Bills would help adopted adults find birth family information

Sunday, May 10, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

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.

Lewis said she began wondering about her origins when she turned 16.

"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.

Interests change

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 compelled Missouri legislators to draft bills that would allow adopted adults to access their original birth certificates.

With less than a week left in the legislative session, it is unlikely the bills will pass. But Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-St. Charles County, said she's hopeful that such legislation will pass in future sessions.

"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."

Knowing what the truth is

A House bill from Davis 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.

"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 Davis sponsored was never sent for debate to the House Children and Families Committee, a committee that Davis chairs.

A promise made

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 thinks 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."

What Missouri allows

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. 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, said in an e-mail that 19 people found biological relatives through the registry in 2008.

Other ways to find information

Adopted adults can also petition the court to receive more current medical records and can use private investigators or private adoption agencies 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.

Trail leads to two half-sisters

The court searcher notified Lewis with news that her birth mother died in 2001. But Lewis used 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 said 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.

'Everyone one else knew but them'

"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 this legislative session that would open adoption records.

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. Like Lewis, Days' mother was unable to access her birth certificate because of current laws.

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

Instead, Days' bill would open records to 18-year-olds who are 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.

Can't talk about ancestors

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.

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."

Desire for answers

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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Cully Ray May 10, 2009 | 3:15 p.m.

That adoption groups should protest that record be opened "retroactively" is a true example of the Double Standard... after all, the laws sealing records were/are enforced retroactively. There could hardly have been any promise of confidentiality made concerning the child when the child was born under laws that gave it the right to it's personal records once it reached the age of majority. Birth mothers were informed of this... how many of them waited, how many mothers dreamed that someday they would have word about their babies?

(Report Comment)
Sandra Young May 10, 2009 | 9:49 p.m.

I am gave birth in 1967 in St. Louis MO at the Salvation Army’s Booth Home for Unwed Mothers. No one ever suggested that I would remain forever anonymous to my child. I was in fact told that he could find me, if he so chose, after his 18th birthday. We have since reunited, and have been in contact for 20 years.

Like me, none of the Mothers I am in daily contact with were NEVER promised any sort of anonymity from their children! There has never been shown to be any such verbiage in any Surrender document in any state, beyond the normal Right to Privacy guaranteed to any average person in the United States. We would not enjoy having our history or family medical information be made available to the public, but most mothers welcome information from the children they surrendered.

During the period that has come to be known as the Baby Scoop Era, recently detailed in a New York Times Best Selling book by Ann Fessler, "The Girls Who Went Away,” an estimated 6 million women surrendered infants for adoption. That time period ran from the end of WW2 to about 1972, when various civil rights laws passed, including Roe v. Wade, that allowed women the ability to keep and raise their children. There were huge profits made then and they continue today. The adoption industry is largely unregulated and accounts for approximately $10 billion a year in profits! That is a very strong incentive for maintaining the status quo in sealed records, while lobbying organizations like the National Council for Adoption working on behalf of for profit agencies like the Edna Gladney Homes continue to make it easier and easier to wrest infants from their mothers.

I raise the possibility that there are many more people who have a stake in the continuation of the sealed records and the information they contain than the mothers, the people who were powerless and isolated at the time of the loss, and continue to be the least powerful today.

Sandy Young,
Alumni, Booth Memorial Home, 1967
Reunited for 20 years

(Report Comment)
lynn kopatich May 11, 2009 | 7:11 a.m.

As an adopted person (Booth Home, Des Moines) and a woman who lost an infant to adoption in Missouri (Florence Crittenton, Kansas City), I am disgusted at continued efforts by many in the State of Missouri to maintain secrecy in adoption. When I became an adult, I expected to be treated like an adult, adopted or not. I neither need nor want the State of Missouri to protect and prevent me from seeing information and documents with my name on them.

