PA, Adoptee Rights, and an Amended Bill--What now?

Photo (c) Julie Stromberg
On Tuesday, September 16, 2014, the Pennsylvania Senate Aging and Youth Committee held a voting hearing for HB 162.  As drafted, HB 162 would restore the right of PA-born adult adoptees, nineteen years or older, to access a copy of their original birth certificate (OBC) with the same regard under the law enjoyed by every other PA-born citizen.

When a child is adopted in the U.S., a amended birth record replaces their OBC that lists their adoptive parents as their biological parents.  In 48 states, the OBC is sealed.  Every single state has a law on the books providing for the release of the OBC to the adoptee at the discretion of a judge in addition to other avenues of access. However, only six states honor the right of adult adoptees to access their OBC with the same regard as all other people.

The history of how HB 162 came to be is peculiar. Until 1985, Pennsylvania was one of three states that allowed adoptees equal access to their OBCs.  Following the passing of Roe v. Wade, concerns arose in religious pro-life communities that adoptees accessing their OBCs would increase abortion rates. They first questioned the interpretation of the law. In 1978, the PA Attorney General issued an official statement identifying OBCs as separate from sealed adoption records and confirmed that Vital Statistics should continue to release OBCs to adult adoptees.

In response, Representative Stephen Freind drafted a bill that allowed access to OBCs only through a confusing network of courts or through a passive mutual consent registry.  And yes, it's that Stephen Freind, the creator of Pennsylvania's Abortion Control Act--the first state-based challenge to Roe vs. Wade--and proclaimer that women cannot conceive from rape.  His efforts passed as the Adoption Act of 1984.

Two amendments were on the table this past Tuesday. One would add contact preference language into HB 162 as seen in Maine's law.  The other, per the hearing agenda, would allow original mothers a three-year window to veto their adult son or daughter's OBC access.  Sadly, with a vote of 9-2, the committee passed HB 162 with the second amendment, favoring the disclosure veto.

The amendment is disturbing for a number of reasons, the first being that it's discriminatory and will leave many adoptees behind.  Second, the disclosure veto is eerily similar to one proposed and rejected in 1984 (the "Vroon" amendment).  The fact that we're just now passing a disclosure veto evidences a least a 30 year gap between where the legislature should be on this issue and where they actually are.  As Representative Lashinger said in 1984 regarding what would soon become the infamous Adoption Act of 1984,
"Times have changed considerably.....It is a shame the legislation does not take into account the change in attitudes, but the Vroon amendment at least helps keep it somewhere between the 20th century and the Dark Ages."
Lashinger said this 11 months before my birth; I am almost thirty. We are still in the Dark Ages, friends.

Most alarmingly, although the hearing agenda clearly stated that the disclosure veto option would last for three years (January 1, 2018), in the actual bill text this is true only for adoptions initiated prior to the bill's effective date.  For adoptions initiated after the bill's effective date, the veto option is intended to be in effect permanently.  Although OBCs are not sealed until an adoption is decreed, this amendment gives surrendering parents the right to veto access to the OBC immediately after termination of parental rights. This includes cases of involuntary termination.  It is unclear how foster youth, foster care workers, and fostered adults aging out of care will manage when in need of a birth record for identification and their access has been vetoed. For fostered/non-adopted persons, their OBC is their certified birth record.

The amendment places education about the disclosure veto in the hands of adoption agencies. Lastly, the amendment legally compels original parents to release their own personal health information, which makes my feminist skin crawl.

Some have supported this amendment, and others like it nationwide, suggesting that we must give up something in order to get something.  The problem with supporting this amendment is that what is being given up is not mine to give. The OBCs of the would-be vetoed adult adoptees are not mine to give up. The OBCs of today's fostered and adopted youth are not mine to give up. The personal health information of original parents is not mine to give up.

OBC access was expanded in my birth state of Tennessee while I was still a child. Activists sought to correct the injustices of Tennessee's Georgia Tann who invented the practice of amending and sealing adoptee birth records to conceal her trafficking for adoption. A court battle ensued and people such as Pat Robertson (yes, that Pat Robertson) pushed back against adoptee access to OBCs.  Finally, a tiered access system was implemented that divided adoptees into two groups. The "direct victims" (see Bisantz-Raymond) of Tann (those born in Tann's era of practice) receive unhindered access.  "Indirect victims" of Tann (those born after the 1950's) receive access after agreeing to a contact veto. Adoptees like me who were conceived from rape are subjected to a disclosure veto.

I was fourteen years told when these changes to Tennessee law were made. I wasn't old enough to tell the state that I did not want to be perpetually defined by my adoption. That I had every right to see the factual record of my birth because I am a human being. When ruled in Doe v. Sundquist that OBC access "does not violate federal constitutional right to familial privacy, if such right exists," I was unable to ask--why does my conception circumstance make the constitution inapplicable to me?

I am a survivor of more than two years of intimate partner violence. I cannot begin to describe what it is like to be exclusively defined by your biological father's violent assault on your mother when seeking information from the child welfare department that took care of you as a foster youth. What it's like to be seen and treated, not as a human being, but as a product of your biological father's actions.

I am a person. I am a human being. I repeated these words more than once when navigating the veto systems for my birth state. I believed at the time that maybe the vetoes helped my original mother in some way. I discovered her, bewildered and stressed by the process, having no idea I hadn't known her name all my life or that my OBC had been sealed.

In consistency with my long-held stance that no adoptee be left behind, I withdraw support from HB 162 in its amended form and furthermore oppose the amendment's changes.  I will continue to push for it to be re-shaped with acceptable language. I will continue to support the bill sponsor.

In five years of working with this legislation, it is moments like these when I stop to process the journey. The most frustrating aspects haven't been the long processes or the two-hour drives to the capitol.  What wears on the soul is that the corresponding adoption discourse in opposition of OBC access is archaic in nature and repetitious of themes imposed on our adopted ancestors, on now to us, and I fear on to the rising generations of fostered and adopted youth.

The opposing discourse continues to include messages of adoptees as perpetual children seeking to disrupt lives. Men of stature speaking for women--speaking in the place of women. Shame-based messages spread about original mothers. Amended birth certificates framed as validating to adoptive parents who are presumed jealous and insecure. It is hurtful that those claiming to advocate for a community I am passionate about cannot do so from the strengths-based way in which I see my peers.

Not unlike the bill discussions in 1984, it was said in the voting hearing that adoptees must remember who their "real parents" are; their adoptive parents. To this I say is the root of the problem and misunderstanding. I did not come before you to sort out my family. I came before you for legal recognition as an autonomous individual whose birth existed--whose birth mattered.

Every birth matters.