Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Betsie’s Quest: Origins of an Ohio Adoptee Rights Activist

Betsie Norris has been a force behind numerous attempts to revise Ohio's law concerning adoptees' original birth certificates, including current H.B. 61 and S.B. 23, which will be voted on the coming month. Last year, I interviewed Betsie for a biography project in my graduate writing program at Kennesaw State University. The article posted here is an abbreviated version of the profile I wrote for that class. --Karen Pickell

Betsie Norris
Betsie Norris’s parents, Brad and Lois Norris, were given very little information when they adopted their three children. In 1960, when Betsie was adopted, it was common for adoptions to be closed; adoptive parents and birth parents were told nothing about each other. An adopted child was to be raised as if her adoptive family was her only family. Brad and Lois didn’t know how old their children’s birth parents were or why their children were placed for adoption. They were given no physical descriptions of their kids’ first families nor any family medical history. Brad and Lois told Betsie she was conceived in love and that was all that mattered.

Betsie’s adoptive family was like any other family, with their fair share of joy and heartache. Brad was a successful attorney who was never one to shy away from a cause. Throughout his life, he served on the boards of many different local and national organizations, including that of the agency that handled his children’s adoptions, Children’s Services of Cleveland.

The Norris’s marriage was troubled, and when Betsie was nine, they divorced. Adolescence is difficult for most teenagers and it was especially so for Betsie. On top of dealing with her emotions surrounding the divorce, as an adoptee Betsie struggled with the loss of her birth family, though she wasn’t conscious of it at the time. She realized that her body was maturing and wondered how she would end up looking as an adult—how tall she would be, for instance. She told friends she might search for her birth mother one day. She didn’t discuss her thoughts with her parents, or even with the counselor to whom they sent her to help deal with her family’s issues.

Search for Self

During her mid-twenties, after reading the book The Adoption Triangle: The Effect of the Sealed Record on Adoptees, Birth Parents, and Adoptive Parents, Betsie decided to search for her birth mother. Through the stories told by other birth mothers in the book, she gained her first real insight into the depth of feeling these women had for their relinquished children. She realized that not only had her birth mother never forgotten her, she likely wanted to know what had happened to the child she had given up.

Betsie knew that in finding the truth, she might have to face facts that would be difficult to deal with. She knew something had to have been wrong for her birth mother to feel it necessary to give up her child. Still, she needed to know the truth of her origins. Equally important to her was finding out her family medical history. Her experience working as a nurse had made her acutely aware of how much she didn’t know. Her mom and dad were both very supportive. Brad told her that if he were adopted, he was sure that he would also want to search. 

Betsie learned from The Adoption Triangle that she could request non-identifying information about her birth parents from her adoption agency. The one-page report said that her birth mother was sixteen when Betsie was born and that both her birth parents had blond hair, though Betsie was skeptical about their hair color since her own was red.

Ohio law stated that an adult who had been adopted before 1964 could obtain a copy of her original, pre-adoption birth certificate. On December 14, 1985, she received her original birth certificate in the mail. Before she became Betsie Norris, she had been “Victoria Faith Boyer.” Her birth mother’s name was Edith Christine Boyer. According to the document, she had been twenty-one at the time of Betsie’s birth. Was there a mistake in her non-identifying information? The space on the birth certificate where her father’s name should have been was blank. 

Betsie determined that Edith had grown up in Wallingord, Pennsylvania; she traveled to her birth mother’s high school to look through the yearbooks and found Edith’s picture in the volume from 1956, proving her birth certificate correct. Edith—nicknamed “Edie” in the photo—was twenty-one when Betsie was born. Betsie was overwhelmed seeing for the first time the face of the woman who had given birth to her, who she now realized she resembled.

Betsie decided to call students from Edie’s graduating class to see if she could track down her current location. The first man she called had organized the only reunion Edie’s high school class ever had. Edie had not attended, but she had returned his questionnaire. She had married, and her new name was Nelson, though she didn’t list her husband’s first name. She lived in Milwaukee.  

