It Really Is NOT Fair

Anne Rudig writes “I’d like to know who my parents are.” in The Guardian. My adoptee mom wanted to know as well but was thwarted by the state of Tennessee at the time she tried. After her death, I discovered that the state of Tennessee had changed its laws for the victims of Georgia Tann’s unscrupulous practices. I tried to get my mom’s original birth certificate from Virginia and my dad’s (also an adoptee) from California and in both cases – the answer was NO without a court order and that means an expensive attorney and no guarantee of success. Fortunately, I found other ways to get my own desire fulfilled.

Anne goes on to say, “Like countless other adoptees in the US, outdated laws mean I still don’t know my parent’s names, ethnicities and medical histories.” The medical information was part of my own mother’s concerns as she had a condition that the doctors were having a difficulty diagnosing. Until I learned something about my grandparents I always had to say, I don’t know because my parents were both adopted. I only knew what showed up in their lives. Now I know my paternal grandmother had surgery for breast cancer.

Anne has had similar experiences – The medical history on my side of the family is solid white space. Each time I encounter a new doctor, the conversation is pretty much the same. “I see you have no family history for major illnesses – cancer, heart disease, stroke. That’s great.” “No, I have no family history.” Then follows an awkward moment as confusion travels across the physician’s face. I break the silence between us. “I was adopted.”

I read Anne encountered the same difficulties with the state of California that I did – “In some private and all closed adoptions the original birth certificate is sealed by the state of California. The only way to see it is to hire a lawyer and petition the court with a ‘very good reason’ to unseal. When I asked a clerk in Marin County, California, he couldn’t give an example of what a good reason might be, but he did say that wanting to know my origins wasn’t one of them.”

She goes on to say – “At the age of 69, I am not allowed to see my original birth certificate or know the basic facts of my origin. The names of my original parents, their ethnicities, vocations, countries of origin, ages, places of residence, and attending physician – all remain hidden. I want the date of my birth confirmed. I want to know where I came from. I want to know my original mother’s name. My adoptive parents are long gone. My original ones have likely passed too. Who is this law protecting, and from what?

In fact, I tried to make the same argument without success. All of my adoptive grandparents were dead and both of my parents were dead and yes, it was likely my original grandparents were dead too. Eventually, I came to the conclusion it is about money – about the state having to hire extra people to vet and dig up the records and copy them, etc for the descendants and/or still living adoptees. It’s about tax money and where it gets spent.

Anne asks – So why are states still sealing adoptees’ birth certificates? Sealed birth certificates obliterate our identity and origins – the exact things most people take for granted. The goal of closed adoptions is to turn the adopted child into a blank slate, ready for fresh imprint. But no baby is a blank slate. We all come with history, ancestry, fathers and mothers. And many of us don’t want to search; we just want to know.

My first husband and I conceived in the early 70s and didn’t know the sex of our baby until it was born. Still, we seemed somehow convinced we would have a son and when the baby we had turned out to be a daughter, we were surprised. I remember the nurses had to tell me 3 times that this baby was my daughter.

Anne shares – an over-eager sonogram technician led us to believe I was carrying a boy. While my pregnancy progressed, we selected a handful of boys’ names. In the delivery room, my doctor announced, “You have a beautiful baby girl.” My husband looked confused. “You’d better check on that.” So, when our daughter arrived there was a white space on her birth certificate, where her name should have been. We spent a week trying out names for her. 

Anne ends her essay with this truth – Sealed birth certificates were meant to protect adoptive parents from the embarrassment of infertility, the original mother from the shame of unwed pregnancy, and the child from the label of illegitimacy. None of this is necessary anymore, nor does it justify hiding personal information from adoptees. Forty-one states still restrict access to birth certificates through laws that date back as far as the 1930s. (blogger’s note – my parents were mid-1930s adoptees.) It’s time to repeal them. If not for me, then for my children, and perhaps theirs – and for all the children who will be adopted in the future.

