illustration by EUNICE MOYLE
Adoption in America one person's struggle to be treated like a legitimate adult.
BY PATTY WENTZ
LEAD STORY SIDEBAR
Opponents of Measure 58 say access to your parents' names is a privilege, not a right.
Bastard: 1. An
illegitimate child. 2. Something of irregular or inferior origin, kind or form. 3. A mean or disagreeable person.
There are 2,276 people registered with Oregon's mutual-consent registry; the majority are adoptees searching for birth parents.
Oct. 3 is Registration Day. Around Oregon there will be special sites where volunteers will help adoptees and birth parents sign up with the International Soundex Reunion Registry.
ISRR is the world's largest search database. Registrars process 1,000 to 1,500 applications every month from adoptees, birth
parents and other relatives who are trying to find each other. Last year there were 603 matches.
says it's time for adoptees to get past the "tissue box" mentality and fight for civil rights.
Since 1993, 185 people have asked the state of Oregon to conduct searches, resulting in 93 matches and 34 declines (from 26 birth mothers, six adoptees and one sibling of an adoptee).
Adoptees can sign up with the state mutual-consent registry or for a search at age 18. For more information call Services for Children and Families in Salem at 945-6643.
In Kansas and Alaska, adult adoptees can get their original birth certificates. Latest figures from Kansas report that from 1995 to 1997 there were 610 requests.
There are an estimated six to eight million adoptees in America. From July 1997 to June 1998, there were 2,096 petitions for adoption filed with the state of Oregon.
Adoption historian W. Wayne Carp spent months going through the adoption files of the Children's Home Society of Washington. He says he has never found a written promise of confidentiality to a birth mother.
Reports show that, once found, 90 percent of birth mothers or more want at least minimal contact with adoptees.
In 19TK, Washington state passed a law that allowed people adopted after that year access to their original birth certificates. It was not retroactive. Oregon has no similar law.
Proponents of open records say it's a myth that states can be trusted to mediate between birth parents and adoptees with integrity. In Washington state, confidential intermediaries are hired directly by the parties searching; there are no standards for training and no controls over fees.
Washington Adoptees Rights Movement trains intermediaries and charges $350 to petition the courts for records and $250 for non-court searches.
The non-identifying information given to adoptees is a
snapshot of the birth parents' lives. For example, it doesn't include important details about medical conditions that may have developed since the adoption.
I am adopted.
It's a fact that usually doesn't have much of an effect on my daily life. It isn't like being black in a white city such as Portland, where skin color is enough to turn heads. It isn't like being gay in a state where there is a group dedicated to making homosexuality illegal. But this year, it's important because Measure 58 is on the ballot.
The measure would overturn a 1957 state law that permanently and retroactively sealed the original birth certificates of all adoptees.
Like all other states, Oregon creates a new birth certificate at the time of adoption, making it appear that the adoptive parents birthed the child, then permanently seals the original document.
If 58 were to pass, all people who were adopted in Oregon could learn the identity of their birth parents when they turn 21; the measure would even apply to people whose records have been sealed for more than 40 years.
Measure 58 is attracting national attention. If it passes, it will signify a growing movement towards open records across the country. Also, this is the first time such an issue has been put directly before the voters by an organized group of adoptees. More than that, however, the measure is stirring debate on old promises of confidentiality made to birth mothers, the shame of illegitimacy and the role of the state in domestic relationships.
For me, the issue is whether I have the right to call my mother on the phone.
In 1968, when I was five years old, the woman I thought had given birth to me told me a lie. With words she had probably learned from a brochure given to her by an agency, she told me I was adopted. In my converted attic bedroom of our small house in our small town at the base of the northern Cascades, she told me she wasn't my mother. She sat with me on the gold trunk at the foot of my bed and said that she and my dad had wanted very badly to have children but were unable to the normal way, so they contacted a place in Seattle that matched parents who needed babies with babies who needed parents.
That part was true.
As she talked, I imagined a long white room lined with cribs of crying babies, more like a barracks than a nursery, and my parents waiting anxiously at a doorway while a nurse walks the length of the room, holding me in her arms and then presenting me to my parents like an offering. "We fell in love with you instantly," my mom said. I believed that meant they turned their backs on the other babies and chose me.
When I asked what had happened to my real parents, she told me that they had died in a car wreck and that they were in heaven watching over me. I asked if I was with them in the car. She said yes but told me I had been thrown clear and lived. I imagined an infant in swaddling clothes flying through the air and landing in a garbage can, crying plaintively while a car burned nearby.
That was a lie.
I don't remember when I understood that my birth mother was probably alive and not the victim of a tragic auto accident. Maybe it was the first time I met another adoptee and learned that her parents had died in a car crash, too, or maybe I saw something on television about a teen mother. It was like coming to the realization that there is no Santa Claus--there were too many clues to ignore. At some point I asked my mother about it. She admitted the lie but told me she had thought it best at the time. Dead parents were replaced by young people who got in over their heads and saw adoption as a way out. That's what I assumed, anyway.
