Prying open the past

Adopted children in Texas fight to open records about their births

The bumper sticker on the truck outside of Karen Joiner's Richardson home sums up what she wants. "Adoptees deserve their original birth certificates," it reads. Yet for Joiner, a 40-year-old Missouri native, and thousands of other adoptees nationwide, gaining access to their records is no simple task. Petitioning the courts, being dependent on a judge's ruling--Joiner knows the arduous routine. She has been there herself, having spent years trying to get her original birth certificate to unravel clues to some of her health problems, a gall bladder disease among them. She has yet to see that sheet of paper.

"People have this perception that you walk up to a counter and get this big file of records," says Joiner, sitting in an easy chair in her home as several kittens lie nearby, being nursed by their mother. "It's a fallacy."

Joiner, a member of a statewide not-for-profit organization called the Texas Coalition for Adoption Resources and Education, otherwise known as TxCARE, will join others later this week to challenge laws prevalent in most states--including Texas--that seal birth certificates once adoptions are completed. As TxCARE members did two years ago, they'll be at the Texas Democratic convention in Fort Worth to support the passage of what they have termed the Texas Adoptee Rights Resolution. Simply put, the resolution calls for all adult adoptees to have access to their original birth certificates and court records.

TxCARE's resolution is not a novel concept. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a law in Oregon granting adoptees 21 and older access to their birth records. Alaska, Kansas, Alabama, Delaware, and Tennessee have similar provisions, though Oregon's was the first approved by voters. Globally, countries such as Argentina, England, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Israel, and Korea allow adoptees access to their records. For Joiner and other members of TxCARE, getting their resolution on the state Democratic platform--and two weeks after that, the Republican one--is only the first step. They accomplished the same goal two years back. Then as now, they want to see the resolution taken a step further by becoming state law.

They've found a supporter in state Rep. Tony Goolsby, a Dallas Republican and adoptee himself who two years ago introduced a bill to make open records a reality. "For the rest of your life, you never have the chance to find out 'What am I? Who am I?'" Goolsby, 66, says of current law.

Despite support from family judges, the bill floundered amid opposition from Gov. George Bush and The Gladney Center for Adoption, a premier agency that since its inception in 1887 has placed more than 24,000 children in homes. Goolsby will try again the next legislative session, amending the previous bill with the provision giving birth mothers the choice of whether they want such records opened to the children they put up for adoption.

Still, advocates of sealed records contend that the current system is fine and is the only way to protect the confidentiality of birth mothers. Once adoptions are completed, new records are issued listing only the adoptive couple as the child's parents.

"What you're essentially doing by forcing open records is, you're forcing these women or these adoptive persons to remove any protection to maintain their privacy," says Paige Smith, a spokeswoman for the Fort Worth-based Gladney Center. Smith also argues that the solution lies in what already exists at their agency--a mutual-consent registry in which both a birth parent and adoptee agree to disclosure. "It doesn't force anyone to sacrifice their privacy."

Beyond the mutual-consent registry at Gladney, a birth parent can exchange letters and photos with adoptive parents via the agency if both parties agree. For 26-year-old Stephanie, a birth mother who declined to give her last name, such an arrangement is good enough. About six years ago, she was a student at a Dallas-area college when she became pregnant. She went to the Gladney Center to place her child in an adoptive home. "Medical records should be open and updated," Stephanie says. But other than such non-identifying information, she says that she doesn't believe any legislation should mandate giving all adoptees their original birth certificates, "because of the privacy issue." She's content to receive pictures of her daughter once or twice a year through the agency, just to see how she is doing.

Some adoptees agree. "My biological father and mother entered into an agreement that their identity would be confidential," says Rainey McClung, a 28-year-old court intern who was adopted through the Gladney Center when she was 10 weeks old. "It should be a personal choice, not a mandate," she says. And like Smith and Stephanie, McClung says she believes that a mutual-consent registry is the only viable option for disclosing identifying information about a birth parent.

Still, it's an answer that doesn't satisfy members of TxCARE. Of the 86 licensed agencies in Texas that regularly place children for adoption, only 33 operate a voluntary adoption registry as mandated by the Texas Family Code. Given that fact, many TxCARE members also argue that few birth parents and adoptees are aware of private mutual-consent registries. They maintain that such registries only serve to penalize adoptees whose birth parents die or become incapacitated, or those who are adopted across language, cultural, or geographic lines.

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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