Cindy Sippin solved a very old puzzle recently. She’d set out to build her family tree using a DNA genealogy service, as many adoptees like her do, and had traced 47 “twigs,” her word for ancestral sequences going back to her great-great-grandparents.
Until that day in January of 2014, there was one crucial piece missing. Sitting in her living room poring through records, she blurted out, “Oh my God!”
She’d stumbled onto the identity of her birth mother, whom she’d given up finding decades earlier. A genetic condition had always affected Sippin and her daughter, and the discovery would help them eventually exchange vital family medical history with Sippin’s birth mother.
“I really needed to know what’s going to happen to me, as I’m getting older [and] I’m getting sicker,” Sippin told New York State lawmakers, during a hearing in support of legislation to open birth records for adoptees. Finding her birth mother’s identity, and having her birth mother help her track down other blood relatives she never knew was “like I hit the lottery each day.”
That Sippin and countless adoptees nationwide can’t simply request a copy of the birth certificate created the day they were born, listing birth parents’ names, has been an impassioned cause for advocates. Some famous adoptees, like the Grammy-winning singer Faith Hill, have talked about long searches to find their birth parents. For many adoptees, it’s a fundamental issue of equality with non-adoptees who only have to submit a two-page application with a small processing fee to get a copy of their original birth certificate.
In the last five years, the fight to unseal those records has accelerated. Indiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Hawaii, Colorado, Missouri, Arkansas and New Jersey all passed legislation that would open access to varying degrees. Several other states — including Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York — could join them this year.
“It’s a human rights issue … that birth certificate should belong to the adoptee, morally and ethically,” said David Weprin, the New York State Assemblyman who has just reintroduced a bill that would allow adoptees to submit a simple application to receive a copy of their original birth certificate at age 18, like any non-adopted adult. Birth parents of adoptees would have the option to fill out a form indicating whether or not they would like to be contacted by the adoptee.
Only nine states currently have completely unrestricted access to original birth certificates, according to the Adoptee Rights Law Center. In many more, adoptees are barred by law from accessing them, and need to seek permission from a judge — a costly, arduous process with uncertain prospects, much like the DNA testing and genealogy research adoptees like Sippin undertake to circumvent state bureaucracies for information.
But that doesn’t help them with the administrative hassles that come with having no certified copy of the birth certificate their mothers received after the birth of their child.
The fight to change these laws can be fierce. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) vetoed a bill last month that created a process for accessing those records for the first time, but not without conditions that many adoptee rights groups couldn’t support. Thousands of adoptees and their supporters from across the country sent in postcards opposing the bill, and a hashtag campaign sprung up on social media.
The opposition to opening adoptee birth records consists of a small number of policymakers and family court judges who strongly favor the status quo, and argue that women who relinquished children for adoption at vulnerable moments in their youth deserve privacy. Some adoptee advocates also claim influential people in politics, business and entertainment lobby behind the scenes to keep hidden their own decades-old out-of-wedlock affairs. Given how complicated the issue is and how few voters are directly affected, lawmakers supportive of opening records have had little incentive to override the objections.
A History of Closed Records
Adoptees had open access to their original birth certificates (OBC) until the 1930s, when New York and California became two of the first states to enact legislation that sealed pre-adoptive birth records from the public, including adoptees.
“An OBC is an essential vital record that everyone has access to except adoptees,” said Greg Luce, founder of the Adoptee Rights Law Center. “In the very beginning birth records were open. But there was a lot of stigma to being adopted. They started to seal those records to protect the adoptee and they wanted to prevent any relationship with mostly the birth parents. It was meant to cut off any contact.”
Between 1945 and 1970, a period known in adoption history as the Baby Scoop Era, adoptions were rife with secrecy. During that time frame, many unwed mothers were sent away to maternity homes until their child was born and then immediately relinquished for adoption. Closing access to OBCs enabled those adoptions to remain secret, and the children to grow up in their adoptive families without interference from birth family members.
In the 1980s, as more adoptive families established some level of contact with birth families, research also began to show positive outcomes of openness, although surveys of adoptive families showed they were still weary of contact with their child’s birth family members. A 1997 Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute survey found only 16 percent of respondents approved of birth mothers occasionally sending cards or letters to adoptive families.
