Adoption reform activists are hoping a newly enacted Ohio law giving adult adoptees access to their original birth records will inspire other states to follow suit.
“Adoption isn’t a bad thing, but the secrecy around adoption is a bad thing unless there’s a safety issue or something,” said Betsie Norris, executive director of Adoption Network Cleveland and a leader in Adopt Equity Ohio.
“So why are we doing this to people?” she said, referring to the host of states that virtually block adult adoptees from obtaining their records without a court order.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, signed a bill permitting anyone in Ohio adopted from 1964 to 1996 to get access to their original birth certificates.
The change is expected to affect about 400,000 adoptees. People adopted before or after those years were already able to obtain their documents when they turned 18.
Ohio activists tried for decades to get a bill passed to open records in those “closed adoption” years.
But each year, pro-life activists rose in opposition. A common argument in Ohio and elsewhere is that if birth mothers cannot be guaranteed permanent privacy about the placement of their children, they might choose abortion instead.
This year, however, the Ohio Right to Life saw the issue “in a whole new light” and ended its opposition to the bill, Ms. Norris said.
Senate Bill 23 passed unanimously in the Ohio Senate and by a 91-2 vote in the Ohio House.
Mr. Kasich signed it without hesitation. “He told me, ‘We should’ve done this 20 years ago,’” said Ms. Norris, who attended the Dec. 19 signing ceremony.
Other open-records bills haven’t had gubernatorial support: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, conditionally vetoed a bill in 2011, bitterly disappointing adoption advocates who struggled to get it passed in the state Legislature.
In vetoing the bill, Mr. Christie said he weighed the issues carefully. “I believe that additional safeguards are needed to best balance the needs of adoptees with the expectations of birth parents who may wish for their identities to remain private,” Mr. Christie wrote.
Ms. Norris said Mr. Kasich’s enthusiastic signing of the Ohio legislation might inspire Mr. Christie and others about opening the records. “I’m sure the governors talk. I hope this will set a positive precedent,” she said.
Under the new Ohio law, birth parents will have one year to file a “contact-preference” form saying whether and how they welcome contact from a child they have relinquished. They also will have a chance to redact their names from the original birth certificates, although they must file their medical histories. After March 2015, adult adoptees will be able to get their documents.
Back to the past
Politicians have been swayed by emotional “horror stories” — adoptees or birth parents showing up unexpectedly on people’s doorsteps — but evidence shows that few birth parents officially decline all contact with their relinquished children.
In 2011, the American Adoption Congress compiled data from five states that opened records to adult adoptees in the past decade. In those states, 196 birth parents filed forms saying they wanted “no contact” and 1,103 birth parents filed forms saying they “wanted contact.” Nearly 19,000 adult adoptees asked for their records.
Ohio is supposed to publish data on responses so people can see how many people chose which response, Ms. Norris said.
In a survey of nearly 400 adoptees, about 74 percent said they used the Internet and social media to search for their birth families, the Donaldson Adoption Institute said in a report released this month. Searchers were often successful, but for those who struggled, a core reason was not having a birth parent name or other basic information. “We need our names,” one adoptee told Donaldson, according to its report “Untangling the Web II.”
Most states require court orders for adult adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates, while a few states — Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Oregon, Maine and New Hampshire — give adult adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates, according to American Adoption Congress.
Ms. Norris, who was born in 1960, was able to obtain her original birth certificate many years ago and use it in her search. She learned that her birth mother had married her birth father and had more children — which meant Ms. Norris had three siblings.
Their reunion was heartfelt. “My birth mother said, ‘I have been praying for this call for 26 years,’” she said.