Betsie got a Milwaukee phone book and began searching through the Nelsons, hoping to find a name that would stand out. She was stunned to find the name “E. Boyer Nelson” listed, as if it had been designed for her to find. That night, Betsie composed a script she would follow when she called Edie. She shook as she read the lines into the receiver. The moment before she received a reply seemed to stretch on for minutes. “I’ve been praying for this call for twenty-six years,” Edie said. Betsie was speechless.

Later in the conversation, Edie blew Betsie’s mind when she told her that her husband, Bob, was Betsie’s birth father. Betsie had assumed her birth parents had gone their separate ways. Otherwise, why would they have placed her for adoption?

What Might Have Been

It turned out that at the time of Betsie’s conception in 1959, Edie and Bob were juniors at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania and had been dating for three years. Their parents talked about how best to keep the pregnancy secret, so that none of their reputations would be ruined. It was decided that in the fall, Edie would travel to the Florence Crittendon Home for Unwed Mothers in Cleveland while Bob returned to college. The two were never to see each other again, and the baby would be placed for adoption. But Bob and Edie were deeply in love, so despite their parents’ admonitions, on weekends Bob drove ninety miles to Cleveland to visit Edie. 

At the Florence Crittendon Home, Edie was given a pseudonym—a way to protect her reputation from the other young women there. She named her baby Victoria Faith—for “victory” and “faith”—hoping that the girl would one day understand her message. Bob wanted his name on the baby’s birth certificate, but was told he could only be listed as the father if he and Edie were married. Before little Victoria was taken away, the nurses took a picture of Edie holding her, a photo that she kept in the drawer of her nightstand in Milwaukee.

Betsie realized that in another time and another social climate, her birth parents might have been able to keep her after all. She might have never been placed for adoption, never lost twenty-six years of knowing her own blood relatives. Although she loved her adoptive family and never wished she hadn’t been adopted, she needed time to grieve the family she had lost.


An Activist Is Born

As a psychiatric nurse, Betsie understood the value of support groups for people struggling with emotional events in their lives. She felt a need to talk over her feelings about being in reunion with other people outside her family who were touched by adoption.

Betsie found a support group of sorts in Cleveland, led by someone who helped adoptees and birth parents conduct searches for a fee. There she met a birth mother named Kate Oatis who was looking for volunteers to help organize a regional conference in Cleveland for the American Adoption Congress. Although Kate’s intent was simply to host a one-time event, Betsie had a bigger goal. She thought real progress could be made by bringing all three members of the adoption triad together—adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents – and to include related professionals as well. Each person touched by adoption had a different view of the same issue; if they shared these viewpoints with each other, everyone could benefit from a better overall understanding of the effects of adoption. 

Betsie also understood that, in the world of adoption, adoptive parents held all the power. No one talked about the fact that for every adopted person, two birth parents lived in secrecy and anonymity. No one talked about the loss every adoptee experiences when separated from her first family. Betsie knew she needed to bring adoptive parents into the conversation if anything was to change.

Young, naïve, and energetic, Betsie decided she would start a nonprofit organization. She made up the name Adoption Network Cleveland and got to work on planning the conference, to be held in September of 1988. Cleveland’s newspaper, The Plain Dealer, ran an article about the upcoming event and new organization, listing Betsie’s home phone number as contact information. Within three days, she received 275 phone calls from adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents in the greater Cleveland area. Twenty-five years later, Adoption Network Cleveland has facilitated more than 1,850 adoptee/birth parent reunions and has helped reduce the number of children in the child welfare system waiting for permanent homes in Cuyahoga County (where Cleveland is located) from 1,700 in 2004 to just over 600 in 2012.

Access to Adoptees’ Original Birth Certificates

If Betsie had not been able to get a copy of her original birth certificate, she would not have had enough information to figure out who Edie was. She was aware that, according to Ohio law, those adopted after January 1, 1964, could not get their original birth certificate upon request the way she had been able to do. In 1991, Adoption Network Cleveland co-sponsored the Triad Members Together conference. One of the topics Betsie talked about was a bill she was working on with Representative Katherine Walsh that would open records equally for all Ohio adoptees. The conference took place over a long weekend, and Brad Norris drove two hours each day between his home and the hotel to support his daughter. 