But other research by the Donaldson Institute, published in 2012, found that adoptees benefit from openness in their adoptions. Research continues to show that openness benefits adopted children emotionally and the relationships those children have with their adoptive parents.
For Luce, who founded the Adoptee Rights Law Center last year, the fight to unseal records is personal. He’s been trying to gain access to his original birth certificate in Washington, D.C., for the past 15 years. Despite the fact that he already knows who his birth parents are and has met his mother, Luce is still denied access to his own original birth certificate. He’s been waiting since December 2016 to receive the judge’s determination on his request.
“I check the mail every day,” Luce said. “I already know my parents, I know who they are. I just want my record.”
In the 1990s, more and more people began to call for access to records. During that time several states began looking at unsealing records, including Tennessee where the unlawful practices of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society were brought to light. In 1995, Tennessee opened access to birth certificates, but court challenges delayed implementation until 1999. A number of states followed suit.
Indiana Passage, a 25-year Fight
Indiana adoptee Pam Kroskie has spent the last 25 years trying to change access laws. The state sealed access to records for adoptees in 1941. In 1985, the state started a registry that would grant records to the adoptee if they, the adoptive parents and the birth parents signed up. Unfortunately, Kroskie said, many people didn’t realize you had to register in order to access that information.
In fact, Kroskie had found her birth mother through other research and then encouraged her to register so Kroskie could obtain her original birth certificate.
“She never knew the registry existed,” Kroskie said. “It wasn’t a very effective process.”
In 2009, Kroskie attended her first American Adoption Congress conference where everyone was talking about open access. After that, Kroskie started her mission to change the Indiana law.
“It took us eight years,” Kroskie said. “We failed and failed and failed, but kept going back.”
Finally, Kroskie’s advocacy group Indiana Adoptee Network hired a lobbyist to help get their bill in front of lawmakers who could move it through the legislature.
“That made all the difference in the world,” Kroskie said. “Once we had the lobbyist, we won it in two years.”
Indiana’s bill passed in 2016 with the blessing of then-governor Mike Pence. The law goes into effect in July of 2018, and will allow an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 adoptees to access their birth certificates.
New York Launches New Efforts
Now in New York, several bills are on the horizon — including the one Weprin reintroduced, which mostly eliminates hurdles for adoptees, but which adoptee rights groups are eyeing warily.
“The bill as written is without objection, but in the past, when these bills have gotten amended for the worse, David Weprin has not withdrawn support,” said Cathy Swett, the head of the advocacy group New York Adoptee Equality, which helped lead the postcard and hashtag campaigns against the bill Cuomo vetoed. “It’s probably better to do nothing than to move the state backwards.”
Nevertheless, Assemblyman Weprin is committed to supporting this cleaner birth certificate bill as is, and is optimistic it can get the governor’s support.
“I’ve spoken to the governor’s office about working with me and [Staten Island’s State Senator] Andrew Lanza to get past the opposition on the floor,” Weprin told the Chronicle. “If we got this original bill on the floor it would pass overwhelmingly and it sounds like Cuomo is committed to signing. That would be ideal.”
He also responded to Swett’s criticism through a spokesperson, arguing that he viewed the amended bill advocates loathed and Cuomo vetoed as a compromise, a stepping stone to unrestricted access.
The governor’s veto last month came with an encouraging message for advocates.
“I know that for many adoptees, this lack of information can be agonizing, as an individual’s origin, heritage and medical history play a central role in multiple facets of life,” Cuomo said, in his veto letter to the legislature two days before New Year’s. “I would support legislative proposals that allow adoptees greater access to birth records.”
He also directed the state’s Department of Health to establish a study group, which includes Weprin, to make recommendations to the statehouse and governor’s office by April 30, 2018.
“I’m looking forward to working with the health department on this task force and hopefully getting closer to a clean bill where every adoptee who applies for their original birth certificate, gets their original birth certificate,” Weprin said. “I strongly feel it’s a human right. If they happen to be born in New York state they should be no less a citizen than anyone else.”
Kim Phagan-Hansel contributed to this article.