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Local view: Adult adoptees deserve birth info

"Philomena,” the Academy Award-nominated film based on Philomena Lee’s unsuccessful search for her son, was not just a story. It was real. It was not just an isolated event in a nation across the Atlantic. The same story plays out today throughout the United States, in states that restrict an adult adoptee’s ability to obtain information on his or her origins.

Regardless of the need or the reason for his or her desire, no adult adoptee in Minnesota may obtain a copy of his or her original birth certificate upon demand. Regardless of any reason for wanting it or what’s intended to be done with it, an adoptee may endure a long, expensive and typically unproductive bureaucratic process before a request may even be ruled upon.

When this process is at an end, some find their way blocked by a document filed by a birth parent from which there is no appeal. Others find access depends upon the date they were adopted. If it’s after Aug. 1, 1977, they win; but if it’s before that date, they can only quit or go directly to court, where a judge decides their fate.

For those who doubt this, one of us is an attorney in private practice who recently was contacted by an 81-year-old woman adopted in 1933. She had been caught in this maze for 19 months, her records held hostage by two state agencies and one adoption agency because a required search for her birth parents had not been completed. She will be filing with the court. Can anyone argue that this woman, at the end of a long life, should not be entitled to know how her life began?

Our laws should not read like the rules for a game of Candy Land. Adult adoptees are not helpless children. They are adults like the rest of us. They come in all ages, sizes, colors and walks of life and in both genders. They are your friends and neighbors or the fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and cousins of your neighbors. You may be an adoptee, a birth parent or an adoptive parent.

All of our lives are touched by adoption. About 2 percent of Minnesota’s population was adopted. That translates into a minimum of 100,000 adoptees. Triple that number to account for birth parents. Add another 200,000 to account for adoptive parents. Add more for the biological and adoptive siblings of adoptees and we’ve hit more than 10 percent of Minnesota’s population: about 540,000 people.

We can change these laws during this year’s legislative session. House File 2440 and Senate File 2369 would abolish the bureaucracy for all but those whose information is subject to a hold placed by a birth parent. Those relative few would gain the right to petition the court for release of their information. Birth parents who have filed against release would be given an opportunity to make their case against release, an opportunity denied these adoptees since 1977.  Birth parents also would have the opportunity to state their preferences regarding contact by the adoptee.

Ideally, we would remove government from the equation completely, allowing all adult adoptees to access information on-demand and to do with it what they will — just as the rest of us do. This is not a perfect world. And so we are offered a less-than-perfect bill. Nonetheless, it is a bill we can and do support. Please join us in asking your senators and representatives to bring this bill to the floor and enact it into law.

Michele Benson is a Duluth native, an adoptive person, and a member of the American Adoption Congress (americanadoption congress.org) and of the Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform (mnadoptreform.org).  She runs a support group for adoptees and birth parents who are considering a reunion or who are in the process of reuniting. James M. Hamilton of St. Paul is an adoptive father and attorney who has studied adoption laws here and elsewhere for almost 20 years. Although he is a volunteer with the Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform (mnadopt reform.org), the views expressed here are solely his and Benson’s.

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