It’s that time of the political year when legislators introduce bills that promise adult adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates. And in a disparaging time colored by what is said (but is patently false) and what should be transparent (but is obviously not), a caveat is necessary for adoptees who are promised all sorts of things from legislation.
That caveat is this: watch out for missing asterisks.
Let’s take Indiana over the last several years. Indiana HEAR, an advocacy group, fought for years to open that state’s closed records, primarily for adoptees born prior to 1994. It was a solid fight, and HEAR recently got results: a bill signed by then-governor Mike Pence in 2016.
HEAR, though, got a bit dodgy in its press release in describing what the new law did:
Today Indiana’s adult adoptees have achieved a reality that’s taken years to accomplish—equal access to the most basic parts of their identity. Governor Mike Pence signed Senate Bill 91 into law today, making Indiana the 14th state to give adult adoptees from the “closed records” period access to their original birth certificate and adoption records.
All true,* but there are a few asterisks missing. To help you understand what I mean, I’ve rewritten it to supply what’s needed:
Today Indiana’s adult adoptees have achieved a reality that’s taken years to accomplish—equal access* to the most basic parts of their identity. Governor Mike Pence signed Senate Bill 91 into law today, making Indiana the 14th state* to give adult adoptees* from the “closed records” period access* to their original birth certificate and adoption records.
Here’s what those asterisks mean, in the fine print that is not specifically disclosed: “‘Access’ to your birth certificate is subject to birth parent approval or, absent approval, proof that a birth parent is dead. Indiana HEAR makes no representation that access is equal for all. Indiana is not one of the seven states allowing unrestricted access to original birth certificates.”
A lot of advocates omit such inconvenient details when describing their legislative efforts and accomplishments.
Take a Missouri organization as another example. It lobbied the Missouri legislature last year and ultimately came out with passage of an “adoptee rights” bill. Here’s how the Missouri organization now explains the new law:
August 28, 2016[.] The Missouri Adoptee Rights Act will go in effect. Missouri born adopted adults will be allowed to receive a copy of their own original birth certificate without a court order.
Here again are the missing asterisks:
August 28, 2016[.] The Missouri Adoptee Rights Act will go in effect. Missouri born adopted adults will be allowed* to receive a copy* of their own original birth certificate without a court order.*
And here’s what those asterisks mean: “Receipt of an accurate copy is dependent on the wishes of a birth parent. Please note that you may not receive a copy at all, even after a parent dies. You may also get black boxes that eviscerate the identifying information that would normally be included on a birth certificate.”
Worse, the Missouri folks supply a FAQ section on its website, but it initially only addressed birth parent concerns (since deleted) and the timing of access to OBCs (2018, for most adoptees). The FAQ even reiterates that “birth certificates will become accessible without a court order on January 2, 2018 for those born after 1940.” Yeah, except this is also missing an asterisk or two. You would think the biggest losers from this legislation—adult adoptees who are not provided access—would get at least some truthful and factual information about restricted access. You would think that adoptees—all adoptees—are entitled to that truth, especially from those who claim to be their advocates.
No big deal, right? No, it is a big deal. Remember that these organizations requested our support and promised that their bills would give us access to our birth certificates. In these states the bills are often “clean” when introduced, meaning that access at the time of introduction was “unrestricted access”—no vetoes, no misguided and misnamed “contact preference forms,” no black boxes. But what those organizations do not tell you is this: there is no plan to fight a bill that goes south, that gets amended quickly to include dirty provisions, such as disclosure vetoes or redaction. Rather, bills now seem to be introduced with the full expectation that they will be amended with restrictive black box provisions, and there is no articulated plan to fight that. There is no strategic red line to say “nope, we won’t go there.” It’s as if advocates shrug and say “oh, well.”
Failure to effectively strategize—and a failure to acknowledge the truth of what these new laws do—make one thing clear: if advocates are willing to paper over redactions and vetoes, then redactions and vetoes become the default for all future legislation. If, for instance, we advertise and celebrate that Indiana and Missouri are now open states*—without mentioning restrictive provisions embedded in the law—then it upends the narrative for what is considered open. Open is not actually open; or, more accurately, closed is the new open. That’s nuts.
In the last few weeks, a new law in New Jersey went into effect that provides limited access to original birth certificates. You wouldn’t know that from the advocates’ website, though, which makes no mention of the actual redactive power of the law. Indeed, in answering a FAQ entitled “What exactly will I receive?” the New Jersey CARE website states:
You will receive a non-certified copy of your original birth certificate on file with the Office of Vital Statistics and Registry. If your birth parent(s) submitted a contact preference and family history information, you will also receive a copy of that information. You will receive your documents by postal mail.
Sure. But while the law does open up access to almost all adoptees, it keeps access permanently closed for others. Exactly 550 others, whose parents chose to redact their information. But you wouldn’t know this from the NJ Care website. You are not told that you may be one of the 550 adoptees who will receive either 1) nothing or 2) a piece of paper with a portion of your identity wiped out. Those are the missing asterisks that you deserve to know. We all deserve to know, now and at all times.
I wrote to NJ Cares about its misleading information and received a response promising to “work on getting the word out more clearly.” I also wrote to advocates in Missouri and Indiana. I did not hear back. My guess is that it’s a tad inconvenient to tell the full truth, either now or—more importantly—at the time of introducing their legislation.
We’ll see if truth and accuracy will at least be acknowledged up front in future efforts, a minimal expectation when asking for adoptee support. In the interim, beware what is promised. It may sound great, but ask specifically about the plan once things start rolling. If there is no plan, no strategy, no commitment to fight for a clean and unrestricted bill, then you might want to carry around some asterisks to remind people that what you are promised in the beginning may not in any way be what you get in the end.