Prying open the past

Adopted children in Texas fight to open records about their births

In 1973, Texas barred adopted children from access to their records without a court order based upon what it ambiguously called "good cause." That frustrates people like Karen Joiner. "Adoptees are bound by agreements made by other people. I didn't sign any confidentiality [agreement]. They're claiming birth mother confidentiality when it didn't even exist."

Adoptee Penny Mendez, 47, estimates she has spent about $1,000 in efforts before the courts to obtain her original records. She describes the frustration of being on the phone with a court intermediary and hearing the person--a stranger--flipping through the file containing confidential information Mendez has longed to see.

Mendez's was a private adoption arranged by a lawyer. For more than 20 years, she has tried to find out the truth of her origins. "There's just a part that's missing," she says. "It doesn't matter how much love adoptive parents [have]. It's the not knowing [who] you look like." Eventually, a court granted the Tarrant County woman access to her original records and she reunited with her birth mother, as well as a half-sister.

Knowing your biological parents is "absolutely a right," says Bill Betzen, a social worker in Dallas who serves on the board of directors of the American Adoption Congress, a nonprofit organization founded in 1978. "Everyone else can do it. Why can't adoptees? There's no reason to have that handicap."

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