Monday, July 26, 2010

Beyond Reunions: The Symbolic Nature of the Original Birth Certificate

I loved looking at the photo static copy of my Illinois birth certificate my mother gave me as a teenager so that I could apply for a drivers’ license. I used it to get my social security card and my first passport. When it fell apart, I ordered a new one. My birth certificate – my only birth certificate since I’m not adopted -- represents me as no other document can. It makes me special in the same way that hearing what happened on the day I was born does.

The original birth certificate has even greater significance for adopted persons. Like many adoptees, my surrendered daughter Megan sought her original birth certificate after our reunion. She wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune, supporting open records:
“Before I found my birth parents, I spent a lot of time scrutinizing my birth certificate, trying to make sense of it, trying to find my birth parents names listed somewhere between the lines. The certificate contained other facts about my birth, yet it left off the most important fact. I could not make sense of it. I want my original birth certificate because I want the complete truth, in writing, of who I am. I will still use the amended one for legal purposes, but getting the original one would give me great satisfaction.”
The National Council for Adoption (NCFA) and others opposing legislation allowing adoptees access to their OBCs understand the symbolic nature of the original birth certificate. (NCFA is an industry group whose members include LDS Family Services, Edna Gladney agencies, some Catholic Charities agencies, Bethany Christian Services, and others.) NCFA pronouncements about birthmother privacy, reductions in adoption, and increases in abortions obscure the real reason it opposes adoptee access. In actuality, the OBC has little to do with reunions. By the time an adoptee is old enough to obtain his OBC, his mother likely has married and changed her name; the address on the certificate may well be a shuttered maternity home, far from where his mother’s actual home was. With the internet, private investigators, and search groups, mothers and children have been reuniting since the 1980’s like nobody’s business (which it is). In fact, NCFA does not oppose mutually-agreed upon reunions or open adoptions.

The truth is that the NCFA fears the OBC itself. The OBC is irrefutable proof that the adoptive parents are not THE ONLY PARENTS and that by seeking his OBC, an adoptee knows it. Here’s what William Pierce, then NCFA President wrote in his 1999 affidavit urging the Oregon courts to overturn Ballot Measure 58, which allowed adult adoptees unrestricted access to their OBCs:
“One of the policy reasons for the decision to amend birth certificates and seal adoption records is to send a clear message to all concerned that the child now belongs in the adoptive family for all intents and purposes. All public records, therefore, link the adopted child with the adoptive family. Opening adoption records on demand or allowing access to original birth certificates creates the perception that the relationship between the biological family and the adopted person is still intact.”
But all that we know about surrender and adoption informs us that the link is never really broken, no matter how the state tries to paper over that reality.

A recently released update of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute’s 2007 report on adoptees’ access to their original birth certificates, For the Records II, sets forth how OBCs came to be sealed, countering the bogus claims for keeping them sealed and presenting well-researched and convincing arguments for unsealing them. The report recommends:

• Every state restore unrestricted access to original birth certificates for all adult adoptees, retroactively and prospectively.
• State laws that provide access to original birth certificates to a limited number of adult adoptees should be amended to enable them all to obtain these documents and thereby be treated equally.
• No agency, attorney, social worker or other adoption professional should promise birthparents that their identities will remain concealed from their children.
• A national adoption registry should be implemented to enable all adopted persons and their birthparents, no matter where they reside, to participate.
• Confidential intermediary services should be available throughout the states, even after original birth certificates access is restored.

We at FMF applaud the first three recommendations but disagree with the last two. A national adoption registry already exists, the non-profit International Soundex Reunion Registry.

As the report itself notes, CI’s are ineffective because they “are not well-publicized, dependent on the program’s resources, and make only one attempt at contact.” We would add that CI’s may actually obstruct reunions because they can frighten the other party, resulting in a “no contact” response. CI’s are also expensive, costing several hundred dollars to the adoptee. The report suggests public funding -- unlikely -- or making them available at a very reasonable cost -- also unlikely. The best way is for the adoptee to screw up his courage and make contact himself.

We at FMF are encouraged by the media attention that For the Record II has generated and by the Adoptee Rights Demonstration in Louisville, Kentucky this past Sunday. While progress is slow, states are beginning to crack open their records. The process is not pretty but ultimately, adoptee access may be the norm.

