Star fights to open adoption court case
Paper wants state's challenge of complex out-of-state adoption to be debated in public
PDF: Petition for Access
PDF: Request for Evidentiary Hearing
By Kevin Corcoran
An Indiana appeals court soon will begin reviewing in secret the case of a single 60-year-old New Jersey man who hired a surrogate mother to deliver twin girls for him. IN THE LEGISLATUREIndiana lawmakers are considering legislation that would make it a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine to accept anything of value for arranging surrogate births in the state.• Senate: The Indiana Senate passed Senate Bill 199 by a 48-0 vote Feb. 27 and sent the measure authored by Sen. Patricia L. Miller, R-Indianapolis, to the House.• House: In the House, Rep. Peggy Welch, D-Bloomington, is the sponsor. The measure has not been scheduled for a hearing by the House Judiciary Committee.IN THE BEGINNINGWhen legal adoption began in the United States, all records were open.• History: Adoption records filed in Indiana before July 9, 1941, were open at the time they were filed and remain open today. But by 1960, more than half of all states had shut down access to modern adoption records, often in response to a 1941 amendment to the Social Security Act that required child welfare records be kept confidential. Some states seeking to meet the federal mandate interpreted this to include adoption files.• Elsewhere: No state makes adoption records from recent decades available to the general public, but at least 35 states, not including Indiana, allow access to non-identifying information. The Indianapolis Star on Thursday filed a petition to open records in the case, which is pitting Indiana's adoption secrecy law against the public's right to know how the courts do business.Indiana's adoption community was roiled by the adoptions of Kathy Zee and Karen Zaria Melinger that followed their premature births at Methodist Hospital in April 2005.Today, the girls are almost 2 and living in Union City, N.J., with their adoptive father, Stephen F. Melinger.The Indiana Department of Child Services is challenging the Melinger adoptions. Child welfare officials have told the Indiana Court of Appeals they intend to question whether the children were hard to place and thus eligible for an out-of-state adoption, according to a person who has seen the court filings. Hard-to-place children can have issues such as a physical or mental disability or a health problem.State officials also have told the court there were violations of interstate laws meant to ensure children placed for adoption across state lines end up in safe homes.The Star, in its petition, said the public's interest would be served by having the legal debate take place in public."There is an incredible amount of interest in the issue of adoption," Star Editor Dennis Ryerson said. "This one raises critical questions about child welfare, how the courts operate, and guardians ad litem. There is a public interest in knowing if things worked as they should have."The girls' adoptions drew the state's attention after hospital employees raised concerns about Melinger's ability to care for the girls before they were discharged from a neonatal intensive-care unit.He showed up in Methodist's neonatal unit to visit the girls with a live bird in the left sleeve of his suit jacket and, later, bird feces on his clothing.A juvenile court judge allowed public access in 2005 to the Melinger child welfare case file, which included information about the adoptions, citing the legal and ethical issues raised by the case. Several months later, a different trial judge removed the child welfare file from public view.The clerk of Indiana's appellate courts, Kevin S. Smith, won't disclose records in the appeal, citing a state law that makes adoption filings strictly secret. Some Indiana lawmakers say his stance takes their goal of creating a zone of privacy around adoptions too far."The principals involved in that case are not confidential," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard D. Bray, R-Martinsville. "That's public policy."A constitutional challengeThe Star argues that the clerk's denial violated the Indiana Constitution and rights of access under the First Amendment to records the appellate judges will rely on to issue their ruling. The first substantive document, a brief by the state laying out its legal arguments, is due April 9.State lawmakers have given the Indiana Supreme Court wide latitude to set disclosure rules for the state's courts, while making adoption records strictly secret. Under the court's administrative rules, petitions for access to confidential court records must show extraordinary circumstances that justify making them public.The Star's petition argues that the benefit of openly debating the Melinger adoptions outweighs any harm from further publicizing the children's names and the circumstances surrounding their births.The petition also questions the constitutionality of Indiana's adoption secrecy law, arguing the legislature overstepped its bounds by passing a law telling the judiciary that adoption records cannot be disclosed."There is a presumption of openness in the operations of our courts, and it's important to preserve that," Ryerson said.Melinger's attorney, Steven C. Litz, won't talk about the case. His Monrovia-based company, Surrogate Mothers, advertises for clients, surrogates and egg donors on the Internet and arranged the twins' births to a then-23-year-old South Carolina woman.Melinger has not returned phone calls to his New Jersey home. After taking a leave of absence to adopt the girls in Indiana, he is back at Roosevelt Elementary School in Union City as an instructor, according to the school's Web site.Hamilton Superior Court Judge William J. Hughes, who handled the adoptions, won't comment, citing criminal penalties for disclosing adoption records.An attorney for Shelley Hiles Haymaker, the children's Hamilton County guardian ad litem, or court-appointed child advocate, said Haymaker would review The Star's filing. "We will let the process take its course and act in what we think is the best interest of the girls," said attorney Timothy Stoesz.Degrees of secrecyHamilton County attorney Steven M. Kirsh, who helped write the state's adoption laws, said adoption records should remain out of public view, regardless of how high-profile the case is.Kirsh said adoptive parents' privacy would be invaded if home studies that included personal information were publicly available. In other instances, adopted children might not want birth parents to find them because those parents abused or neglected them, he said.State Rep. Bob Kuzman, a Democrat from Crown Point who was adopted, said he favors confidentiality to protect families. But he said significant adoption cases should be handled by courts in an open process.Courts across the country appear to allow varying degrees of public access to adoption records during appeals. Rulings by appellate courts in Indiana have always been public.However, The Star's petition notes the state's adoption secrecy law was written so broadly it appears to prohibit the issuance of public court rulings in adoption disputes.These rulings are published by online services such as Westlaw and Lexis and in hardbound law books so attorneys and judges can refer to them for legal guidance. A review of Indiana adoption opinions shows they sometimes refer to the parties by name, including the children. They also disclose details about what transpired in secret before the trial court and quote from closed adoption records.Some favor opennessKatrina Carlisle, an adoption counselor with St. Elizabeth/Coleman Pregnancy & Adoption Services, said she would prefer that adoption records were public, as long as birth mothers are informed from the outset."The stigma of having a baby and not being married is much less today," she said. "We have many women now who are proud of their choice."In addition, Carlisle and other advocates say, the Melinger records should be opened to shed light on steps taken to ensure the girls' welfare."The case has already been opened and been in the paper so much, I don't see how keeping this particular case closed is in the best interests of children," said Cynthia K. Booth, an attorney and executive director of Indianapolis-based Child Advocates.A member of her staff regularly supervised Melinger's visits with the twins at the request of Marion County's juvenile court while they were in foster care.Booth said she would like to know how the trial judge was able to reopen the adoption case months after issuing the initial adoption decree. She also has questions about the process used to determine the children would be safe in New Jersey."Sometimes the light of day is really good for cases involving children.
