Monday, April 15, 2013

Illinois Adoption Legislation: Why "Not Clean" Doesn't Necessarily Mean "Dirty"

I began writing this at the American Adoption Conference in Cleveland this weekend. It was a wonderful conference, as always. Lots of dialogue, art, and research-sharing on the hurts, hopes, and complexities of adoption from all different members of the triad. (And I saw a few more people of color! It's usually so unbelievably White here.)

Representative Sara Feigenholtz shared the story of Illinois' adoption laws and the 2010 legislation that allows adoptees access to their original birth certificates. (People adopted through closed adoptions in IL have only ammended birth certificates which list their new names and their adoptive parents' names, removing the original information. Prior to this new law, adoptees were never allowed to have their original birth certificates.)

Here's the controversy. Some people in adoption reform wonder why Rep. Feigenholtz supported this adoptee-birth-certificate-access bill that was not totally "clean." When we say it wasn't "clean" we mean that it was not a completely unrestricted access bill. Attached to the new law was an option for birth mothers to request their names removed from the birth certificates.

We all agree, as does Ms. Feigenholtz, who is an adoptee and has worked tirelessly for 16 years to change adoption law in Illinois, that adoptees should be allowed complete access their original birth certificates just like every other U.S. citizen.

Feigenholtz first introduced what she described as "completely open, unfettered access" legislation in 1997. It never made it out of the chamber. She describes how afterward she suffered under "political and media shrapnel". Her fellow politicians were not going to allow such radical change. Feigenholtz realized she had to step back and approach the issue differently. Baby steps. (Side note: there are many politicians all over this country who are adoptive parents. Sometimes they don't see how allowing adoptees access to their original information is a civil right. They see it as a threat.)

Then she motioned for a revamp of current laws, working with what already existed, to add a double-blind registry. An adoptee and/or a birth mother could submit information on medical and genetic history to a registry, and if the other party ever came looking, s/he could obtain that which was submitted. No names or identifying info.  She used it as a "vehicle to buy time," she said. She continued to slowly reform the laws. When motions were denied, she kept coming up against circular questioning: "How do you KNOW adoptees want access to their birth certificates? How do you KNOW most birth mothers want their children to have access? How do you KNOW?" No matter how much anecdotal evidence and testimony she gathered, other legislators demanded data. So she needed time to gather it. To come up with hard statistics.

She also helped revamp the old Confidentiality Intermediary system, removing the medical cause requirement and opening it to birth siblings and other relatives. She met some smaller victories in 2000 and 2003 with improvements to the registry system.

The latest big bill, which allows--finally!--access to copies of birth certificates to IL-born adoptees, passed both chambers and was signed into law in 2010. The only way Feigenholtz could get it to pass, to get 30 votes from "opposed" to "neutral" was if she added the birth parent choices. (Ironically, many of the same adoptive-parent-legislators who, a decade ago, had been resistant to access laws, helped push this one through.) A birth parent can choose to have her name removed from the birth certificate, and can request no contact. Knowing that when fully informed, very few birth mothers redact, she allowed it. She also knew it would mean some adoptees would be blocked from their full information. So, Public Service Announcements on the envelopes of vehicle registration renewals went out, informing any birth moms (who might still be in the closet about being birth moms) that they could veto their child's access to their original parents' names.

Estimated numbers are as follows:
Number of un-redacted birth certificate requests filed: 8600
Number of redacted birth certificates: 49
= 99.4% of adoptees allowed full access to original information

I'm not endorsing Feigenholtz here or saying what she did was perfect. It's true she felt she had to compromise. I'm not simply okay with it because I was able to access my own birth certificate as an IL adoptee. But I understand why she did it, and I believe her when she says that if she would have pushed for a "clean" bill it would not have gone through and the total number of adoptees who would have their original birth certificates would still be ZERO. After that long of a fight.


8,551 is a much better number than that.

For more on IL adoption history, click here.
For a snapshot of the new law, with instructions for how to send or request information if you are an adoptee, birth parent, or surviving relative of either, click here.