoption law in 1980 to allow people adopted during the closed era to obtain nonidentifying information such as the birth parents' health history, ethnicity and educational background.
It also set up the Michigan Adoption Central Registry, a list of birth parents and siblings indicating whether they want to be contacted. Currently, 95 percent of the 26,311 people in the registry have indicated they would like identifying information to be released about them.
In 1996, Michigan established the Confidential Intermediary Program, which allows adoptees, birth parents and their family to petition the Family Court to appoint someone to search for relatives at a cost of $250. The confidential intermediary obtains the adoption file, attempts to update the information and contacts the person to see if they wish to be contacted by the person who petitioned the court.
"There's no guarantees you'll find someone," said Daryl Royal, a confidential intermediary in Wayne County, adding that the program is not well-known.
But many people adopted during the closed-record era say that is not enough.
"Michigan's adult adoptees who were adopted during the closed adoption era really require just one thing, and that is access to their original birth certificate," said Debby Fraser, 49, of Dearborn Heights, who was adopted in 1961 when she was 17 month old. "Being no less and no more than any other American citizen, and in keeping with the status quo that all nonadopted people have access to their birth records -- with logic and fairness -- our records should be opened to us."