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Published Wednesday October 14th, 2009 at 9:38pm

Original Article by Mary Garrigan

Eric Roach is working to change a South Dakota law so other adopteeswon't have to work as hard, or tell lies, to get their original birthcertificates.

Roach, of Spearfish, South Dakota, was adopted as a 6-month-oldinfant in Iowa in 1955. At age 40, he was denied access to his sealedadoption records and his original birth certificate by an Iowa court.

"That's wrong," Roach said. "I can't have what other people getautomatically. Any biological child can go to the state of South Dakotaand request a copy of their birth certificate and, with the appropriatedocumentation, they'll get it -- no questions asked. As an adoptee, ifyou want a copy of your birth certificate -- hang on for the ride. Theanswer is 'No. You're adopted.' The laws ought to be equal across theboard."

As part of South Dakota Support and Education forAdoption Legislation, Roach is one of about a dozen members --including adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents -- who willlobby the 2010 Legislature to allow 18-year-old adoptees to obtaintheir original, unamended birth certificates from the South DakotaDepartment of Health. Under current state law, adoptees need a courtorder from the county where their adoptions were finalized to accesstheir adoption records or their original birth certificates, requeststhat can be arbitrarily denied by a judge.

Current rules

Today,all those adopted through South Dakota courts have the right to receivenonidentifying information about their birth parents if they submit awritten request to the South Dakota Department of Social Servicesadoption office. Nonidentifying information includes age, education andthe height, weight and general appearance of their birth parents attheir time of an adoptee's birth, as well as ethnic background,religion, occupation and birth family health history. An adoptee canalso learn whether the termination of parental rights was voluntary orinvoluntary and the existence of any other children born to his or herbirth mother or the relationship between the birth parents. Butadoptees can't find out the location of their birth nor the birthdatesof their natural parents.

Holder family

Danieland Dorcas Holder are adopted 17-year-old twins from Spearfish who willturn 18 in November. They say they have no need, and little interest,in obtaining their original birth certificates, at least not right now.

Adoptedat age 8 by Harold and Sharon Holder as part of a larger sibling group,the twins have some memories of their birth mother and know their birthfamily name, but they have no relationship with her. Their birth fatheris deceased.

The Holder twins are among the first generation tocome of age from the post-open adoption era in South Dakota. None ofthe Holder family's 10 adopted children were part of an open adoptionofficially, but they have all been raised with an awareness of theirbirth mothers, and as much age-appropriate information about them asthe Holders have to give.

Although he isn't currently curiousfor more information or contact with his birth family, Daniel canunderstand that other adoptees might be.

But he and his father,Harold, agree any change in state law should balance the adoptee'sright to know with the birth family's right to anonymity.

"It'snot just about the adoptee. You have to respect the confidentiality ofthe mom, too," Harold Holder said. "That person should have somethingto say about it. Everybody has a right to privacy."

Anonymity and accuracy

Roach and SD SEAL organizer Lynne Banks disagree. A guarantee of lifelong anonymity does not exist in adoption law, they argue.

"It'sone of those adoption myths," said Roach. "But there's no guarantee ofconfidentiality in the law -- never was, never has been, never will be.If some social worker along the way made that promise, that's not legaland binding."

South Dakota adoption law dates back to at least1939 and, although it may not guarantee anonymity, it has historicallyprovided for sealed records, including birth certificates, that canonly be opened by a court order. Post-adoption, a new birth certificateis created by the Vital Records department of the state Department ofHealth that replaces the birth parent names with the names of the legalparents.

Banks, the adoptive mother of two daughters, said abirth certificate is an important document, emotionally and legally.The birth certificates of adoptees make no distinction that thedocument has been amended.

"When I first got my daughters'amended birth certificates, I felt nauseous," Banks said. "It said Igave birth to my first daughter in Anaheim, California, and my secondone in Lynchburg, Virginia. They're lies. They're legal documents, andthose are false."

Banks believes adult adoptees have a right to their original birth certificates.

"That piece of paper -- it means the world to them, because it's theirs and nobody else's," she said.

Proposed legislation

Nineother states have open records laws giving adoptees, either at age 18or 21, access to their original birth certificates without a court'spermission.

Sen. Stan Adelstein, R-Rapid City, who leads thesenate's Health and Human Services Committee, thinks it's time forSouth Dakota to do so.

