Privacy issue arises in adoption case

The question of how to protect the anonymity of seven birth mothers opens a hearing in a suit challenging Oregon's new open-records law

Wednesday, January 20 1999

By Spencer Heinz of The Oregonian staff

SALEM -- The question of how to maintain the privacy of seven anonymous birth mothers during court proceedings arose Tuesday during the first hearing on a lawsuit that seeks to block Oregon-born adoptees from seeing their original birth certificates.

"Anonymity is at the very core of this lawsuit," said Franklin Hunsaker, a Portland lawyer representing the seven birth mothers who have sued the state under pseudonyms while fighting to protect their identities.

The birth mothers are "scared to death" of losing their confidentiality, added Hunsaker's partner, Portland lawyer Loren Podwill.

Those on the other side of the issue would be willing to agree to a court protective order during proceedings to maintain the mothers' anonymity, said Thomas E. McDermott, a Portland lawyer representing several proponents of unsealing original birth certificates for adult adoptees.

Lawyers could conduct interviews with the anonymous mothers by telephone, Marion County Circuit Judge Albin W. Norblad suggested to lawyers. He set a follow-up meeting for Jan. 28 to discuss procedural questions in a case drawing national attention because of its adoptee open-records issues.

The court case stems from a voter-approved Oregon law that would allow adult, Oregon-born adoptees to see their original birth certificates. Those certificates will contain, in many cases, the long-confidential names of their birth parents.

The law was supposed to become effective on Dec. 3. But on Dec. 1, four anonymous birth mothers sued the state, contending that they were promised confidentiality when they relinquished their children for adoption years ago. The new law's supporters argue that no one had authority to make such promises. Three additional birth mothers have since joined the suit against the state, and Norblad has ordered the law to remain on hold until the case is resolved in court.

Norblad had set Tuesday's hearing to hear arguments on whether to allow into the case several parties who have asked to help the state defend the new law, which voters approved 57 percent to 43 percent as Measure 58 in the Nov. 3 general election. Katherine Georges, an assistant attorney general, filed papers saying in part that the state had no problem with the request; conversely, lawyers for the birth mothers filed papers arguing against the inclusion of the parties listed in the case.

Norblad told lawyers at the end of Tuesday's hearing that he would decide before the end of this week whether to allow any or all of those parties to intervene.

As represented by McDermott, those seeking intervention are Helen Hill, a Nehalem art teacher and chief petitioner for Measure 58; the Oregon Adoptive Rights Association, which includes a mix of birth parents, adoptees and others; Susan Updike, 52, a Scappoose resident and birth mother who says she neither sought nor received any assurances that her identity would be kept from her child; and Curtis Endicott, 50, a St. Helens resident and an adoptee who says he wants to find his birth parents to learn more about his medical conditions. Endicott was not present for Tuesday's hearing, and McDermott told the judge he had recently been hospitalized in Portland.

Reached later by telephone in the hospital, Endicott said he had checked in on Sunday with severe lung problems related to emphysema.

In preparation for the Jan. 28 meeting, Norblad noted wide public interest in the case, and he asked lawyers for their thoughts on his idea of perhaps impaneling a nonbinding "advisory jury" in the event of a trial.

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