A Basic Human Right to Know

Most U.S. citizens raised by their biological parents never question whether the information on their birth certificates is accurate. With the evolution of adoption and alternate means of conceiving a child, “accurate” is an increasingly subjective term.

Is the purpose of a birth certificate to portray a biological account of a person’s birth parents, or is it an account of one’s “legal” parents — the ones responsible for raising them?

The US Census Bureau created Birth Certificates in the beginning of the 20th Century as a means of tracking the effects of disease and urban environments on mortality rates. The task of issuing birth certificates was transferred to the Bureau of Vital Statistics, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. In 1946, the recording births was decentralized into today’s varied state systems (and in reality, based on my parents births in the 1930s, this existed well before the 1940s). This has caused there to be 50 different sets of regulations concerning how, when, why and if access to original birth certificate information can be obtained.

The document has become an important (if not our sole) means of identification when we obtain anything from a driver’s license to a passport. It is an indispensable tool for genealogical researchers.

For adoptees as well as donor-conceived persons, there is oftentimes a clear distinction between one’s genetic parents, those with whom you share DNA, and one’s legal parents, the ones who have rights and responsibilities attached to their parenthood, and most-times, the ones who are raising them.

Our birth certificate practices concerning non-biological parents began with adoption. In the mid-20th Century, there was rising concern that adopted children’s birth certificates read “illegitimate.” In response, states began to issue adoptees amended birth certificates, listing the adoptive parents as if they were the genetic parents, thus hiding the shame of the child’s illegitimacy and the adoptive parents’ infertility. The originals containing the biological parents’ names were sealed and not available to anyone (including the adoptee) except by court order. The new birth certificates showed no indication that they had been amended, which gave adoptive parents an easy way to not tell their children of their adoption. In about half of the US states (including large population ones like California and Virginia as I personally found with my two parents adoptions), adoptees original birth certificates remain sealed.

Women who use donor eggs to become pregnant are listed as mothers on birth certificates. When our donor informed me she had her DNA tested at 23 and Me, I made the decision to provide my children with the information and private access to her (with her consent) that DNA testing and that site’s design make possible. It is unsettling to see someone else listed as my two sons “mother” even though they grew in my womb, nursed at my breast and have been cared for and nurtured by me 24/7 for almost every day of their entire lives. Yet, I knew this was the proper path to establish for my own children their personal reality.

There are a whole host of concerns raised by adoptees and the donor-conceived, including the right to identity, ongoing medical history, biological heritage, and the right to know their genetic parents and I for one believe these issues are valid and should receive transparent answers.

The US Surgeon General reports 96% of Americans believe that knowing their family history is important. It certainly has made a world of difference for me as the offspring of two adoptees. I suppose this has given me a broader perspective on the importance of a person knowing from where their genes originated. The United Nations has acknowledged the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations.

I believe that all people have a moral right to know the truth about their personal history. Where the state has custody of relevant information it has a duty not to collude in deceiving or depriving individuals of such information. Growth, responsibility, and respect for self and others develop best in lives that are rooted in truth.

There has been a recommendation made that the Standard US Birth Certificate be revised to expand upon the “two parent only” format to include categories for Legal Parents, Genetic Parents and Surrogates. In the case of adoptees, the child’s birth name and parentage should be recorded along with his or her legal/adoptive name.

The time for birth certificate reform is now. Unfortunately for many, it should have happened decades ago.

Morally OK but illegal ?

An adoptee’s birth certificate replacement

Has anyone seen the recent AskReddit post where the question was something like “What’s something that’s morally ok, but illegal?” Somebody said showing adoptees their original birth certificates and the comments have made one adoptee livid. Apparently, adoptees are just horrible stalkers, biological parents deserve anonymity, and how dare we upset our adoptive parents.

Here is that adoptee’s response in the comments (with a few added remarks from my own story) –

Sealed adoption records are actually a product of the past when it was considered shameful to be born “illegitimate” aka out of wedlock. Then, it became at the adoptive parents didn’t want contact with the biological parents.