Meanwhile, technology is creating another group of people who are denied their right to know their genetic origins. The original and only birth certificate for children born via purchased eggs, artificial insemination, and surrogacy is in actuality a certificate of title, containing the names of the child’s legal parents rather than their real (biological, natural, whatever you want) parents. The truth about these children’s origins is locked in a fertility lab somewhere and prying it out may be more difficult than restoring adoptees’ access to their original birth certificates.

24 comments :

  1. Excellent post.
    You haven't included those adoptees who have had their identities changed prior to adoption as well as on adoption, who have had their birth dates altered and really will never know who they are, even if by a miracle records were ever opened in America.Many agencies have notorious histories which seems somehow not to matter to most adopters who might otherwise think of themselves as honest, trustworthy people!
    I have to tell you that here in Australia even open records do not mean a solution for my generation..there is so little on the birth certificate it is hardly of use.Paternity can never be proven since the father's name was no required to be recorded back in the day.....
    It constantly amazes me how some deny the rights of others in a supposedly free country.

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  2. Cat here.

    In the UK, they lifted the anonymity laws for sperm and egg donors but it only applies to those after 2005 when the law came into force, so there is already a
    2-tier system as those conceived before 2005 will not be allowed to know any information.

    Interestingly, donations have gone up, (not down as predicted).

    Here is a BBC news article on that.

    UK Sperm Donor Numbers Increase
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6618977.stm

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  3. "...the adopted child now BELONGS in the adoptive family."

    Sounds like OWNERSHIP to me. It's a lot easier to make a sale if OWNERSHIP is guaranteed.

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  4. Hi Jane! What is your opinion on open records for natural mothers as well as adoptees? This being defined as:

    1) Both the natural mother and the adoptee have access to both the OBC and the ABC (with 3rd party identifying severed, e.g. names of adoptive parents).

    2) Both have the equal right to access the adoption case file (containing non-ID information, etc.).

    If we have done it in parts of Canada (starting in BC in 1995 with open records legislation for "1" and separate Freedom of Information legislation) for "2", do you think there is interest and willingness in the U.S.? Maybe we are not so very different. :)

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  5. Cedar,

    I think the natural mother should get the amended birth certificate or other document such as the adoption decree WITH the adoptive parents' names and well as the adoptee's name. Much as an adoptee needs to know his original identity, a mother needs to know how her child is. Having these names will help her find him.

    I can't comment on the case file because I don't know what is in it. I believe personal information about the natural family and the adoptive family should not be disclosed.

    I'm sure many mothers would like information about their child. CUB and Origins-USA support giving mothers access to the amended birth certificate. Unfortunately, I think it will be a long time before mothers are able to access any information.

    You Canadians are way ahead of us in the States.

    I also commend the Brits for prohibiting anonymous sperm and egg donations and for opening records to adoptees.

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  6. Provincial adoption disclosure legislation guide:
    http://www.canadianfamily.ca/articles/article/
    provincial-adoption-disclosure-legislation/

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  7. Cat here.

    Here is what Ontario has done
    (as a comparison to other places).

    In Ontario, both parties - adoptees and parents named on the original birth registration - are allowed the following if there is no disclosure veto;

    1)a copy of the original birth registration which has a lot of info in it - no redactions

    2)the amended birth registration (heavily redacted for parents)

    3)the adoption order with the adoptive parents names redacted if the order is for parents

    4)non-id which may contain things like occupations, religion, number of siblings and other relatives, hobbies, etc. of the adoptive or first family

    5)copy of the case files - names are redacted depending on who is seeing it.

    Both parties are allowed to file a disclosure veto or contact veto which both expire upon death.

    The government has yet to explain how one gets to find out about the person's death without access to a name. There has been no clarification as to whether the government will check this out for anyone as they are the ones with the records.

    There is a provincial reunion registry.

    The government will perform severe medical searches in life and death situations but these are very difficult to get.

    All of the above services are free.

    Medical information is only passed on with consent. Adoptees are not allowed to see the mother's medical file without her permission. Hospital records on the birth are regarded as the mother's. She has a right to request them if they are still in existence. I managed to get mine 25years later. I got them for free through my doctor.

