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Published Saturday October 2nd, 2010 at 8:12pm

Original Article by M. Diane McCormick

On Christmas nights, after the presents were opened, Debbie would look at the sky from her bedroom window and wonder: Was her birth mother thinking of her? Did Debbie have brothers and sisters? Were they opening gifts, too? "I would think about that from the time I was 8 or 9," says Debbie now.

Adopted as an infant, Debbie grew up in a loving home. She reunited last year with her birth mother. The birth father who never forgot her had died. She discovered a rockstar uncle.

In Pennsylvania, the road to reunion for adult adoptees and birth parents is fraught with hazards. Red tape. Sealed records. Judgmental bureaucrats. Opposing sides argue over how to fix the law, pitting the rights of adopted persons against the birth parents' desire for privacy.

In between are the stories of heartbreak, loss, and -- for the lucky ones -- closure.


Friends tell Debbie it's nice that she's met her real mom. "She's not my real mom," Debbie responds. "She's my birth mother. I'm very, very adamant about that, because otherwise, I'm disrespectful to my real parents. They're my mom and dad."

Though she was raised to feel special and chosen, Debbie always wondered. She had no heritage on which to hang an identity. She didn't look like anyone at the family table. "And you do long for that, to look into someone's face that looks like you," she says. "I just wanted to see someone that looked like me and get my medical history."

Debbie started a serious search for her birth mother after reading Ann Fessler's The Girls Who Went Away. After World War II, Fessler wrote, unmarried women gave birth in dark rooms and never held their babies.

They grieved, longing to know if their children were well.

Under Pennsylvania law, adult adoptees must petition a county judge where the adoption occurred for information from original records. The judge can order the release of non-identifying information such as heritage and medical information, but for the names of birth parents, a court intermediary must make first contact. The birth certificate remains sealed unless the birth parents consent or are deceased. Adoptees can also check the state Health Department's Adoption Medical History Registry for non-identifying information and, if consent is on file, the names of birth parents.

Debbie got her judge's order, but she says she had to push county children and youth workers to follow through. When they finally made calls, they got answering machines. After months of more pushing, Debbie was told her birth mother's phone was disconnected. She later learned that her birth mother had left her home for mold remediation, but Debbie didn't know that. It felt like rejection.

In the Capitol

The system can be improved, and adult adoptees have understandable concerns, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference believes. However, many birth mothers got a promise of confidentiality, says Francis Viglietta, director of the PCC's social concerns department, who is adamant about respecting a birth mother's privacy as well as helping reconnect families with mutual desires for reconciliation. The PCC helped draft Senate Bill 1360, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf's proposal to create a mutual consent registry where adoptees and birth parents could share their willingness -- or unwillingness -- to make contact.

"The last thing a mother who gave her child up for adoption 30 years ago wants is to open the door to someone who says, 'Hi, Mom,'" Viglietta says. "I wish there was a foolproof method. We feel the process in place in Pennsylvania respects all parties, but that's not to say it'll please everyone." Adoption is an alternative to abortion, says Viglietta, but the "main motivating issue" in sealing records is giving children fulfilling lives and keeping promises of privacy to the birth mother.

Pennsylvania adoptees get an amended birth certificate. The original is sealed. State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff's measure, House Bill 1978, would give adult adoptees the right to the original.

"What I have seen with many people is that this is a fundamental need and almost an affirmation of their existence. 'I want the real birth certificate. I don't want a facsimile,'" says Benninghoff. "Some argue it will deter the number of adoptions and increase the number of abortions. I'm pro-life and don't want that to occur. I don't know if I buy into that."

The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute reports that abortion rates aren't affected, and can even decline, in states where records are opened or were never sealed. In fact, note the institute and other advocates, getting the original birth certificate and reuniting with birth parents are separate issues. "This one touches individuals very personally," says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. "It's about them. They feel as though everybody else has theirs. Why do I not have mine?

Human Rights

Amanda Woolston grew up happy. She says she had internalized what she now calls "stereotypes" -- that her birth mother didn't want her, that she was lucky to be alive because she could have been aborted.

But when she had her first child at age 22, she thought, "Something's just not right here."

"Without being a mother, I could imagine how there might be no bond, but after having my son, I thought she just deserves to know that I'm OK."

Woolston, the founder and president of Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights, found her birth mother after a harrowing journey through the bureaucracy in Tennessee, her birth state, that included agreeing to a restraining order against herself. "We end up with laws that undermine people's rights just because the state tries to micromanage relationships that people can and can't have," Woolston says. "I am being punished without due process or just cause because I wasn't seen as having a right to my information."

Plus, Woolston learned that her birth mother -- and many others, she now believes -- had been told a lie. "She had been waiting for me for nine years, because she had always been told that at 16, I could contact her. She thought I was dead or hated her." Debbie, too, eventually found her birth mother, no thanks to court intermediaries.