It had NOTHING to do with promised anonymity to the biological parents. At least not in the United States. This is not sperm donation that we’re talking about here. And even in sperm donation they’re moving away from the anonymous donations because people WANT to know who their biological parents are.

Plus, Ancestry DNA exists (and I will add 23 and Me – both have been helpful for me to learn my true genetic biological origins).

The adoptee writes that “I guess I’m one of those horrible adoptees that you all hate because I found my birth mother 7 years ago and we have a relationship still. She said she always wondered if I was ok. And my full brother found me via Ancestry DNA.

In my own story, my mom’s half-sibling always hoped she would turn up. Sadly it never happened. My dad’s birth father (his mother was unwed) is now known to me thanks to 23 and Me and a long chain of coincidental events.

The adoptee goes on to write – F**k closed records. There are senior citizens out there whose biological parents have been dead for a while and they still can’t legally access their records or original birth certificate. It makes no f**cking sense.

I also ran up against continued obstacles in the states of Virginia, Arizona and California.

The adoptee concludes – Adoptees should not have to be stuck with this additional life-long burden to keep everyone else comfortable. We didn’t ask to be born. The adults in the situation need to understand that if you produce a child or adopt a child, then they might want to know their biological family. That’s just the way it is. Even with records being closed. It’s not right to ask us to be skeletons in the closet.

Adoptees Deserve Better

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.

The Silencing of the Moms

St Patrick’s is often a joyous celebration with parades and lots of beer, the wearing of the green and Irish blessings. Today’s blog is not about that side of being Irish. Caelainn Hogan explored the history and legacy of the mother and baby homes in her book, “Republic of Shame“. Today’s blog shares heavily from a review of her book.

Folktales are powerful because of their purpose: they teach moral through warning. This is what could befall you, they say, this is what happens to badly behaved girls. The S Thompson Motif-Index of Folk Literature itemizes the following categories: Girl carefully guarded from suitors; Girl carefully guarded by mother; Girl carefully guarded by father; Girl carefully guarded from suitors by hag. All four motifs are attributed to several mythologies including those that are Irish. But the last one, “Girl carefully guarded from suitors by hag” is specifically Irish.

The mother and baby homes of Ireland were run by nuns associated with the Catholic Church. These were the depositories for women pregnant out of wedlock. Some of the homes were laundries, some were repurposed workhouses from the famine, and a surprising number actually survived into the early 1990s.  This sad history has enough gravesites, unnamed dead and persecuted women to honestly qualify as a most horrifying folktale.

Even in this modern time, women who gave birth in these homes continue trying to locate the children taken from them and some adults who survived the horrors are still searching for their birth mothers. And as recently as December 2020, the Irish government voted to keep the archives of the mother and baby homes locked for another 30 years, leaving hundreds of people without answers, which in some cases means never having a true answer to their identity.

Hogan wrote her book as a personal quest to investigate the homes and make an issue of two of the system’s most disturbing motifs: silence and female virtue. The author says – “My generation’s perspective is that the mother and baby homes are a thing of the past, but it has an ongoing impact. I was born in 1988, a year after illegitimacy was abolished in Ireland. I spoke to a friend’s mother who was sent to a mother and baby home, also in 1988. That alternative, that could have been my mother’s life. That had quite a deep impact on me.” I understand. In learning about my own family’s origins, I realized what was a miracle to me – that my unwed mother was not sent away to have and give me up for adoption.

The author says, “I wanted to show my experience of coming to terms with this alarmingly recent past and understanding how it continues to impact lives, to admit to my own ignorance even when it affected people I knew, to realize there were institutions around the corner from the house where I grew up that I never knew about, a system built on secrecy but all around us still.”

