December 22, 2009
When Patricia Dukeman started trying to find her biological parents, Ronald Reagan lived in the White House, Michael Jackson's "Beat It" was record of the year, and the Supreme Court decided it was OK for us to use those new VCR things to tape TV shows.
In the 25 years since, Dukeman, 48, has spent a lot of money and learned a lot about Colorado adoption laws.
Yet, she's still searching.
That's partly bad luck. Like a small but significant number of adoptees, she fought long and hard to get her birth certificate, only to discover the information on it is false.
It's also because access to adoption records in Colorado is governed by a patchwork of laws stitched together through years of changing attitudes and knee-jerk reactions.
"It's a complex mix of emotions, politics and money. And rights," said Richard Uhrlaub, co-director of Adoptees in Search — the Colorado Triad Connection.
In April, however, a landmark Colorado Court of Appeals decision unlocked the vault for thousands of adults determined to learn their biological heritage.
The court ruled that, contrary to a widely enforced interpretation, adoptees do not have to hire a confidential intermediary to access their records — as long as they were born between 1951 and 1967, the years that happened to be covered in the particular law the court ruled on.
The ruling also opens up adoption files themselves, which are in the custody of the state Department of Human Services. Those files often contain clues as to why a mother gave up a baby for adoption.
"We have information about why they thought about that, about the reasoning for going through that process," said Sharen Ford, who oversees those records.
Since July, more than 500 people adopted here got their original birth certificates from the health department, an unprecedented number.
However, anyone adopted on June 30, 1951, or earlier, or after July 1, 1967,
Jeff Hannasch, at his Peyton home, looks through stacks of adoption paperwork he has collected over the years. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)must still petition a court and show "good cause" to open the sealed records.
What constitutes good cause varies, Uhrlaub said.
"In one jurisdiction, you could be near death, and they wouldn't open your records.
In still other courtrooms, "just the fact that you've wandered the maze and managed to show up with something in hand is good cause," he said.
Fear of upending lives
Hovering over the process is a belief among some that opening decades-old secrets will not only violate trusts but upend lives and destroy families.
Jeff Hannasch, whose petition prompted the Court of Appeals decision, didn't set out to destroy anything or to change Colorado law.
Growing up outside Colorado Springs, Hannasch, 44, said he always felt set apart from his adopted family. "I didn't look like anybody. I didn't act like anybody. It was very obvious."
To him, maybe. But to many scientists of the time, that would have been nonsense. In 1965, when Hannasch was born, the assumption was that babies were blank slates, tiny flesh-and-blood sponges waiting to absorb what their environment offered.
By the time Hannasch's children were born, genetic tendencies had been identified for everything from heart disease to daredevil behavior; nature eclipsed nurture in child-development theories.
"Things changed when I had kids of my own," said Hannasch, whose kids are 7 and 11.
"I realized adoption doesn't stop with me," he said.
He wanted information but didn't want an intermediary — one reason his petition to get his records was rejected.
That intermediary, most of the time, is Colorado Confidential Intermediary Services.
Since 1990, the nonprofit hasn't been the only option for adult adoptees seeking their records, but it was pretty close.
"Nobody's required to (hire CCIS), but in terms of the best chance they have, I think we're it," said Leslie Zetterstrom, chief intermediary.
For $775, CCIS will search for one biological relative, usually a birth mother. Additional searches are $200 each.
The concept, Zetterstrom said, is partly a recognition that opening old records also may open old wounds.
"We are the buffer," she said.
That's not how Dukeman sees it.
"I'm an adult. I feel like this information was held for ransom," she said.
That is also the way Hannasch saw it.
When his petition to access his records was denied by an El Paso County magistrate, Hannasch said a court clerk told him, " 'Sir, it is this court's duty to protect the rights of your birth parents.' I said, 'Really? And who's protecting my rights?' "
Shame spurred secrecy
Dukeman and Hannasch are among millions born in the decades after World War II, part of a shadowy underside to the nation's exuberant baby boom: children born in maternity homes that were, in reality, hideouts where women, mostly unmarried and mostly young and in shame, could have their babies secretly then surrender them through transactions forever sealed.
But those babies grew up in generations that rolled collective eyes at social stigmas and never learned to take no for an answer. Legions of them demanded to know who they are and where they came from.
Dukeman, who now lives in Florida, battled to get birth documents not because she doesn't love the parents who raised her.
"I had a great childhood, a wonderful life," she said.
But there are questions about who she is that no one can answer. "I have been unable to obtain my own history, my roots."
She did get tidbits: Her birth mother was 16, a student in Adams County, when Dukeman was born. And she was born at Denver's Fairhaven Maternity Home, which operated from 1915 to 1966.
This past spring, after the appeals-court ruling, Dukeman got her birth certificate — only to learn the birth mother's name it bore was false.
That happens occasionally, Zetterstrom said, especially with private maternity homes, and especially with Fairhaven.
When maternity homes closed, they were supposed to give their records to the state, but not all did.
Fairhaven's records are held by a family member of the operators, Zetterstrom said. "She felt that her family mandate had been put on her to protect the women."
That person was unfazed, Zetterstrom said, by the suggestion that some of the women might want to be found.
In the 3,568 searches it conducted through 2008, CCIS found a biological family member in all but 117 of those.
Of those family members still living, 70 percent agreed to be contacted by the adoptee.
Dukeman is one of the 117 non-success stories.
So she scans faces of a certain age for a resemblance and wonders whether her father went to Vietnam. And she frets that time is running out.
"If I have to, I will go through . . . every yearbook for Adams County schools until I find something."