It was my adoptive grandmother who first spurred in me the desire to replace the fantasies and suppositions with the truth.
Now 82, and living in Yakima, Wash., she has always been intensely curious about my birth parents. Recently, she told me that this stems from the fact that she did not know her own father until she was in her early teens because her mother had left him. She says a person has a biological urge to connect with family, and even though it turned out her father was "nothing much," she felt a missing piece of her filled after she met him.
At her urging, when I was 19 years old and barely scraping out a living in western Washington, I contacted a "search and support" group called Washington Adoptees Reunion Movement. I think I found them in the yellow pages under "Adoption." Oregon has a similar group, called Oregon Adoptees Rights Association.
It was at that point I got my first glimpse of the labyrinth of state laws, adoption agencies and lawyer practices that combine to keep the truth about an adopted person's background a secret.
The first official lie is my birth certificate; it has been altered so that it appears as if my adopted folks gave birth to me in a Seattle hospital they've never been to. It plays the role of an innocent frontman for the secret files the adoption agency and the state keep on me.
Through WARM, I learned that the system does have an official weak spot--adoptees can petition the courts
to have the records opened if a judge deems there is just cause. However, that rarely happens.
WARM sponsors support groups where adoptees get together to share strategies on breaking through the system. More than that, it provides a "safe place" for adoptees to "share."
There is a theory in some adoption circles that adoptees suffer a "primal wound" when they are "ripped away" from their birth mothers that doesn'theal until they do a search.
I don't feel damaged. After all, when I was adopted, it was 1963,
a time when unwed mothers were shunned by society and unable to get jobs or stay in school and when abortion was illegal and dangerous. The fact that she gave me away was nothing personal; in the same position, I probably would have done the same thing.
The WARM literature led me to believe that I needed to feel more victimized than I did to pursue a search, so I let it drop.
About five years ago, though, my grandmother pushed me again, this time inadvertently.
During a visit in Yakima, we chatted about baby names because several of my cousins had been having children. She lamented how she had always hated her name, Gertrude, and I said that I had never felt that my name fit me. She said, "Well, your first name was pretty." I had no idea what she meant and said so. "You know, your first name, Rebecca," she said, "the one your birth mother gave you." She thought I already knew it. I didn't.
I had always assumed my birth mother knew going into the hospital that she would not be taking me home with her, so I was confused by the idea that she had given me a name. My assumption was based on a checklist my adoptive mom had given me from the adoption files. It had been given to my birth mother by the hospital where I was born. It was a generic list for new moms to help them remember the things to take to the hospital with them, such as the phone numbers of relatives to call after the birth and a robe to wear when receiving visitors.
The few items on the list included a blanket to wrap the baby up in for the ride home. This and the other similar items had been crossed off the list in black pen. Whether the hospital officials crossed them off out of callousness or kindness or my birth mother did it herself out of grief, relief or rebelliousness was impossible for me to know.
That night, when I got home, I called my grandmother and asked her to write down everything she remembered about my adoption. She mailed the information to me the next day. The letter included the name of the agency through which I had been adopted.
I called the agency, which is in Seattle. It felt as if I was doing something illicit. When the receptionist answered the phone, I said as evenly as I could manage, "I was adopted through your agency 30 years ago." I didn't know what to expect. Possibly a transfer to an executive director to whom I would have to plead my case? Instead, I was transferred to a woman who told me she was a post-adoption specialist who dealt with all searching adoptees. There were enough people looking for their birth parents that it took a dedicated (though part-time) staff member to handle the calls.
She spoke like a social worker--in soft tones and non-threatening language. She said that many birth mothers had gone on with their lives and hadn't told their new families about the babies they'd relinquished, so it wouldn't be right for me to show up on my mother's doorstep. She also told me that adoptees who search are often so disappointed by what they find out that it is better to leave the secrets of the past alone. But she said the agency could provide me with "non-identifying" information, for a $60 fee. She did not know what that would consist of because birth parents gave varying amounts of information, but she said she would pull the file when I sent the money and would send me all she could--unless either of my birth parents had filed a waiver of confidentiality since the adoption. If that was the case, she would be able to send me their names, too.
After I hung up the phone, I envisioned her pulling the file and sifting through it, deciding what would be enough to satisfy my curiosity. It was infuriating that a woman I'd never met could know the name of my birth parents but I couldn't.
I sent the money. I imagined everything from getting my birth mother's name to finding out I had been conceived in a rape. I wanted to know how she felt while she was pregnant and what she did after she turned me over. I wanted to know what her laugh sounded like and if she was happy. Where did she live? Was she from Seattle or had she gone there from somewhere else in the state to hide her shame from her family and give birth to me on her own? Had she meant for me to keep the name she'd given me or had she followed a common practice of the time without thinking about it much?
I wanted to know how much of who I am came from her and my birth father. Not just the physical characteristics, like my crooked teeth and brown eyes, but the parts of my personality I didn't see reflected in the family I'd grown up with--my sense of humor that none of them understood, the kinds of books I read, the desire to go to college. I was also fiercely curious to find out my nationality and ethnicity. Greek? Jewish? Euro-mutt?