Adoption law in Ireland still protects the anonymity of the mother—which means many people don’t have access to their birth information – purely because they were born out of wedlock.  Adoption rights are an equality issue. There is still a culture of silence around adoption in Ireland, especially when it comes to adoptees accessing their own information. Ireland’s adoption laws were always intended to keep adoption details as secret as possible. It’s hypocrisy that these laws are represented as protecting the privacy rights of the mothers. The author found that almost every woman she spoke to, who had her child taken from her for adoption, who was sent to these institutions, they have only ever wanted information and answers. These are women who have spent years searching for their children. 

There is much more at the link to the review/interview, if you want to continue reading about this issue as your method of acknowledging all things Irish today.

Blossoms in the Dust

Not having a Netflix dvd available in our house last night, for the second time, I watched this dvd that my brother in law (an avid classic, old tyme, movie fanatic) suggested when I shared with him all I was learning about my family’s adoption stories.  Not long ago, I actually met online a woman who was adopted through Edna Gladney (not the woman herself but the organization that continues to this day).  My oldest son asked if the text that appears with a patriotic musical background has held up well since 1941 and I told him not really.

It is a feel good story and I did enjoy the historical scenes of life in a different time period which is usually what I enjoy most in any really old movie.   It tells the mostly true but fictionalized story of Edna Gladney, who helped orphaned children find homes and began a campaign to remove the word “illegitimate” from Texas birth certificates, despite the opposition of “good” citizens. The movie was well-received in it’s 1940s time period.

When the film premiered at Radio City Music Hall, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote “There is a shade too much of shining nobility in this film, too often tiny fingers tug deliberately on the heartstrings. And the dramatic continuity seems less spontaneous than contrived. The career of Mrs. Gladney is drawn out over a tedious stretch of time. But it is an affecting story and one which commands great respect … As pure inspirational drama with a pleasant flavor of romance, ‘Blossoms in the Dust’ should reach a great many hearts.” I find that an accurate assessment.

I am ready to GIVE away FREE my dvd copy of Blossoms in the Dust.  If you would like to receive this (given the flaws acknowledged above), you can email me at dhyemm@hughes.net.  Please put “Blossoms in the Dust” in the subject line.  I will respond as soon as I see your email.  I generally monitor it often.

 

Hopeful Adoptive Mother

I already knew that trans-national adoption is problematic and a global problem.  I was riveted reading a OLD story in Mother Jones magazine from the Nov/Dec 2007 issue titled – Did I Steal My Daughter ? by Elizabeth Larsen.

She started a journal to document her daughter’s adoption.  In this she writes, “I feel so sad for the pain your birth mother must be in since she is not able to raise you,” I wrote. “But I believe now that I am your ‘real’ mommy.” Reading those words now sparks a flash of shame. Because even though my daughter was, as is required by U.S. immigration law, legally classified as an orphan, she had two Guatemalan parents who were very much alive.

People have been parenting children not born to them since the dawn of time. But adoption as an irrevocable severing of a child’s relationship with her biological family is largely a European and American practice.

“Informal adoption and kinship care have always existed, but our form of formalized adoption by nonrelatives is very, very new,” advises Hollee McGinnis, policy and operations director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research and advocacy organization.

The push toward secrecy and sealed records took hold in the postwar culture, when adoptions were increasingly run by social workers. Confidentiality was thought to shield both mothers and children from the stigma of illegitimacy, and it allowed parents to hide their infertility even from their own children—birth certificates were simply changed to list the adoptive parents.

As more women gained access to contraceptives and legal abortion, and the stigma of unwed pregnancy lessened, fewer American women placed their babies for adoption, and those who did had more power to get what they wanted, including knowing their children’s fate. Today, almost no American woman deciding on adoption seeks anonymity; roughly 90 percent of mothers have met their children’s adoptive parents, and most helped choose them.

While society has belatedly acknowledged the trauma of American women who were forced to surrender their children, birth families abroad have remained shrouded in mystery, allowing parents and professionals to invent the narrative that best suits them. “Practitioners 20 years ago assumed we were rescued from these horrific nations and would never go back,” says Hollee McGinnis, who was adopted from Korea when she was three and has been in touch with her Korean family for more than a decade.

