Confidentiality rules are barriers to adoption records
Searches can take years, cost big bucks
Marney Rich Keenan / The Detroit News
Daryl Royal was 39 years old when he went searching for his birth parents. Raised in Saginaw in a loving family with seven adopted siblings, Royal was curious about his medical history.
Discovering that his biological father had melanoma, Royal, now 50, has endured two surgeries to treat the skin cancer he inherited. "Had I known sooner," Royal says, "I might have been able to have caught it in time."
It took Royal a little over a year to find his birth parents. That's quick in adoption time. Most searches take years and can be very costly. (Royal has since founded a support group online: www.michigansearching.com.)
That's because, under current Michigan law, an adult adoptee born between 1945 and 1980 may not obtain his or her original birth certificates.
Vital history missing
In effect, those laws, once designed to protect confidentiality, make it extremely difficult for adult adoptees to find vital medical history. As Royal says, "We are two groups of adults who are being protected from each other when we don't want to be protected."
In all but three states, adopted adults do not have the legal right to request and receive their birth certificates. Alaska and Kansas, which had never sealed their records, permit unconditional access to birth certificates.
In 1998, Oregon passed Measure 58, which gives adopted adults the legal right to request and receive their original birth certificates. (Within a day after Oregon's measure went into effect, nearly 2,400 adoptees applied for their previously sealed records.)
A small measure of reform was passed in Michigan in 1994 that allows adult adoptees to work through a court-appointed confidential intermediary who can contact birth parents or adopted children looking for each other if the birth parents have provided a letter of consent with the state's adoption registry.
But that's a big if, says Christine Soley, a confidential intermediary for Macomb County, because many birth parents are unaware they need to file a letter of consent.
The saddest part of her job? "The fact that people wait so long to search," she says. "About 97 percent of the people I have contacted wish to be found."
Soley says most adoptees are not looking for a "real mom." "They are looking to resolve identity issues, to find a sense of self," Soley says.
Mary L. Foess, an adoption reform lobbyist from Vassar, sees sealed records as a civil rights issue. "Adopted adults are the only American citizens who are denied access to their birth certificates, other than those in the witness protection program," she says.
"My amended birth certificate (which lists her adopted name and the names of her adoptive parents as being "born to") is a legal document, but it's legalized fraud."
Now, lobbyists want the Michigan Legislature to allow adopted adults to obtain their sealed original birth certificates. Sen. Jim Barcia, D-Bay City, says he is behind the initiative.
"It is important that our adoption laws in Michigan are up-to-date and reflect new societal attitudes towards the rights of both birth parents and adopted adult children," Barcia says.
"I want to work with our incoming leaders in the House and Senate to see if there is support for granting easier access to these birth records."
Easier access studied
Many studies indicate that most birth parents no longer want anonymity. And many adoptees report that once their birth parents answer all their questions, it strengthens their bonds with their adoptive families.
"The best reunions come out of very secure adoptive parents who understand that it's natural and normal for children to want to know where they came from," Soley says.
"Adoptees know they are their mom and dad until the day they die. That can never be taken away. That's an earned right."