    However, having said that, the original birth registration does contain some information such as the number of previous births and stillborns that the mother has had. It also has the doctor's name and the hospital. The older the registration, the more detail it is likely to contain.

    Most fathers have been cut out of most of these services as over 90 percent are not mentioned on the original birth registration which is a pre-requisite for getting identifying information. It is even a pre-requisite for filling in the Contact Preference form.

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  8. Cat here.

    Someone has set up a donor sibling registry. Donors are also welcome to join.

    They have managed to connect 7,475 siblings/donors with each other.

    http://www.donorsiblingregistry.com/index.php

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  9. So..what I want to know is how difficult it is for a first mother to be able to locate where her child might be after she gets the amended birth certificate, if no disclosure veto have been filed. And the age at which this is possible...18?

    And of course I'd like to see all birth mothers be able to learn what happened to their children, and how they are, where they are. This old system of hidden secret closed adoption is punitive, cruel and unusual. As I've said here many times, I tried to have an "open" adoption in 1966 that was not closed (or one that would be unsealed once she turned 18), but no one would help me. I was damned no matter what I did. So when I hear the state "promised" me confidentiality I get so mad I want to scream in frustration. Closed adoption is a f#@%!ed system.

    And I agree, you folks in the Socialist Paradise of the North (as Osolomama once called her country here) are way ahead of us. Not that it was easy getting this passed in Ontario.

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  10. Here in BC, when my son turned 19 (the age of majority here), I was able to apply for papers from Vital Stats, consisting of the birth record and court order that listed his adoptive name. From then on, it was phonecalls and an internet search, and I found him in the Hotmail member directory that existed at that time. So, all in all about an hour or two of dedicated searching over the span of about 2 wks. 10 1/2 yrs later, FB and Google would also pull results.

    Meanwhile, before i found him, I also posted his details on a search registry, and a search angel located his address and phone number and volunteered to phone him for me.

    So, it was very quick.

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  11. Hi Jane! I would like to recommend that CUB and O-USA should put this on their websites, that they support open records for mothers. It is not there. This policy position used to be on the O-USA website, and then it was taken down. This gives the impression that they no longer support it. :(

    If CUB and OUSA support open records for mothers as well, then do you think CUB and O-USA members would be willing to join the "open records" movement in support of open records for both? Instead of their members just supporting and lobbying for open records for adoptees only? Are CUB and O-USA members aware of this policy position?


    We in Canada lobbied for open records for both, at the same time. If moms and adoptees both lobby for open records for both, the inclusion of open records for mothers blows the confidentiality argument out of the water: If moms wanted confidentiality they would not be wanting records opened for themselves! :)

    I think it can be done, and maybe there are natural mothers who are currently not interested in open records for adoptees as it gives them nothing, see something (open records for them too) in it for themselves, maybe think more of them will join in the fight.

    It means a lot to be able to apply for your child's records, rather than having to sit passively to be "found." It is part of resisting the violence, and thus helps in healing the trauma, showing that we are not "passive victims" (no victim is passive, imho, for every act of violence there is an equal act of resistance) And I would NEVER have been able to find my son without open records.

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  12. Cedar,

    CUB does not have a policy supporting legal access to the amended BC by mothers, as this is a different and separate issue from adoptee access to their own OBC and greatly complicates matters.

    In the 80s and 90s Carole Anderson, then CUB president, did not want to support open records for adoptees unless mothers could also get the ABC, but some of the rest of us did not agree.

    Searching has never really been dependent on legal access to either document, and is much less so now in the days of Facebook, internet searches, and so many adoptions at least starting as open with identifying information.

    Adoptee access to OBC is not about search or reunion, but about a right to a document that is about their identity, as Jane explained and many others have as well.

    The amended BC is not about the surrendering mother, her name is not on it, and the many different situations leading to surrender, including state termination for abuse, make mother's rights in this instance much harder to establish as a pure right, than adoptee rights.

    As I understand it, the Canadian law does not work so well for those mothers whose kids sign a veto, and there may be even be legal penalties if those mothers override the veto and make contact. Same for adoptees whose mothers veto. I do not see the Canadian law as a good example to follow here.