I wanted to know if there were any hereditary diseases I should be aware of. As I get older, it becomes more frightening to put "not applicable" on forms that ask for family medical history.
I wanted to know about my parents as a couple. Had they been in love or was it a one-night stand? Did they stay in contact after she found out she was pregnant or had he abandoned her? Did he even know that she had been pregnant?
I wanted to know not just about my mother and father, but about their parents and uncles and aunts.
I grew up in a family of storytellers and yarn spinners who can trace their lineage back for generations; the antics of long-dead ancestors were the highlight of family get-togethers. They are all rooted in the West and to each other, whereas I seemingly appeared from nowhere, first as an orphan girl, then as an accident of passion (I hoped). I wanted to get some of that history for myself.
The letter that arrived weeks later was like one plum to a starving person--sweet but not nearly enough.
It was separated in two parts, by mother and father. I learned my mother is French, Spanish, English, German, Irish and Dutch. Her interests at the time of my adoption were reported to be reading, music, theater, athletics and writing. She was described as being pretty with hazel eyes, brown hair and a dark complexion. She was 5 feet 6 inches tall. She had graduated from high school and completed one year of college. She was 20 years old when
I was born. She had three siblings, one of whom was a brother with cerebral palsy. She was Protestant.
My father was 22, six feet tall, thin, with dark brown hair, and
"was reported to be nice looking and intelligent." His interests were electronics and writing. He had also gone to college. He had one sister. His mother was French, and his father was German. No one knew where his father was. That led me to conjecture that my father had been a war baby and that there was a tragic story there. He listed no religion or occupation.
At the age of 30, in the time it took to read a few hundred words,
I learned more about where I came from than I had ever known before. But I still knew next to nothing.
Adoptees are at the whim of social workers when it comes to getting non-identifying information. In adoption circles, these gatekeepers have been bestowed almost mythical personae. There are stories of villains, those who refuse to give any information, and heroes, sympathizers who, when meeting with an adoptee, will pretend to get called from the room and leave the adoption file open on the desk.
In 1993, months after I got my non-identifying information, Washington state passed a law designed to give uniformity to the information an adopted person could receive by creating a detailed list. Oregon had passed a similar law in the same year. The list consists of most of the information I received--with one critical addition: the first names of the birth parents.
I wanted to know my mother's and father's first names. After the law was passed, I again requested non-identifying information and received an exact copy of the first letter. I had to write back and include a copy of the statute before the caseworker would tell me their first names.
She also told me there had been no attempt of contact from them.
I have not continued my search.
The agency says there has been
no contact from my birth family, though I don't completely trust that's true. I have also registered with the International Soundex Reunion Registry, the largest database of adoptees and birth mothers in the world.
There are ways to continue searching within the system, but they are so controlled by strangers that I would never use them.
I could hire a confidential intermediary in the state of Washington who would have the right to pull my file, get the name of my birth parents and search for them on my behalf. Once they were found, this representative of the state of Washington would call my birth mother, tell her I was looking for her and ask her if she wanted to talk to me or exchange information.
Oregon's system is more regulated. If the birth mother doesn't respond, the confidential intermediary will try again in 90 days. If she still refuses, the file is sealed again.
Oregon requires adoptees and birth parents to go through counseling before they can meet each other.
On the surface, this seems a reasonable compromise in balancing the rights of two people, an adoptee who wants to know where she came from and a birth mother who may have gone into hiding. But it's really just the state trying to grapple control over something that long ago got away from it.
If I wanted to continue my search, I would follow the lead of the innumerable adoptees and birth parents who have left the state behind. The Internet has hundreds, if not thousands, of Web sites, news groups and
e-mailing lists to support searching adoptees and birth parents.
I was not adopted in Oregon, so Measure 58 will not affect me directly. Still, I feel like a suffragette on the eve of the 1912 state election, when Oregon voters were deciding whether to give women the vote. If this measure passes in Oregon, it will spread to the other states. There are already plans to put it on the ballot in Washington in 2000.
Opponents of the measure argue in terms of what I might do with my birth certificate if I got it: I may ruin someone's life by showing up on her doorstep, in one thoughtless and selfish gesture destroying the years of denial that have allowed my birth mother to go on with her life.
That's hard to disagree with. While I believe myself to be a rational person, if I knew my birth mother's name, I might at some point do something to make her uncomfortable. And it's true that, of her own volition or because she was a victim of the social mores of her time, she did invite the state to help her deal with an unwanted pregnancy. That means her identity is protected, whether she wants it to be or not.
But you cannot base an argument about rights on a series of possible outcomes. That's like denying free speech for fear of what someone might say.
I am 35 years old, long removed from the infant who had no say in the contract that was made among my birth mother, adoptive parents and the state. And the identity of my birth mother does not belong to her alone--it's mine, too.
originally published September 16, 1998