Steve Inskeep, is a co-host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “Up First.” He is an adoptee and an adoptive father. He penned an op-ed in the New York Times recently titled For 50 Years, I Was Denied the Story of My Birth. I share excerpts below.
In 1968, a woman appeared for an interview at the Children’s Bureau, an adoption agency in Indianapolis. She was in her 20s and alone. A caseworker noted her name, which I am withholding for reasons that will become apparent, and her appearance: She was “a very attractive, sweet looking girl,” who seemed “to come from a good background” and was “intelligent.” She had “blue eyes and rather blonde hair,” though the woman said her hair was getting darker over time, like that of her parents.
Her reason for coming was obvious. She was around 40 weeks pregnant. She told a story that the caseworker wrote down and filed in a cabinet, where it would rest for decades unseen. The expectant mother said she had grown up in Eastern Kentucky’s mountains, then migrated north as a teenager to find work after her father died. She was an office worker in Ohio when she became pregnant by a man who wasn’t going to marry her. The most remarkable part of her story was this: When she knew she was about to give birth, she drove westward out of Ohio, stopping at Indianapolis only because it was the first big city she encountered. She checked into a motel and found an obstetrician, who took one look and sent her to the Children’s Bureau. She arranged to place the baby for adoption and gave birth the next day.
The baby was me. Life is a journey, and I was born on a road trip. I spent 10 days in foster care before being adopted by my parents, Roland and Judith Inskeep, who deserve credit if I do any small good in the world.
In recent decades, open adoption has been replacing closed and sealed adoptions. The rules governing past adoptions change slowly. Mr Inskeep was not allowed to see his birth records. Everything he has shared about his biological parents was unknown to him growing up. He says, “They were such a blank, I could not even imagine what they might be like.”
His adopted daughter is from China, and like many international adoptees, she also had no story of her biological family. A social worker suggested to him that his adopted daughter might want to know his own adoption story someday. So I requested my records from the State of Indiana and was denied. Next I called the Children’s Bureau, where a kind woman on the phone had my records in her hands, but was not allowed to share them.
In 2018, the law in Indiana changed. Many adoptees or biological families may now obtain records unless another party to the adoption previously objected. In 2019 the state and the Children’s Bureau sent me documents that gave my biological mother’s name, left my biological father’s name blank and labeled me “illegitimate.” On a hospital form someone had taken my right footprint, with my biological mother’s right thumbprint below it on the page.
I saw something similar on my mom’s adoption file records. Tennessee had changed the law in the late 1990s for the victims of the Georgia Tann scandal only, sometime after they denied my mom but no one ever told her. My cousin told me she got her dad’s file (he was also adopted from The Tennessee Children’s Home) after my dad died in 2016 and that is why I now have the file my mom was denied on flimsy reasoning (her dad, who was 20 years old than her mom could not be proven to have died, though her mom had died and the state of Tennessee didn’t really try very hard).
Mr Inskeep writes – It’s been nearly two years since I first read those documents, and I’m still not over it. Knowing that story has altered how I think about myself, and the seemingly simple question of where I’m from. It’s brought on a feeling of revelation, and also of anger. I’m not upset with my biological mother; it was moving to learn how she managed her predicament alone. Her decisions left me with the family that I needed — that I love. Nor am I unhappy with the Children’s Bureau, which did its duty by preserving my records. I am angry that for 50 years, my state denied me the story of how I came to live on this earth. Strangers hid part of me from myself.
2% of US residents — roughly six million people — are adoptees. A majority were adopted domestically, with records frequently sealed, especially for older adoptees. Only nine states allow adoptees unrestricted access to birth records. Indiana is among those that have begun to allow it under certain conditions, while 19 states and the District of Columbia still permit nothing without a court order (I came up against this in Virginia). Also California, when my dad was born, I could get nothing out of them. Florida also remains closed.
This spring, more than a dozen states are considering legislation for greater openness. Bills in Florida, Texas and Maryland would ensure every adoptee’s access to pre-adoption birth records. Proposals in other states, like Arizona, would affirm the rights of some adoptees but not others. The legislation is driven by activists who have lobbied state by state for decades. Many insist on equality: All adoptees have a right to the same records as everyone else.
Equality would end an information blackout that robs people of identity and more. Mr Inskeep notes what my mom (an adoptee) often said to me – “I was never able to tell a doctor my family medical history when asked.” For that matter, until I learned who my original grandparents were from 2017 into 2018, I didn’t know mine either because BOTH of my parents were adoptees.
Closed adoption began as “confidential” adoption in the early 20th century, enabling parents and children to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy. Records were sealed to all but people directly involved. In a further step, by midcentury, even parties to the adoption were cut out. Agencies offered adoptive parents a chance to raise children without fear of intrusion by biological parents, and biological parents a chance to start over.
Access to information about one’s genetic background, heritage, and ancestry is a birthright denied only to adoptees. An adoptee is expected to honor a contract made over his or her body and without his or her consent.