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  13. Thanks for the correction, Mary Anne. I recalled that CUB voted not to support Oregon's Measure 58 which gave adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates because the Measure did not provide birthmother access. I understood that later CUB decided to support legislation giving adoptees access even though the legislation did not include birthmother access. I assumed, however, that CUB continued to support birthmother access.

    Origins' board has supported access for both adoptees and birthmothers. However, the Board decided to narrow the areas it's working on in order to increase its effectiveness. Origins is focusing on assuring mothers have adequate information and sufficient time to decide when considering adoption.

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  14. I'd like to add that in 1980 when the then Department of Health and Human Services recommended to Congress federal changes to the adoption laws, after holding several hearings around the country at which birth mothers, adoptees, social workers, adoptive parents, and assorted experts testified, they recommended that not only adoptees be given the names of their original parents but also that birth parents be given the names of the people who adopted them.

    Lee Campbell served on the panel that wrote the proposed legislation, and I will tell you that we in the adoption reform movement were floored. We could hardly believe it.

    Then it went to Congress where hearings were held again. Florence Fisher and I took the train to DC and testified before a Senate subcommittee; I was up shortly after an 'anonymous' birth mother who was brought by NCFA spoke--anonymously. I will admit that by the time I was though I had her in tears, and, right or wrong, I was pleased.

    Congress got thousands of letters from adoptive parents opposing opening the records, and the late Senator from Texas, John Tower, a well known drunk and womanizer as well as ADOPTIVE FATHER, led the movement to keep the records sealed. And that was the end of that.

    So few remember that open records, in the early Eighties, seemed liked a reasonable possibility--for all of us, adopted people as well as first mothers. And today they seem so far away. The battle in the state legislatures has been painfully slow.

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  15. Hi Jane, you know I'm not legally minded:-)

    I think CUB would support legislation that allowed birthmothers to get the ABC as well as adoptees getting the OBC, but so far no such legislation has been proposed here that I know of. CUB is not opposed, but does not make it condition of legislative support.

    What the Board voted to support was legislation that opens records to adoptees only, to get their own OBC, which as you say they did not always support in the past. This support now is not dependent on also opening anything to birthparents.

    I agree with the OUSA concept of assuring mothers considering surrender now and in the future have sufficient time and real informed choice. CUB supports this as well. This is legally much more feasible than opening records to birthparents.

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  16. "This is legally much more feasible than opening records to birthparents."

    I support this as well, but it is like conditional open records that open the records for "all adoptions going forward": It does nothing for mothers who lost children to adoption in the past. :(

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  17. Cat here.

    "Lorraine Dusky said...
    So..what I want to know is how difficult it is for a first mother to be able to locate where her child might be after she gets the amended birth certificate, if no disclosure veto have been filed. And the age at which this is possible...18?"

    In Ontario, the adoptee can apply at the age of 18 for their identifying information.

    First mothers can apply for identifying information on the adoptee's 19th birthday. This is to give the adoptee time - 1 year -to decide if they want their identifying information made available to their first parents.

    I must say that opening the records has made a huge difference in finding people - and for reasons that were not apparent before the records were opened.

    As I have mentioned before, I run a search group. We have had quite a few successful reunions since the records opened. Some searches have only taken weeks, some others only days.

    The open records have also exposed a flaw in the reunion registry run by the government.

    Sometimes mistakes were made in the spelling of names. Some adoptive families did not get the correct birth names of the adoptee so when the adoptee signed up to the registry, a match would not be registered because of the incorrect spelling. One family reunited very quickly when the original documents exposed the spelling error

    (in Ontario, the original birth certificate, the amended birth certificate and the adoption order all have the same serial number)

    Both parties, the adoptee and the first mother, had been on the registry for years but had not been matched up because the names were different. If the records had not been opened, they would still be waiting on that registry just because of a spelling mistake. It makes you wonder how often that happens.

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  18. Cedar,

    Some of us support causes that do not have anything in them for us personally because it is just. I am not gay but support gay rights, not a minority but support minority rights, and not an adoptee but support adoptee rights. Why? Because it is the right thing to do.

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  19. Cat here.

    Maryanne - you are right that Canadian laws are not perfect.