More in the Mother Jones article if you are so inclined.  Here’s the link – https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2007/10/did-i-steal-my-daughter-tribulations-global-adoption/

Harmed By Religion

I grew up Episcopalian.  I always thought of that church as do what you want Catholics.  We were similar but with more freedom to choose.

My mom conceived me out of wedlock and she once admitted to me that she believed she had sinned and that baptizing me in the Episcopal Church (which was against the wishes of my dad’s Church of Christ adoptive parents because they baptize much later in life) was a way of securing my bastardized soul.

It is known generally that the Catholic Church has done a lot of bad things in its existence.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame is about torturing a young woman.  Then there is the burning of Joan of Arc and the Spanish Inquisition.  I grew up in El Paso Texas, a heavily Catholic region of the United States and so, I have some familiarity with that religion.  As a school girl we always had fish on the menu at school on Fridays because of the church.

An early adoption story is the tale of Moses.  His mother Jochebed put him in a basket to spare him from being killed along with all the other Israelite baby boys.  The Pharaoh’s daughter finds Moses and adopts him as her own, sparing him the fate suffered by other Hebrew boys.

For old-time Catholics, the laws of the Church took precedence over the laws of any secular government.  Catholic teaching dictated that the manner in which I was conceived made me illegitimate, a bona fide bastard.  Fortunately, my parents married before I was born.

Some children, like my dad, became legitimized when they were adopted by a married couple.  At that time, in the 1930s and 40s, his birth certificate (and later his baptismal certificate) was altered to make him appear “as though” he had been born to his adoptive parents.  The Salvation Army played a role in his becoming an adoptee.

I believe that my mom’s maternal grandfather and her paternal grandmother both played some role in her becoming an adoptee by not being willing to be supportive of my mom after her birth nor my grandparents’ marriage.  I can’t know that for certain.  I just feel it in my soul.

Throughout it’s history, the church has refused divorce, my dad’s adoptive parents could not be elders in the Church of Christ because of their divorces from spouses before they found one another.  And I do believe churches in general continue to look down upon women who do what comes natural and have sex outside of marriage.

Validating a strong and moral family life has always been at the heart of most church teachings.  I won’t argue that such a family is not a blessing.  My two sons have grown up within such circumstances and thrive.  I also have friends with children my children’s age who chose to be single parents.  Their children thrive as well.

What seems to matter the most is that the child was truly wanted.  When a child is born “accidentally”, meaning unintended, it is a hurdle to overcome but not impossible to.  Love matters more than any other factor.

Legitimacy

“In the soul of every adoptee is an eternal flame of hope
for reunion and reconciliation with those he has lost
through private or public disaster.”
~ Jean Paton, Orphan Voyage

The blankness of our past is like a constant gnawing at our heart. It creates a hole that can’t be filled, a vacuum for which there is no substitute, it is a piece of our soul that was taken from us. It is like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing, the center of a wheel missing two spokes. My mom was not unique in her yearning to know who her original mother was.

The withholding of birth information from adoptees is an affront to human dignity. Most Americans assume that the falsification of adoptees’ birth certificates arose from well-meaning social workers anxious to relieve adoptees of the stigma of illegitimacy.

However, my mom’s parents were married at the time of her conception and her birth and at the time she was taken for adoption by my adoptive grandparents.

Of greater concern was the possibility of the original family tracing such a child and disrupting a well established adoptive relationship. Especially if the surrender had been forced, as was the case with my maternal grandmother.

The rationale was that in order to be secure in the position of adopting children, anonymity was essential.

“We never tell the natural mother or reveal to others where the child is and where it is being placed for adoption,” Georgia Tann told a reporter for the Commercial Appeal in 1948. Her letter to my original maternal grandmother certainly revealed nothing about my mom having been taken from Memphis to Arizona.