On the morning of the last day of the conference, Brad approached Betsie before the workshops began. “I have to talk to you.” He led her to one of the empty breakout rooms and motioned to her to sit down. “I have to tell you something.” Brad confessed that he and his peers had initiated the bill that eventually sealed original birth certificates for adoptees after 1964. 

When Brad and Lois adopted their first child in 1957, they were told by Children’s Services of Cleveland that the adoption was confidential and that all records pertaining to the adoption would be sealed. Brad wanted to be sure that was the case. He went to the Bureau of Vital Statistics, gave his son’s name, and asked to see his birth certificate, never revealing his relationship to the child. The clerk handed him the boy’s two birth certificates—original and amended—paper-clipped together. The clerk had done nothing wrong; at that time, Ohio had one of the most lenient laws in the country pertaining to records. Anyone could request a copy of another person’s legal documents, even if he was not related to that person.

The experiment scared Brad. He could have been a reporter asking to see the birth certificate; he could have been a birth relative. He rallied some of the other adoptive fathers he knew and worked with them on drafting the language of a bill that would seal adoption records from the prying eyes of the public, while permitting a judge to open the records to adult adoptees showing good cause.

He’d never intended to keep adult adoptees from their own records, but he’d done exactly that. At the time, he simply hadn’t thought about what his children might want to know when they grew up. In the early 1960s, reunions were unheard of and the concept of open adoption didn’t exist. Brad’s intention was to protect adoptees and adoptive parents. 

Brad realized that he’d made a terrible mistake. He offered to do whatever he could to help Betsie and Adoption Network Cleveland with their efforts to revise the law. In 1994, he testified before the Human Resources Committee of the Ohio House of Representatives in support of a bill “to equalize access to birth records for adult adoptees.” In his testimony, he explained some of his feelings around the time he drafted the original bill:

"I did not want any and all members of the general public to have access to my children’s birth records . . . We must be honest in recognizing that the 1964 law was created mostly out of concerns felt by adoptive parents."

He also described his change of heart regarding the law he helped create:

"In doing what I did on this 1960s legislation, I was unable to see the impact this would have on my adopted children when they became adults . . . I now recognize that closing those birth records to adoptees whose adoptions were finalized after January 1, 1964 was a grave mistake . . . there was not sufficient attention given to what happens when the adoptive child grows up and needs to know his or her genetic medical history or when the adult adoptee develops an undeniable yearning to know what his or her roots are."

Unfortunately, his testimony wasn’t enough. The bill died in committee.

Two more years passed before a level of legislative success regarding adoption records was achieved in Ohio. In 1996, a bill was passed that opened records for adoptees from 1996 forward, which was a victory for future adoptions but also created a distinct class of disenfranchised adoptees in Ohio—those adopted between 1964 and 1996, whose records remain sealed. 

Those adoptees now have hope that they, too, will soon be able to receive their original birth certificates. Two bills to restore access for adults adopted between 1964 and 1996 are concurrently making their way through the Ohio legislature this session—House Bill 61 and Senate Bill 23. Unsurprisingly, Betsie Norris is once again leading the charge. She testified to the House Judiciary Committee on March 13, 2013, mentioning her father’s change of heart regarding the law he crafted: 

"When watching what we were going through on this issue in the early 1990s, he [Brad Norris] realized that his efforts had led to the sealing of the record to the adult adoptee as well as the general public —an unintended consequence of the action taken by adoptive parents . . . . Sadly, my dad passed away in 2006, otherwise he would be here today to present this testimony to you personally."

Betsie Norris continues to fight for the rights of all Ohio adoptees.

To learn more about Ohio H.B. 61 and S.B. 23, visit the websites of Adoption Equity Ohio or Adoption Network Cleveland.