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By Mary Fortune, Staff Writer
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
Monday, November 26, 2007
Chattanooga, TN - When her children are old enough to ask, Dianne Bracken expects they'll want to know about their birth parents.
"There are some medical issues that may crop up that they may need to know about," said the Chattanooga woman, who has adopted three sons and is in the process of adopting a daughter. "I can understand the child wanting to know."
In Tennessee, the records that contain those details will be available to Ms. Bracken's children when they turn 21. The state is one of just eight that gives adoptees access to their birth records.
Since the law allowing access to those records was upheld in 1999, Tennessee has become a case study in how well the process can work, said Bob Tuke, a Nashville adoption attorney.
"Tennessee, among all states, provides the greatest access with the most sensible protections," he said. "I talk to my colleagues in the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, and they are constantly amazed at how well it's gone."
This month, in conjunction with National Adoption Month, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York released a report calling for all states to open adoption records to people who have not had access to information about their birth families.
Adam Pertman, executive director of the institute and author of the book "Adoption Nation," said Tennessee's experience has shown the process can work.
"We now have real information based on Tennessee's experience to help shape public policy," he said. "Our research shows ... that the overwhelming majority of birth mothers are fine with this and that the overwhelming number of adopted people want this information -- and in some cases really need it for medical and other purposes."
But opponents of the process say the privacy of birth parents who gave up their children decades ago should be paramount.
"It was such a stigma back then. I just think about those girls," Leslie McWilliams, a Chattanooga family law attorney, said of the mothers who gave up their babies. "We made a contract with these people."
Reactions of birth parents to the news that someone will see those records are unpredictable, said Carolyn Jones, post-adoption program coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Children's Services.
"We have people that say, 'This is going to turn my life upside down,' and we have people that are extremely happy that have wondered what had happened to those babies."
In many cases, birth mothers or other family members simply never reply to requests for contact, quietly ending that part of the process, Ms. Jones said.
In 1995, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law allowing access to adoption records after adoptees argued they were being denied information vital to their physical and mental well-being. The law was in effect only two weeks because of legal challenges.
A state court ruled in 1998 that the law was unconstitutional and that the records should remain sealed, but in September 1999 the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the law and the files began to open.
Ms. Jones said the backlog of requests for access was nearly 2,500 when the law was upheld. A large staff of case managers and secretaries chipped away at the list until October 2004, when the department was able to scale back to four workers, she said.
Getting the records takes about eight weeks, though the time varies depending on how long people take to respond and pay the $150 fee, Ms. Jones said. Once they have the records, adoptees can ask department employees to find family members and request communication. Adoptees by law are not allowed to make contact themselves.
"There is a mixed response," Ms. Jones said of the initial phone call to birth families by state employees.
In fiscal 2007, 109 people consented to contact; 43 refused contact; and 119 never returned the contact form, according to records from the state. In fiscal 2006, 164 people consented to contact; 70 refused contact; and 154 never returned the contact form, according to records from the state.
"We have those that have told us not to call them again," Ms. Jones said. "My favorite part is when everybody's happy and they want contact -- that's the most rewarding."
Adoptees often are driven by a need to know medical information, but they also just want to know the details of where they came from, Ms. Jones said.
But Ms. McWilliams said that unexpected phone call or unwanted letter to a birth parent is what opponents of access hoped to prevent.
"Can you imagine being 58 years old (and) you get a letter in the mail and your husband says, 'Why'd you get this letter?'" she said.
And with the advent of the Internet, there are other ways now to find people, including online search groups, that ensure everyone involved is a willing participant, Ms. McWilliams said.
"I'm just opposed to (opening the records), even for health reasons," she said.
Opponents of opening the records predicted adoptees would track down their birth families, force unwanted communication, and that allowing access to the records would discourage adoption, Mr. Tuke said.
"There have been no significant problems," he said. "The parade of horribles that those who opposed it predicted never occurred."
Tennessee reported this month that more than 1,200 children were adopted out of state custody this fiscal year -- more than any other year.
Ms. Bracken, a U.S. Postal Service inspector, spent three years as a foster parent to her two oldest sons before adopting them three years ago through the state. She has enough information about their birth parents that she could help them begin any search for information, she said, and the 2-year-old girl she is adopting in December still has contact with a grandmother.
"She will have a direct link to her grandparents and relatives," Ms. Bracken said. "It's awesome if you can have it that way."
Her sons, Darren, 11, Ziggy, 9 and Donovan, 5, have not asked much about their birth parents, Ms. Bracken said. But she expects her oldest son, especially, to ask eventually.
"My oldest son is really the only one old enough to remember, but he hasn't asked too much about it," she said. "I am sure he will when he gets older."
Darren is a talented artist, Ziggy loves math and Donovan is a born entertainer, Ms. Bracken said. Destiny, the youngest of the bunch, is a strong-willed little girl. Their mother expects them to want to know one day where their talents and temperaments may have begun, she said.
"I don't hide anything from them," she said. "I don't think that's very healthy."
Mr. Pertman said he hopes the adoption institute's research will move other states to consider opening birth records.
"I hope we're in a new chapter," he said.
Mr. Tuke said he thinks Tennessee's process and the report from the adoption institute eventually will prompt change.
"(The study) will carry some weight," he said. "There are more states every year considering it."
E-mail Mary Fortune at email@example.com
ACCESS TO BIRTH RECORDS
n States that have re-established access to birth records for adopted adults since 1996: Alabama, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon and Tennessee
n States where adults always have had access to their birth certificates: Kansas and Alaska
Source: The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute
BY THE NUMBERS
July 1, 2007-Oct. 31, 2007: 135 requests for access to information in Tennessee:
n 2007: 417 requests
n 2006: 485 requests
n 2005: 588 requests
n 2004: 615 requests
n 2003: 566 requests
n 2002: 619 requests
n 2001: number unavailable
n 2000: 929 requests
n 1999: 285
Note: Previous years' numbers reflect a fiscal year that began July 1 and ended June 30.
Source: Tennessee Department of Children's Services