Information about my life should not be withheld from me simply because I was born and then lost a child in the years when shame and secrecy surrounded unwed pregnancies and adoption, and exclusion from society and punishment for young mothers was the order of the day. I have my memories of that era but I want my records and information before I die.

(Report Comment)
Leslie Brw May 11, 2009 | 2:55 p.m.

As a mother who lost a child to adoption in the 60's, at no time, did I want, ask for, or promised confidentiality. Nor is it written or implied in the surrender documents.
Adoption agencies and their lobbyists have a "party line" in making mothers the scapegoat as the ones who wanted confidentiality "ensured", when the evidence proves otherwise.
It's way past time legislatures recognize the fact that records were sealed at the time of the adoption finalization and not at the time of the surrender. So in light of this, on who's behalf do closed records really serve when it's not about mothers and their adult children at all?

(Report Comment)
C Winter May 12, 2009 | 7:33 p.m.

""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."""

Christine White...What a load of Horse-Dukey!! In 1964 it would be LCFS that would commandeer my child for adoption and I was never promised 'confidentiality' was implied by Closed Adoption and never knowing where & who my newborn went to.
PLEASE STOP!! with this utterly over-used self-serving, adoption industry rhetoric. And for Gods'Sake..please quit trotting out your Mystery Birthmother as the Voice of all Natural Mothers who lost a child to adoption. This lone Mystery Birthmother does not speak for the thousands upon thousands of former surrendering mothers who are searching for their lost adult children or hoping upon hope that their adult children will find them.
And yes Ms. White we did 'come back' with a very mature voice and mature perspective about all things adoption...especially in regards to how religious adoption agencies such as yours (LCFS)got their hands on thousands upon thousands of newborns during the Baby Scoop Era.

(Report Comment)
C Winter May 12, 2009 | 7:34 p.m.

(Cont.)We are no longer teens or very young women..many of us now grandmothers...with lots of time to reflect upon the past, educate ourselves..and know that your adoption agencies were not protecting 'birthmothers'..rather you all were 'protecting' your Semi-God status in Creating Forever Families! Your kind did not protect young unmarried mothers years ago...we surely don't need your 'protection' today. We are very much adults and are quite capable of protecting our ownselves now and can make fully informed choices...something that was not offered to the BSE Mothers years ago and many other surrendering mothers beyond the BSE Era. Enough is enough..our silence for far too long allowed people like yourself, and your adoption agencies to escape any questioning. But that time is over and I for one, believe that the Adoption Industry and it's minions are the ones that are as fearful as hell, of records being opened..not the natural mothers nor the now adult adoptee. What are your kind so fearful of in regard to Open Records...what is it you don't want the general public to find out? The stuff we natural mothers already know?..but thru your type of adoption propaganda..has made out natural mothers to be cowards, liars, bitter, and angry woman who are stuck in the past?? Well, I will give you this...people like yourself did your job very well..but us OLD mothers are speaking out and people are starting to listen to us and believing us as well. We did not 'move on', nor did we forget our babies. And our former babies are all grown up now..and can speak for themselves as well. None of us need your 'protection' anymore..we have not asked for your 'protection'..except for your Lone Mystery Birthmother. Go protect her and leave us alone to tend to our adult business..which is truly not YOUR business anymore!!

(Report Comment)
Marta Henshaw May 26, 2009 | 12:13 a.m.

Hello, I am an adopted child I was born in the Willows of Kansas City Mo. I have had a wonderful life I am happy married with 4 children. We all know how important genetic information is, for my self there is none for my children there is a 50% gap come on people! I am an adult asking for my rights as an adult for my history can you imagine any other reason than this closed adoption law that would prevent an adult form gaining information that would aid in the health care of my self or my children?
My second frustration is in the matter of heritage I try not to lie, but I have been on all of my life when people say what is your heritage I had to give my adoptive parents
That drives me crazy I was born in 1964 a time where if you had any thing that was "not desirable" in your past a lot of people just did not mention it. I always tell my children do not be critical of others because you do not truly know your heritage. I my degree in Anthropology did I choose this because I do not know my own past? who knows but I am an Adult I can’t believe that I am not trusted with my own birth certificate and that I would need the permission of my Mom and Dad or their death certificates to register to locate a bparent. At this point I am not even sure that I would contact them I am more interested in my genetic and cultural history. Who is the State of Missouri to deny me?

