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A Bid to Open Files on Adoptions That Close Doors to Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 21 years, Cindy Shacklett wondered about the daughter she had given up for adoption. And on the day Shacklett found her child, she discovered a relief and calm she thought she would never know.

“Just to know she was alive, I slept a peaceful sleep that night,” Shacklett recalled Tuesday. “For the first time, I finally knew where all my children were.”

Shacklett’s suffering is hardly an uncommon story. State laws make it difficult for parents to locate the children they surrendered for adoption and for adopted children to find their birth parents.

That is why Shacklett and about a dozen other women gathered Tuesday at Orange County Superior Court. They want California law liberalized to allow adult adopted children and their birth parents access to now-closed files that detail their adoptions.

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The Orange County activists were part of a nationwide demonstration on Tuesday, National Law Day, which they dubbed “Open My Records Day.” In 25 U.S. cities, local contingents of such groups as Concerned United Birthparents and American Adoption Congress marched into their local court clerks’ offices and demanded to see their sealed adoption records in a bid to dramatize their cause.

California law permits parents to view the court records of their adopted children. But adopted children and their birth parents must obtain a court order to see their files--and the state civil code says such orders are to be granted only under “exceptional circumstances.” Information on adoptions can also be obtained through the state Department of Social Services, but only if the child, birth parent and adoptive parents all agree.

A bill currently working its way through the California Legislature would open adoption records to adoptees once they reach 18 years of age and to birth parents, as long as neither party to the adoption has expressed a wish to remain unidentified.

Shacklett, 43, of El Toro, who heads the Orange County branch of Concerned United Birthparents, said the law must be changed to bring peace to adopted children and the parents they never knew.

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As an 18-year-old single mother, Shacklett gave up her daughter. She went on to marry and have two other children, now 7 and 10 years old. But she said she always wondered about her first-born.

Three years ago, after a two-year search, Shacklett located her daughter in Arizona and the two were reunited. Her daughter, now 24, had been searching unsuccessfully for her, too, Shacklett said, and was “delighted to be found.” The young woman has now met the rest of her mother’s family and stays in touch by phone, Shacklett said.

“Adoptees always want to know and birth parents never forget,” Shacklett said. “I’m pleased there are no more secrets in our family now. We need to let the adoption system grow up and let adoptees and their birth parents contact each other in a mature way.”

Pat Sanders, 48, of Costa Mesa, said locating her birth parents 16 years ago in Texas made her feel like a whole person.

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“It’s a great validation of you as a person,” she said. “An adoptive identity feels like a loaned identity. Now I feel like I know who I am.”

Diane Toedter, 42, of Tustin, is still searching for her birth parents. She filed a petition Tuesday asking to see her records, but was told a judge must review her request.

“My whole life I’ve wondered,” she said. “You have a feeling of not knowing yourself, like you dropped out of the sky. You want to fit into a picture with someone.”


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