    No country has perfection in regards to access to information or rights. All we can do is our best to make them better with the means that are available and work within the restrictions that prevent us doing more.

    In Canada, there is the Canadian Constitution - the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
    Any violation of that charter can be grounds for a lawsuit which all levels of government are anxious to avoid if they can.

    In the Canadian Charter, it is clear that if you give one group of people rights, you must also give the other group of people reciprocal rights under the equality before the law part,
    section 15.

    In the case of adoption records, it was seen that if adoptees can have identifying information about parents, then parents have an equal and reciprocal legal right to identifying information about the adoptee as both parties are adults in this situation. If this had not been put into the law, lawsuits about being treated equally would have followed in the Canadian law courts.

    Unfortunately, the Canadian Charter was also invoked to get disclosure vetoes that most did not want. 3 adoptees felt that no one had the right to have their identifying information without permission as did one supposed first father.

    Here is Judge Belobaba's Ruling in that case in Ontario
    (this makes for interesting reading for anyone who has the time).

    http://www.canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2007/2007canlii38387/2007canlii38387.html

    This is the part of the Canadian Charter that Judge Belobaba said was violated by not being allowed a disclosure veto.

    "Canadian Charter of Rights
    Section 7
    Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice."

    I know this is difficult to see but the judge ruled that not having a disclosure veto violated the above right.

    It is a constitutional ruling which will not be changed for the forseeable future because of cost, time, and the expectation that success would be very unlikely anyway.

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  20. Cat here.

    One good thing about the Ontario law.

    We made sure that a compulsory legal review was put into that law.

    The Ontario government must review this law by 2014 and listen to us once more. It is another chance to improve that law.

    I would recommend that for other provinces/states as well.

    Maryanne is right about the penalties which I consider to be way out of order. If a person breaches a contact order, they can be fined 50,000 dollars. Corporations that breach that can be fined 250,000 dollars.

    It is one of the things we are going to look at again when the law review comes up.

    I am also going to push for the right of descendants of deceased adoptees to have identifying information (among other things).

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  21. In the United States, we also have something that insures equal protection under the law, the 14th Amendment. It seems that Canada takes their equal protection laws much more seriously than those in the United States, however.

    Equal access to identifying information is totally a 14th Amendment issue, and I have wondered as one after another of the adoptee only bills flounders and dies if part of the reason isn't that the legislators are aware of the fact that these unilateral bills ARE in violation of this Constitutional Right.

    The Freedom of Information Acts in the United States usually specifically disallow Adoption so they are really useless for our purposes. However, since I am almost certain that I didn't sign a surrerder document, I am currently seeking the court records for the termination of my parental rights or whatever there is that allowed my son to be adopted. Those court records, since they only apply to me, should be available to me. I will let you know....

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  22. If as Jane says, "I'm sure many mothers would like information about their child. CUB and Origins-USA support giving mothers access to the amended birth certificate. Unfortunately, I think it will be a long time before mothers are able to access any information."
    Then I have a (BIG) question... What makes it acceptable to give the birtyh mother/father the right to deny the adoptee his right of access? It would seem to me that denying access to adoptees and birth-parents is a very good indicator that any privacy/confidentiality *promises* were made to the Adopters - not anyone else.

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  23. As a birth mother who has recently reunited with my biological son I felt a little empty when he showed me what I guess is called the ABC? It was like I was erased from his life. He showed it to me to prove his DOB and showed me his ss card to show that it matched (which it did so I have no doubts that he is my son even without testing), but the fact that my name was erased from the bc made me feel kind of empty. I had the birth stories for him, not the adoptive mother.

    I said something to him and he kind of saw it too. Like we were both erased from each other. I hope this makes sense. He was not surrendered, he was taken under extreme circumstances under which I was lied to, he was lied to, and it was very bad. So bad in fact that I could probably get journalists to write it up, it was that bad.

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  24. I'm a new "second mother" and I recently received my children's new birth certificates. I'm unhappy about it, because we all know that this "amended" information is untrue. Someday my kids may want to find their "first" mother and if they do, I hope she kept their original certificates. They're something I'd really like them to have.

    http://adoptionaction.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/birth-certificates/

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