(Report Comment)
Gaye Tannenbaum May 27, 2009 | 9:30 a.m.

It amazes me that Missouri adoption agencies contimue to trot out the same tired old arguments against allowing adult adoptees access to their OWN records while just next door in Kansas, records have never been sealed. So is Kansas ridden with legions of "birthmothers" cowering in fear and regretting that they didn't give birth in Missouri? Since Kansas reportedly has a higher adoption rate than surrounding states, what does that tell you about the choices of these women?

(Report Comment)
angela simmoons June 17, 2010 | 3:30 p.m.

I am new at this. I was born Nov. 3,1956,k.c.,mo. I had older siblings. May have younger ones by now. My biological father gave me up at the age 18 months and suposable the siblings to their birth moms sister. We had diferent birth moms. Last name of father was Simmons. I know a comman last name. No make it easy. Adopted mom is no help.

(Report Comment)
Mary White October 8, 2010 | 12:11 p.m.

I was born in KC Missouri 7/8/75, a lanky bald as a cue ball future red head little girl. I found out I was adopted when kids at school started to make fun of me "not being a real kid". It had gotten around town by way of my A-paternal grandmother's ranting over the hate of my adoption into her family. I was honestly traumatized over it.

Over the years my A-father and I discovered my A-mother to be mentally ill, which explains her treatment of me. I was always property, not her daughter, just property and she told me that daily. I recently found out she destroyed all the documents on my adoption. My A-father does not remember the name of the agency they went through and really can't discuss it with me due to my A-mother's mental health.

I have struggled with this in many ways. I had a hard time joining the ARMY because I didn't have an original birth certificate, I have no family medical information to give doctors and I attempted to be an fertility egg donor and was denied because I was adopted and had no family history I could give them. Besides the emotional toll of never really knowing who you are, it's just wrong for any court system to deny a person their identity.

For some to say that learning the identity of the B-parents will lead to more abortions instead of adoption is so far fetched, it borders on sicence fiction. Comapre it to a murderer, I'm sure they want to put it behind them and never have anyone find out about it; but guess's public information and the entire world has access to it! The court doesn't seal that record now do they? So why can't I know who my B-parents are? The world isn't as interested in searcing for my B-parents, just me.

I'm sure thankful I was adopted, and I venture to bet a few other people are too. I'm sure I'll never get the chance to know who I am, thanks to an unjust justice system. If I had one thing to say to my B-parents, it would be thanks. Thanks for giving me a shot, for unknowingly instilling the drive to never give up and to be a voice to those who have none.

In case my B-parents would ever want to know and also aren't allowed to, I became a soldier who stood at gorund zero 2 weeks post 9/11/01, a police officer, a disaster management coordinator to help put order to cahos in times of natural disaster and terroist attacks, a wife to a wonderfully intelligent and caring man, a mother to the most amazing and curious little boy and a volunteer rescue and recovery diver to help give others a chance too. I'm me and proud of it and thank you for giving me that chance.

(Report Comment)
Melissa attaway August 28, 2011 | 10:26 p.m.

I am a adopted child,I have known since I was told at 14,My great aunt and uncle adopted me and my sister when we were babies,I know the names of my birth parents,but need to know if the man I was told is my father is just that my father.My birth Mom lives in the same state and town I do I have met here face to face,I have a wonderful relationship with my one of my half sisters.But the other information I need to know and would love to see my real birth certificate,I am so happy that someone pushed for this to happen,I tried for years everythng to get my adoption records open and was told I could only get certain information.I want the whole thing,I want the truth

(Report Comment)

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