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The Paper Trail to a Past : Support Groups Lessen the Odds for Searchers of Kin

Searches by adoptees and birth parents for blood relatives vary widely, depending on the ages of those sought, the state in which they reside, what records are available--and just plain luck.

Some searches take decades, others a few weeks. The most common, say Orange County specialists, take six months to two years.

The ages of searchers range from 18 to 70. But the range centers between 25 and 35 and includes mostly women. But now there are younger searchers--and also more men.

And some searches are unusually urgent, such as one case in which the birth parents were sought for a bone-marrow transplant for their leukemia-stricken child. Some adoptees need to obtain vital genetic or medical background, including effects of drug abuse, for themselves and their children.

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For adoption-rights advocates, the public-records situation remains bleak. Only three states have open access to original birth certificates and other key adoption case documents.

In all other states, including California, such records are sealed unless opened by court order. However, access to these records--and therefore to crucial identifications, particularly the birth parents--are routinely denied by judges.

And what information is made available is often useless, they said. In these instances, the names and whereabouts of birth or adoptive parents and the children’s adopted names are usually deleted.

“It’s absolutely a blank wall. It’s ignoring the fact that adoption is a lifelong process and that adoptees as adults have a right to know,” said consultant Patricia Treadway of the Fullerton-based Severed Strings.

Others in the adoption field, however, are appalled by the prospect of any “unlimited openness” for records. The most outspoken foe is William Pierce, president of the Washington-based National Committee for Adoption, whose members include traditional adoption agencies.

“If it’s strictly voluntary, if all parties in the triad--adopted adults, adoptive parents, birth parents--consent to it, there’s no problem, obviously,” said Pierce.

“But there are many who are frightened by the thought of (open records), who feel they are being betrayed if their privacy is invaded,” added Pierce. “They had entered into (the adoption) agreement because it was confidential and the court promised that. We should continue to respect--and protect--their rights.”

Generally, searchers said, they are still left with piecing together fragments of information from available basic records, with details also culled from hospital, marriage, divorce, property and other such records. If lucky, some searchers do so armed with at least a last name and specific city.

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Mostly, they pray for a little extra help.

“Sometimes you get a sympathetic attorney or doctor who has greater access to records, or a sympathetic or unknowing (records) clerk,” said one searcher. “Sometimes, someone even forgets to black out the names--and you’re home free!”

Others gain vital information about the person being sought--a special occupation, a high school, a close relative, sometimes the person’s full name itself--from their adoptive parents, who somehow heard about it or found it in old documents.

While many do searches on their own, some join the two major support organizations for next-of-kin searches--Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Assn. (ALMA) and Concerned United Birthparents (CUB). Some searchers also hire American Adoption Congress-backed consultants--there are five in Orange County--while others employ regular private investigators.

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Overall estimates of actual reunions, said search specialists, are hard to come by. However, the Nevada-based International Soundex Reunion Registry, which has listed more than 66,000 people since 1975, has reported 2,400 reunions from its computer-matching service.

And Tustin-based search consultant Patricia Sanders said studies have indicated that “unfavorable” reunions--those involving total rejection--may be no more than 5% to 10%.

But in many ways, search-movement leaders said, the “closed adoption” syndrome remains all-powerful in American society.

Also, they said, while the concept of “open adoptions"--where the birth parents maintain ongoing open contact with the child and the adoptive parents--is now widely praised, the number of “fully open adoptions” remains relatively few.

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Sharon Kaplan, executive director of Parenting Resources, estimated that the number of “fully open” cases in California--where 5,918 adoptions took place last year--amounted to no more than 10% to 15%.

Overall, though, search-movement advocates like to say that other trends point to a “new candor” in American society. They cite the impacts from such other issues as abortion rights and the lessening stigma attached to teen-age pregnancies and unwed mothers.

Support Organizations:

Adoptives’ Liberty Movement Assn. National office: (212) 581-1568. Maintains registry. Southern California: (818) 882-6969.

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American Adoption Congress. Search hot line: (505) 296-2198. National office: (800) 274-OPEN.

Concerned United Birthparents. National office: (800) 822-2777, (515) 263-9558. Maintains registry. Orange County branch: (714) 859-1952.

International Soundex Reunion Registry. P.O. Box 2312, Carson City, Nev.

Triadoption Publications. (714) 892-4098. Offers search-help books, referrals.

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LOCAL CONSULTANTS:

Delayn Curtis, (714) 962-8866.

Patricia Sanders, (714) 669-8100.

Cindy Shacklett, P.O. Box 816, El Toro, 92630.

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Trish McAleer, (714) 498-9119.

Patricia Treadway, (714) 525-9472.


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