Sarah began her journey to the past at the Multnomah County (Portland) courthouse, treading up the worn marble staircase with eager anticipation. After a seven week wait while court staff located the records, and redacted the home study, she finally got to see her file. Her home study was not a separate document but a set of facts intertwined with other material in the documents. Below is what Sarah found and her reaction, in her own words:
"According to the Consent to Adopt, I was 'needy and dependent.' Clearly no one considered that what I needed was my mother!
The surrender document took me several days to read through because it was so painful and some of the language shocked me:
'I understand the policy of said (adoption agency) whereby its consent to adopt is given after a child has lived in the adoptive home for a period of time that may be as long as a year or more. I realize that this policy is dependent upon assurance to the adoptive family that the (agency) has full and continuing responsibility for the child and that no authority to revoke this document is retained by me. I thoroughly approve of this policy as being for the best welfare of said child, and in consideration of its special benefit to said child, I separately and apart from all other circumstances waive and relinquish any and all rights on my part to revoke this document.'
Repository of sealed files
Stairway to the pastWhat abject cruelty to force my mother to read about the supposed benefits to the adoptive family, make it part of my mother’s signed statement that she “thoroughly approves”, and call it a “special benefit” to me! Why couldn’t the agency offer her the same benefit to keep me?
'I am executing this surrender and release of my own free will, without undue influence from anyone, and after prolonged deliberation.'I know the story behind my surrender, and this is a false statement. The agency had to have known this. My mother had few resources and little family support. There was almost no social support at that time, and the agency certainly wasn't offering any resources. My mother and 3-year-old sister would be going to live with my mother’s older sister, my aunt – but my aunt had made it clear that I was not welcome. All kinds of resources and guarantees for the adoptive parents, and none for my mother? Capitalize on her vulnerability, her distress at being a divorced Catholic woman with two children when she comes to you for help, and help her out of her child? She told me once that the agency tried to talk her into surrendering her older child as well. So much for no undue influence.
It's also noteworthy that there is nothing that addresses the issue of confidentiality, secrecy, privacy, et cetera. No statement that my natural mother wanted or asked for any of those things or that she was being promised any of those things. In fact, there is nothing promised to my mother, it's all about what she's giving them in surrendering me.
Another shock, from the report from the adoption agency, was the return policy:
'...if said child should be found in a reasonable time to be mentally or physically defective or afflicted with tuberculosis, gonorrhea, syphilis, or requiring extended medical or surgical treatment, or difficult to place because of behavior problems, then said child may be returned to this Court upon making proper showing.'Which completely contradicts this part from the Petition for Adoption:
'WHEREFORE, petitioners pray for an order of this Honorable Court that said minor child be adopted by them as their own child to all legal intents and purposes the same as if born to them in lawful wedlock, that said child’s name be changed....'Their own words condemn them in their fiction that adoption is 'as if born to.' Since when do natural-born children come with a return policy?
The Decree concludes:
'IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that all papers on file herein relating to the personal or family history of said child and all files and records of this court pertaining to the adoption of said child be sealed, to be unsealed only on judicial order of this court, as provided by law.'
And since when do natural-born children have all of their personal and family history sealed?"
Sarah writes that "This is a huge contention for me. In conversations with my mother, she was ADAMENT that she never told them any of this. For one thing, she had always known she was German & Irish, and would have told them so. And she had no idea what my father's lineage was. I believe [the agency] took a guess based on my parents' appearance and their names. My theory has been that they picked out 'Dutch' because my mother's maiden name was Miller, and we've had Miller Dutch Boy paint here for generations. But she was certain she never told them she was Dutch because she wasn't.!
"Overall I hate everything these documents represent in their attempt to normalize a tragedy with neutral language, and in the way they represent the victory of the privileged over the vulnerable." Despite that, Sarah was satisfied to be able to see them, to unravel another thread of her life.
Two other adoptees who obtained their court files have emailed me about their experiences. Like Sarah
one found a lot of "blacked out" material, perhaps more than was necessary to redact the information which would have been in a home study if it had been a separate document. Court staff may have erred on the side of caution, something only a legal action can determine.
Another adoptee, Carolyn, found her birth father's name in the court file, information which was not on her original birth certificate. With the help of search angels, she has a name to go with her non-identifying information and a location in California. She's planning to move forward to contact him.
While other states are still struggling with whether to allow adoptees access to their original birth certificates, Oregon has moved one big leap forward for humanity by allowing them to see their court records. Whether viewing these records brings anger or joy, it is unquestionably their right to see them.--jane
Opening court records to adoptees and first parents
Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience by Betty Jean Lifton
"Important and powerful...[the author] is concerned not just with adoptees but with the experience of adoptive parents and birth parents."
Adoptees and first parents alike can learn a great deal about the adoptee experience. This can be a great resource when going into or sustaining reunion. Highly recommended.