February 23, 2009

Looking for Mother

Woman seeks birth mom's identity

Letters written by the birth mother of Cathy
Lauderdale of Columbia lack the woman’s name and place of residence.
Such information has been censored in compliance with Missouri law. A
bill has been filed that could change the adoption records law.
Sunday, February 22, 2009


At her kitchen table Saturday, Cathy Lauderdale sat reading a letter
that recently arrived in her mailbox.

In an elegant longhand, the correspondent wrote: “To my very special
daughter I have never met, I want you to know that all these years I
have not forgotten the day you were born and how beautiful you were
while holding you in my arms for the very first and last time.”

Lauderdale, 54, is the mother of three adult children, but she does
not know who her mother is. Given up for adoption as an infant, she
began searching for her birth mother about 10 years ago. Just months
ago, she learned that her mother also is searching for her. Lauderdale
petitioned the child placement agency, the Children’s Home Society, to
be reunited.

The agency referred Lauderdale to the court system, and she mailed
documents to the 22nd Circuit Court in St. Louis asking that her
adoption records be unsealed. But that’s where she hit a brick wall.
Missouri state law bars the release of “identifying information”
unless there is written permission from both biological parents and
the adoptee.

In Lauderdale’s case, a judge ruled that her mother’s ex-husband and
her biological father both must sign off on disclosure of the records.
The ex-husband is not on speaking terms with her mother, said
Lauderdale, and the biological father cannot be found.

“Nobody could proceed without these stupid signatures. That’s pretty
much it,” Lauderdale said. “It’s mission impossible.”

So Lauderdale is stuck, puzzling through the letter for any clues
about who or where her birth mother is. She has learned the woman is
72. Other identifying information in the letters has been censored by
the Children’s Home Society. Lauderdale said one passage gives her an
idea about her mother: “We have lots of seagulls flying nearby, and
the sand cranes live here all year long.”

“That sounds like Florida,” she said. “It must be somewhere warm.”

Lauderdale and others in similar circumstances might benefit from the
efforts of the Adoption Triad Connection of Mid-Missouri, which is
pushing for a bill introduced in the Missouri House in December by
Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-St. Charles County.

HB 48 would allow any adopted person at age 21 to get an unaltered
version of his or her birth certificate. Missouri now alters the birth
certificates of adopted children, inserting names of the adoptive
parents for those of the biological parents. The proposed law also
would enable any adoptee to get copies of his or her adoption records,
including a “social history” and the identity of the state agency
involved in the adoption or any related court records.

The Triad group, including Nancy Bennett of Columbia, said adoptees
have a right to that information.

The proposed changes in adoption law have stirred opposition from the
Missouri Catholic Conference. Larry Weber, executive director of the
Catholic conference, said women who gave children up for adoption
before 1986 were promised complete anonymity under the law, a promise
that should be kept.

(*Research in the six U.S. states that have passed legislation to restore
the right of adoptees to obtain their original birth certificate has found
that "sealed records" laws were enacted for the benefit of the adoptive
family, not to protect the privacy of the birthmother. In fact, even in law
today and in the past, if a mother relinquishes her child for adoption, but
for some reason the child is not legally adopted and remains in foster care,
the child's original birth certificate is never sealed.)

“They have lived with the assumption based on the laws at the time
that they could make a clean break or clean start,” Weber said. “Now
that’s not a modern understanding, but we’ve got to keep in mind we’re
talking about society as it was back then, and there was a lot of
shame involved in giving up a child.”

Weber said he would support a change to the Missouri Adoption Registry
to require fewer signatures to facilitate a first meeting between one
parent and the adoptee, but he said he would not support giving all
the rights to the child. “This bill puts the adoptive child completely
in the driver’s seat,” he said.

Davis disagrees. “The only people who really have a right to oppose
the bill should be the birth mothers,” she said, “but we’re not
hearing from them. We’re hearing from the lawyers, and they’re making
a broad leap in assuming the birth mothers don’t want to be contacted,
and they’re flat wrong.”

Bennett never met her birth mother, who gave her up for adoption at
age 19 and later committed suicide. She said most birth mothers want
to meet their children later in life. “When you’re 16 and you give up
a child, you have a whole different perspective than you do when
you’re 25 or 50,” she said.

With the help of Triad, Lauderdale has registered with the
International Soundex Reunion Registry, a Nevada group. Lauderdale
asked her caseworker there to ask her birth mother to join the
registry. When that happens, she said, the registry will put both
women in contact.

“In my situation, my ex-husband is adopted and I’m adopted, so my
children have no cousins or anything, and they don’t know anything
about their past,” Lauderdale said. “And they’re real excited. I’m
trying to keep my expectations low, but they’re getting pretty high.
You know, I’ve never had anybody who looked like me before.”