Sunday, March 11, 2007
NORTH CAROLINA SEEKING OPEN RECORDS
The computer that holds the birth records at the Guilford County Courthouse may be state-of-the-art, but it guards a peculiar relic of the past."Certificate of Live Birth" is the title over a blacked-out Register of Deeds entry — this one from 1959 — with only a handwritten note legible: "Contact Raleigh for future copies."That hurried note is the earmark of a closely held, century-old practice — sealed adoptions, designed to protect the identities of tens of thousands of birth parents who relinquished children for adoption in North Carolina.In 2001, the law changed to allow an open process in which biological parents can have contact with the families who adopt and raise their offspring. But records before that date remain under lock and key — an issue that supporters of pending state legislation are trying to change.Under bills introduced in the House and Senate, adoptees who are now adults could obtain their original birth certificates, naming their biological parents and birthplace.Take, for example, Greensboro mother Lori George, 38. At age 3, she was adopted from foster care by a Reidsville couple who gave her a happy upbringing. Nonetheless, she feels an increasing need to know her family and medical history. But unless George spends thousands of dollars for a lawyer to petition the court to release details, all the DSS can give her is "non-identifying information.""You were born in a hospital on February 24, 1969..." begins the government-redacted version of her life, giving few facts about her birth mother, who was 19 and left the baby with another family. George recognizes that given the DSS involvement, the truth may not be "pretty," as she put it. Still, she wants the truth."Someone is dictating whether or not I can 'handle' that information," said George, whose searches of microfiche birth records and efforts to go through a private investigator were fruitless. "The intent may be to protect children, but children become adults capable of making decisions."In 1999, opponents in Raleigh soundly defeated the last such effort at reform — a proposed state registry that would have allowed adoptees to be reunited with birth parents.This time, opponents see the same objection: Chiefly, that a lack of confidentiality might scare people off."We believe that could significantly undermine adoption, and it could make adoption a lot more complicated," said John Rustin, a lobbyist for the N.C. Family Policy Council, a nonprofit conservative research group. "They might choose another alternative, such as abortion."The reality for Edith Votta, a post-adoption specialist at the private Greensboro agency Children's Home Society, is that confidentiality has never been guaranteed. Moreover, Internet databases have revolutionized searches, and birth mothers are being located "left and right."In Votta's experience, birth parents often have the same unresolved longings as the children they gave up. Recently, an adoptee turning 21 called Votta, asking about his birth mother. The next week, the birth mother called Votta looking for her son."I told them that I had to follow the law," she said, "and the law did not allow me to facilitate a meeting. Even if they both wanted one."