A national group is pushing legislation in California that would strip the confidentiality from adoption records, revealing the identities of thousands of parents who gave up their children between 1938 and 1984.
The bill also would help parents find children whom they relinquished long ago and would give adoptive parents the same access to confidential records that their adopted children would be entitled to.
The measure is sponsored by the American Adoption Congress, a Washington-based group representing people who have been involved in all facets of adoption. Enjoying bipartisan support and little organized opposition, the bill has cleared the state Assembly and is pending in the Senate.
Although the bill's provisions are controversial and its passage would be an important victory for a growing national movement to open adoption records, the measure has received little public attention and is probably unknown to the vast majority of parents who would be affected.
But word of the bill is getting out and opposition is building. A group representing adoption agencies opposes the measure and dispatched an officer from Washington to lobby against it last month.
"This is incredibly extreme," said Mary Beth Seader, vice president of the National Committee for Adoption, which represents 146 nonprofit agencies nationwide. "We think this is a horrible idea that would be devastating to adoption if it were to pass."
Since 1984, California parents relinquishing their children have had the option at the time of the adoption of allowing their names and addresses to be disclosed after their children reach age 21. Adult adoptees also have the chance to approve the release of personal information to their natural parents. Otherwise, the documents remain secret.
But for those adopted between 1938 and 1984, the birth certificates, court records and adoption agency files are automatically sealed. Limited information is available to those born before 1938. The sealed records can be opened only by a judge who finds that "exceptional circumstances," such as the adoptee's need for medical records, outweigh the parent's right to privacy.
For many adults who were adopted, tracing their roots can be a nearly impossible task. Adoptees have long complained about the closed records, but have never mounted a serious attempt to repeal the confidentiality statute.
Kate Burke has changed that. A self-described "ex-Berkeley radical" from San Francisco, Burke was recently elected president of the American Adoption Congress. She has rallied the group to push legislation in several states, and the California bill--authored by Assemblyman Charles W. Quackenbush (R-Saratoga)--is the most far-reaching.
Burke, who was adopted and grew up in Chicago, at age 28 searched and found her mother in the Los Angeles area. Resistant at first, Burke's mother finally agreed to meet her--at Disneyland--three years later.
"Now we're best buddies," Burke said.
Burke has been touring the of fices of California lawmakers in tandem with Cindy Shacklett, who gave up her daughter for adoption in 1966 and did not see her again for 21 years. When Shacklett reached her child, she discovered that her daughter had been trying unsuccessfully to find her. Now they see each other regularly.
With Quackenbush, who last year adopted a baby, Burke and Shacklett represent the three sides of what is known in adoption circles as the triad: adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents. Together, the three groups probably include more than 1 million people in California.
Burke argues that all of the parties to adoption deserve access to information. But she speaks most forcefully for the rights and needs of adoptees. As a child, she said, she was troubled by the way she was different from her adoptive father, an accountant, and his wife.
"Finding your birth parent allows you to become yourself, because it allows you to see where you come from," Burke said. "You grow up not liking the parts of yourself that aren't like your mom and dad."
California judges have been reluctant to unseal adoption cases, even for medical reasons. As a result, Burke said, adoptees are destined to uncertainty about their genetic pasts and medical futures.
The bill would make original birth certificates and court records open to the inspection of adoptees and their adoptive parents. It require the state Department of Social Services to release information on the marriages and married names of the birth parents and the names of siblings.
Birth parents would gain access to the amended birth certificate and other records, which show the names and addresses of the adoptive parents.
Opponents warn that the bill would allow an unwarranted intrusion into the lives of women and men who gave up their children years ago and do not intend to contact them. They add that many adopted children may not want to meet their biological parents.
"There are people who gave up their children for adoption who assumed once they did that it was settled for life," Seader said.
Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento), the only lawmaker to speak against the measure when it was passed by the Assembly on June 14, said closed adoptions in the past were a way for many women to escape the "social stigma" that came with bearing children outside of marriage.
"Particularly for older women, to suddenly have that confidentiality removed, willy-nilly, seems to me to be a basic violation of decency," Isenberg said.
In response to this objection, supporters of the bill have added a provision requiring the state to conduct a 12-month advertising campaign warning birth parents to contact the state if they seek to shield their identity. Parents would be allowed to sign a "reverse waiver" keeping their names confidential.
Burke said this protection should be sufficient. She said only a small number of parents located through searches under current law reject contact with their children.
But there is no requirement in the bill that the advertising effort extend outside California. And in today's transient society, Seader contends that many parents would never get word that their identities were about to be revealed.
"Are we expecting people to check with the states every year to make sure that the rights they thought they had are intact?" she asked.
If the California bill passes, it could have an impact on the nationwide movement to open adoption records. Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania and Michigan are considering similar statutes. Only in Kansas and Alaska are all birth certificates public records, but those states do not allow routine access to court records on adoption cases and other background information.
"This is dramatic, landmark legislation," Burke said. "It isn't radical to us, but it is to people who aren't into adoption. I think this is something whose time has come."