Here is my response in their comment section
Now the Star knows what it means to be an adoptee in the state of Indiana. They won't even allow adoptees to see their own records. Adoptees have to have someone look at them for them. We are the forever children of adoption. Well I am all grown up. It should be my right to view records that record my birth. It is not up to the state legislature nor the adoption agencies of the state. Adoption agencies use this secrecy thing to cover up what they did to the women back then. What they did was not a pretty picture. Prison inmates were given better treatment than the Girls Who Went Away. Adoption records should be open to those actively living adoption. This includes adoptees, their birth parents, and their adoptive parents. But no we are the forever children of adoption.
Here is my letter to the author of the article:
Dear Mr. Corcoran:
I believe the Indy Star is just now finding out what adoptees, first parents and adoptive parents have been saying for years. I have been fighting with the state legislature for the last year. Many many others have been fighting this long before I came along.
You see, I am an Indiana adoptee. I even had Ms. Carlisle find my first mother. Because of the confidentiality issue, I and thousands like me are not allowed to even see their own records. We are the product of adoption yet we can't even look at them. My own adoptive parents aren't even allowed to look at them. If adoptees and their families live adoption, don't you think that we should be able to decide the legislation concerning our records? Sadly that is not the case. It is the adoption agencies, adoption attorneys like Mr. Kirsh, and the National Council for Adoption that decide for us.
One of the arguments is birth mother confidentiality. Lets look at this. In abortion, contraception, and parenting, women are exercising their right to privacy. In adoption, women sign away ALL their rights when they sign the relinquishment paperwork. In both Oregon and Tennessee, the Appellent courts and Supreme Courts in both of these states have seen this. In Oregon, adoption rates have increased. In both New Hampshire and Oregon, birth parents refusing contact is 1%. Yep a very low number. Yet Indiana law continues to protect them over the rest of us. Another number that was interesting. .4% want contact with a Confidential Intermediary which is what Katrina Carlisle is. Yes POINT FOUR PERCENT. In Oregon this numbers have been consistent for the last five years. New Hampshire has the same statistics.
The bad thing with confidential intermediaries is they control the conversation that they have with our families. If one of them is having a bad day, then that affects the conversation. How do I know? I work for Cingular Wireless as a customer service representative. I know that I control the conversation. It is up to me to make sure that the customer gets their needs taken care of. Its a job that I take a great deal of pleasure in. Katrina Carlisle used to be the executive director of Coleman Adoption Agency. She is also an adoptive parent. She has also written a book called Adoption for Dummies. She is a good person, but as the person paying her to find my birth mother, I question her ability to make contact in good faith in my best interests. I believe that she has her own adoption agency's best interest at heart. I also believe that she doesn't have anyone searching for their families interests at heart. I have spoken with thousands of women across this country including many in Indiana and Illinois. They don't want to be contacted via a confidential intermediary. In Indiana there is no laws regulating confidential intermediaries. They can and have nickled and dimed searchers to death. Catholic Charities is known for taking money from searching individuals and not tell them anything. I know of one woman who was contacted by her adoption agency in order to get her to sign a waiver not to sue them for the wrongs that they committed against her.
I recently made contact with a birth mother who was at the same maternity home a few months after my mother was there. I was told in agonizing detail how those women were treated. They were combed for lice. They were given three sparse meals a day. No snacks allowed. They were not allowed to even go to Church because they were bad girls. They could only walk the block of the home. They would name their children one name but the maternity home staff changed those names. These were pregnant women. Their only crime was to be pregnant. That is the reason why adoption agencies want that secrecy so badly. They don't want it getting out how badly that they treated these women. One of these women were my birth mother. Many of these women are my friends. It horrifies me.
Now the Indy Star knows what it means to be an adoptee from Indiana. I agree with the Indy Star on this issue. Those records need to be opened. The lies, coercion, and secrets need to see the light of day. That is the only way that the adoptees and their families can truly heal from the wrongs of the past.
Amy K. Burt
aka MIchellin (also means mixed blood in German)