May 11, 2009

Bills would help adopted adults find information

Bills would help adopted adults find birth family information

By Valerie Insinna
May 10, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
JEFFERSON CITY — Ina Lewis, an adopted woman, says she wants a birth
certificate that isn't a work of fiction.

The 76-year-old resident of Blue Springs has known since childhood
that she was adopted, even though her birth certificate states her
adoptive parents gave birth to her.

Missouri made much of the information contained in adoption records
confidential in 1941 — after Lewis was born. Before the law changed to
restrict the personal information of the biological parents, Lewis'
adoptive parents obtained her birth parents' names.

Lewis said she began wondering about her origins when she turned 16.

"At the time my (adoptive) mom had the record in the safety deposit
box, so she went to the safety deposit box and retrieved that for me,
and I was able to read it," she said. "I've always known my original
name, my birth parents' names and facts about them."

Born at Willow's Maternity Home in Kansas City, Lewis was originally
named Phyllis by her mother, a 16-year-old high school student.

Interests change

Lewis said that as a teenager, she was more concerned with learning
about her birth than about her medical records.

But after her adoptive parents died, Lewis could not find any of her
adoption records, including the identifying information of her
biological parents and their medical history.

Because Missouri has closed adoption records — even to adoptees —
Lewis is unable to access any further identifying records, which
include parents' names, dates of birth, places of birth and last known

Stories from Lewis and other adoptees have compelled Missouri
legislators to draft bills that would allow adopted adults to access
their original birth certificates.

With less than a week left in the legislative session, it is unlikely
the bills will pass. But Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-St. Charles County,
said she's hopeful that such legislation will pass in future sessions.

"It's getting too late in the session for it to pass, so I'm not
holding out on getting it passed this year," she said. "But I am
holding out for phenomenal groundwork for next year."

Knowing what the truth is

A House bill from Davis would open adoption records for adults over
the age of 21. Davis has argued that closed records violate civil

"There's something inside all of us that knows what the truth is," she
said. "It's important for some people to ask questions and know their

Davis said birth parents are not given the option of indicating
whether they'd like to keep records open.

"Most birth mothers I've spoken with are not afraid of their children
coming back and finding them," she said. "In fact, to the contrary, in
states that have opened their records, the rate of adoption has gone

Despite her personal viewpoints, the bill Davis sponsored was never
sent for debate to the House Children and Families Committee, a
committee that Davis chairs.

A promise made

The bill has come under fire from adoption groups that argue adoption
records should not be opened retroactively.

Christine White, assistant child welfare director for the Lutheran
Family and Children's Services of Missouri, said adoption agencies
make a promise with birth parents ensuring that their names stay

"One (birth mother) contacted us and said, 'You know, that was a stone
in my heart never to be overturned,' " White said. "I think that's how
a lot of birth parents feel ... they put that away."

Even though White said she thinks breaking that promise would be
detrimental, she said adoption now carries less social stigma for
birth parents than it had in the past.

"The real issue is adoption years ago was very different," she said.
"It was very closed and often, you know, birth parents were sort of
sent away, and they delivered, and they came back."

What Missouri allows

Under Missouri law, adoptees can access non-identifying information,
which includes the medical records, physical description, nationality
and religious background of the parents.

According to White, the medical information is only as good as the
information collected from the birth parents at the time of the
child's birth. Medical history is not updated and could be incomplete
if the adoption agency did not think certain medical details were

Adopted adults can try to obtain identifying information in various

The state Social Services Department runs a free information registry
linking adoptees with their birth parents. For information to be
distributed, Missouri law requires consent from both adoptive parents
and both biological parents.

The department does not make an effort to locate unregistered
biological parents to ask for consent.

Arleasha Mays, assistant communications director for the Social
Services Department, said in an e-mail that 19 people found biological
relatives through the registry in 2008.

Other ways to find information

Adopted adults can also petition the court to receive more current
medical records and can use private investigators or private adoption
agencies to locate biological relatives.

Caroline Pooler, an adopted Kansas City resident, said she hired a
private investigator to research information concerning her biological

"A private investigator can look at the file," she said. "He has the
right to charge me thousands of dollars. What's right about that? It's
my information. "

Pooler said hiring an investigator can cost anywhere from $300 to
$5,000, with less expensive investigators usually requiring an
additional hourly fee.

After the death of her adoptive parents, Lewis said she obtained her
non-identifying records at the Jackson County Courthouse and paid for
a court searcher to look up her biological family.

Trail leads to two half-sisters

The court searcher notified Lewis with news that her birth mother died
in 2001. But Lewis used clues given to her by the court searcher to
find other family members, eventually locating two half-sisters in

Lewis said she decided to contact her half-sisters in 2005. She wrote
them a letter explaining the details of her birth and asking for
current, detailed medical records.

"(My birth mother) released me immediately for adoption, which was a
courageous thing to do and without a doubt the only avenue open for
her," Lewis said in the letter. "I do not even know if she was able to
see or hold me. My baby book opens with me at 3 weeks of age. I have
no idea where I was during that three-week period."

Five days after Lewis wrote the letter, she received a response from
one of her half-sisters. Shortly thereafter, a letter from her other
half-sister arrived.

Neither of her half-sisters had known that their mother had given up a
child for adoption, Lewis said.

'Everyone one else knew but them'

"They called all the other family members, and everyone else knew but
them," she said. "How they kept that a secret all those years, I don't
know. The one cousin told them she just thought they always knew. But
they didn't."

A similar account of a secretive adoption prompted another Missouri
lawmaker to pen a bill this legislative session that would open
adoption records.

Sen. Rita Days, D-St. Louis County, said that when constituents
contacted her about the issue of adoption records, she reflected on
her own mother, who learned she was adopted late in life only after
her adoptive mother made a deathbed confession. Like Lewis, Days'
mother was unable to access her birth certificate because of current

Unlike Davis' bill, which would allow any adopted 21-year-old to
access his or her birth certificate, Days' bill is not retroactive.

Instead, Days' bill would open records to 18-year-olds who are adopted
after Aug. 28, 2009. For adoptions before that date, records would be
opened only after the birth mother's death.

Her proposal came before the Senate General Laws Committee, but it did
not receive a committee vote and has not been debated on the Senate

Can't talk about ancestors

The St. Louis County senator said her mother lived in Louisiana but
believed she was born in Alabama, making the process of obtaining her
adoption records even more difficult.

"I know that she was very distraught by that process, because when you
begin to talk about your ancestors and your ancestry, she could not
participate in a conversation such as that," she said.

During the bill's hearing, Larry Weber, a lobbyist speaking on behalf
of Catholic Charities, expressed support of Days' bill even though the
organization has opposed legislation that would open adoption records
after the fact.

Days said she is not holding out hope that her legislation will ever
be passed.

"I sense the temperature of this body, I sense it very well, and I
think they have no intention of passing anything like this," she said.
"They are very concerned about the religious agencies that have done
these adoptions in the past and their commitment to keeping everything
a secret."

Desire for answers

For Lewis, a connection has been made with her biological mother's
family, but she said she's still working toward obtaining her original
birth certificate.

"We need our original records, where we came from, our beginnings,"
she said, adding that making those records available would do more
than just assist adopted adults in searching for lost relatives. "It's
just to know where we came from and how we came into this world."

Lewis said she and her half-sisters now have a wonderful, loving

"We're planning to get all of our families together this summer for a
big reunion so everybody can meet everybody," she said.

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