Adelstein's committee approved a similarbill, SB153, in the 2009 Legislature, which eventually passed bothhouses but failed to become law when a House-Senate conferencecommittee couldn't agree on the amended bill.

The amendment,designed to appease confidentiality concerns for birth parents, wassponsored by Sen. Sandy Jerstad, D-Sioux Falls, an adoptee who favors achange in state law. It mandated DSS to maintain a registry where birthparents could state a preference for contact. That's something thedepartment has done on a voluntary basis to match adoptees and birthparents, since 1985.

Banks said the "ill-advised" amendmentcaused DSS to pull its earlier support for the bill, dooming it tofailure. Adelstein hopes this year's bill will pass without amendments.

Hehas become "intrigued" by the issue over time, because of the manyadoptees he's known who have benefited from the search for their birthfamily. The testimony of birth parents, too, has convinced him that itis good public policy to remove obstacles to that search. Adelstein wasapproached by a man at the state Legislature last year who told himthat he was a birth father who, many years later, still hopes for a"knock on the door" some day.

Arguments against

SomeSB153 opponents argued losing the veil of adoption anonymity wouldcause more women to choose abortion rather than adoption. Adelsteinsaid there was no evidence to support that assertion. Banks saidneither the abortion rate nor stalking incidents rose in any of thenine states that have opened adoptee birth certificates.

Rep.Joni Cutler, R-Sioux Falls, also an adoptee, contends the currentprocess of getting a court order works, has benefits for the adopteeand should remain in place because it balances the privacy rights ofall. DSS will assist an adoptee, free of charge, with the paperwork topetition the court to open their records.

But often, that's notthe end result of a petition, Banks said. Unless an adoptee presents amedically-compelling reason for seeing their original birthcertificate, many judges won't order it unsealed, she said.

"Courtsdon't have a role in facilitating relationships. No courts should tellthem what kind of information you're capable of handling," she said."We're talking about adults here."

Roach's search for family

Armedwith little more than the location of his birth and his adoptive mom'smemory that he had been nicknamed "Petey" by his foster family, EricRoach eventually found his birth family on his own after a complicatedtwo-year search. Roach learned his birth mother had died a few yearsearlier, never getting the reunion with him that she always hoped for.

"She carried one of those little hospital pictures of me in her wallet until the day she died," he said.

Hismother, an unwed mother who had two older children, attempted to placea contact-preference letter in Roach's adoption file in the 1970s, butRoach never received it. The then-director of the Iowa adoption agency,who believed the legal term "final adoption" meant exactly that, madethe decision to destroy the letter, Roach was told years later.

Renee Eggebraaten, director of Bethany Christian Services in Rapid City, said her agency favors openness in adoption policies.

Changing attitudes

Theproblems Roach encountered are fast becoming moot, given changingsocietal attitudes about adoption that began in the mid-1970s and haveevolved into some level of openness in many adoptions in the 1990s.Seventy percent of all adoptions conducted by Bethany in the past fiveyears have been open adoptions, meaning some degree of contact isongoing in the adoption triad.

Eggebraaten favors the proposedchange in birth certificate access, but she also wants birth parents tobe able to state a reluctance to be contacted. Some situationsinvolving crimes of rape or domestic violence may call for continuedanonymity, she said.

But in the vast majority of adoptions, shesaid, the sooner people confront and express the losses that areinherent to all adoption, the sooner they come to grips with theirfears of abandonment and rejection.

"Since when does having more information cause confusion?" she asks.

Having to lie

If Iowa's birth certificate law had been different in 1994, when Roach began his search, he might have met his birth mother.

"Itwould have been a direct route to my birth family. I could havecircumvented two years of waiting. And I wouldn't have had to lie to abunch of people."

As Roach narrowed his search for his birthfamily, the Archers, he sometimes posed as a genealogy researcher -- tofuneral homes, schools and distant cousins -- while tracking down thenames of his birth siblings.

"If you tell people you areconducting an adoption search, the doors that will slam in your faceare innumerable. You have to become a proficient liar. You have to lieto so many people. I couldn't take the chance that they would choose toslam a door shut."

Today, Roach is the proud possessor of hisoriginal birth certificate, and an ongoing relationship with a birthsister and her extended family.

He also has an answer for why the nickname, "Petey."

The name his mother chose for him at birth was Peter John Archer.