They revealed that her birth father had passed away five years before. State law allows release of the name of deceased birth parents, but she says she had to inform a courthouse records room staffer of that fact.

"I'm a customer," she says now. "You're providing a service. When I call you, I expect a call back within 48 hours. Weeks would go by. Literally. I would call and leave a message for an update, and three weeks later, I would get a call." However, Richard Gold, deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare's Office of Children, Youth, and Families, said he hasn't heard complaints in recent years over non-compliance with court orders. "That's a very serious matter, and the court takes it seriously," he says.

Debbie used comments on her birth father's online obituary to find a friend of her birth parents and the name of her birth mother.

She says she learned an uncle is a famous rock star -- maybe not much different from her childhood conviction that she was the child of a millionaire or socialite.

Debbie's teenaged birth mother and birth father had been pressured by some, but not all, family members into giving up their baby. Her birth grandparents and siblings knew about her. Even some cousins. Many lived in the town where she now lives.

And like Woolston's mother, Debbie's birth mother had been told that her daughter -- the baby that a nurse mistakenly allowed her to hold for a moment – would get the adoption records at age 18. "They were like, 'What took you so long? We're so glad you're here!'"

Mother and Child

It was 1963, and Carolyn Hoard had escaped an abusive marriage. Destitute, she gave up her fourth child -- a baby boy, product of a one-night stand -- because her ex-husband could have claimed she was an unfit mother and taken her three young daughters. For years, she suffered "so much grief."

"I just desperately wanted to know he was all right," says Hoard, of West Grove, Chester County. "It bothered me immensely that I did not know if he was in need of anything, if he was safe, well cared for, healthy."

She asked the adoption agency those questions when the boy was nine or 10 years old and received a terse letter. "He's well and happy, and you need counseling."

When he was in college, Hoard's son asked the agency her name but got nowhere. Hoard didn't know this. A few years later, she asked the agency to contact him. He had moved, and his adoptive mother, reached on the phone, became so upset that they dropped the matter. Hoard found her son through a private investigator and got in touch. "His first letter to me was, 'How dare you upset my parents!'" Hoard recalls.

Her son's wife tried to bridge the gap, sending Hoard their wedding photo. But her son died suddenly, at age 38, from meningitis. From his widow, Hoard says, she learned of his family's dysfunction, that he hadn't been as "well and happy" as the agency claimed.

A less meddlesome bureaucracy could have prevented years of pain, Hoard believes. Still, she is relieved that she found her son. "I know this will sound strange to someone not in my shoes, but as hard as it was to find he passed away, I think now he's at peace," she says. "He died a year or so after my mother, and I figured my mom was taking care of him. He's in a better place, and eventually we'll be together."

The Man With No Name

The Leola man named Victor Woods Jr. by his adoptive parents knows that he was born at Lancaster General Hospital on Sept. 30, 1951. That's it. Without his birth name, he can't access his records.

Woods' daughter, Michele Zook, encounters brick walls, sleuthing a family legend that her dad's birth mother was white and birth father African-American. Zook, of New Holland, combed through adoption logs in the Lancaster County courthouse. Was her dad "Baby Boy Floyd"? Maybe "Baby Boy Thompson"?

"Looking at my father, he very well could have half brothers and sisters. We live in the area. Did we ever pass family and not even know? When I go to the doctor, they want to know information back to my grandparents.

We don't know that. I can't trace back any of my history other than my parents. My husband can trace back to when they came from Germany, and I don't have any of that." Priscilla Sharp, of State College, is a "search angel," using databases and navigating state bureaucracies to help adopted persons and birth parents reunite. In 1964, she gave up a daughter and was told by a nun to "go home and forget."

The same system that "did whatever they could to pry our babies away from us" still assumes that birth mothers can forget, Sharp believes, but the vast majority of women she has contacted show "cautious joy," relieved to know where their children are. "It's the right of any citizen to hang up the phone or shut the door or write back and say, 'Please don't contact me again,' and that's when their privacy needs to be protected. Not before," says Sharp. "We shouldn't presume they don't want to be contacted."

Need to Know

Times change. Out-of-wedlock births are common, open adoptions prevalent, and technology ubiquitous. Attitudes toward secrecy will change, too, those on all sides of the issue agree.

"In this day and age, the fact that we keep adult adopted persons in the dark age of secrecies and lies is ludicrous," says Sharp. In the meantime, many adoptees who have learned about their identities and reunited with birth families still have questions and regrets. Debbie never met the birth father who grieved for her, and she feels responsible for the depression that characterized his adult life. Her parents don't want to know that she sought her birth family. Keeping a secret from them tears her apart, but otherwise, there's little she would have done differently.

"Every day, I feel guilty for having gone through this whole process and keeping it a secret from my adoptive parents. I have the best mom and dad in the world, so I wasn't missing anything. So why is it I wanted to know? I still don't know. You just do."