|OPENING THE RECORDS|
March 22, 1999
| PROTESTERS: No more
secrets! No more lies!
LEE HOCHBERG: These people, adopted as children years ago, were bittersweet as they gathered recently outside the State Records Building in Portland.
PROTESTERS: No more secrets! No more lies! No more secrets!
LEE HOCHBERG: In November, Oregon voters had approved Ballot Measure 58 to allow adult adoptees to see their birth certificate, a first step in helping them find their birth mother, whose name is also on the certificate. For more than 40 years, every state, except Kansas and Alaska, has shielded the identity of birth mothers. Implementing the Oregon measure, says adoption rights leader Helen Hill, would be a triumph for adoptees' civil rights.
SPOKESPERSON: Go on up to Room 205 after we lay down our signs, and I encourage you to apply for your birth certificate just like any other citizen of Oregon. (Cheers)
LEE HOCHBERG: They applied, but they knew they wouldn't get their records. In December, before the ballot measure was to go into effect, four birth mothers had obtained an injunction against it. They argued giving adoptees birth certificates violates the promise of anonymity made to the mothers when they relinquished their children.
FRANK HUNSAKER, Open Records Opponent: These mothers were told this will be kept confidential, and they entered into that life- changing decision with that thought uppermost in their mind.
LEE HOCHBERG: Portland Attorney Frank Hunsaker requested the injunction on behalf of the birth mothers.
FRANK HUNSAKER: And now they're being told, "Hey, what you were told 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago doesn't make any difference because of this new law." That's not right.
LEE HOCHBERG: The ballot initiative came after repeated efforts to pass open records laws in the state legislature failed. It was the brainchild of adoptee Hill, an Oregon artist whose studio is packed with images of embryos and eggs.
HELEN HILL, Open Records Advocate: The egg for me is all about origins and beginnings.
LEE HOCHBERG: Hill says she grew up happily in her adoptive home, but as an adult, working long nights in her studio, she was plagued about her roots.
HELEN HILL: It's a ghostly feeling. It's a feeling of never having had a beginning. Each time you look in the mirror, you almost do a double take. "Who is that?" You look at your hands. "How did that come to be like that?"
LEE HOCHBERG: Last year, she did meet her birth mother. Buoyed by the experience, she took $85,000 she had inherited from her adoptive father and spent it on the initiative campaign to help other adoptees. 51-year-old Adoptee Curtiss Endicott joined the campaign. A former truck driver, he had been forced out of work by respiratory and other health problems he believes are hereditary. Not knowing his birth mother, he has no way of checking.
CURTISS ENDICOTT, Open Records Advocate: Well, I want to find out where this is coming from. My birth mother provided me with some medical history 51 years ago, when she was 19. This doesn't hold water in today's medical world.
LEE HOCHBERG: His birth mother's history says only that she has no history of tuberculosis, diabetes, insanity, or feeblemindedness, not very useful last year when Endicott's son suffered kidney failure, another possibly genetic illness.
CURTISS ENDICOTT: There are just too many questions I cannot answer without the facts -- and I can't get those facts until I can speak to blood siblings.
LEE HOCHBERG: Critics of open records acknowledge such stories are compelling, but they say Oregon's new law goes too far.
FRANK HUNSAKER: The adoptee says to the birth parent, "I don't care what you were promised. I don't care about your rights. I have rights, and my rights are more important. My rights trump. My rights as the adoptee trump your rights, birth parent."
LEE HOCHBERG: Attorney Hunsaker says a promise of privacy was made to birth mothers, and it's a breach of contract to break it. The case may hinge on whether such promises were truly made. Adoptees protesting the injunction say birth mothers never signed contracts guaranteeing privacy. Adoptees attorney Thomas McDermott:
THOMAS McDERMOTT, Open Rights Advocate: We've never seen such a contract. We're actually unaware that any such contract exists, in writing anyway, that typically birth mothers do not contractually agree with an agency or someone like that for confidentiality. There may have been discussions about "will they find out who I am?," or "how would that happen?," But we've yet to see any documentary evidence to support that.
LEE HOCHBERG: Counselors at Portland's Boys and Girls Aid Society, an adoption agency, agree legal relinquishment papers never promised confidentiality, but they say state law assured adoptions were private, and the form that mothers filled out to request adoption services suggested the same. Adoption Counselor Lauren Greenbaum:
LAUREN GREENBAUM, Adoption Counselor: The form says, "This information will be held in the strictest confidence."
LEE HOCHBERG: And that means?
LAUREN GREENBAUM: Period.
LEE HOCHBERG: Regards birth certificates, what does that mean?
LAUREN GREENBAUM: I don't think that anybody thought about applying it to that. Adoption records were sealed, and they knew that, and we certainly told them that, and so they didn't have any reason to think that it would ever get out.
CINDY: It was just there was no question it would be shielded.
LEE HOCHBERG: The adoption agency -
CINDY: Oh, yes.
LEE HOCHBERG: -- said to you -- they said to you, "Your identity will be shielded"?
CINDY: Yes. The records were closed. Yes. She doesn't know who you are, and you don't know who she is.
LEE HOCHBERG: None of the birth mothers challenging the law is speaking publicly, but other birth mothers, like this Oregon woman who uses the pseudonym "Cindy," say they believed their identities would be protected.
CINDY: I don't remember the exact conversation, but I do remember enough to know that it was very clear to me that my confidentiality was very well protected there.
LEE HOCHBERG: If adoption agencies promised privacy, they did so improperly, say the adoptees. They argue no contract between a birth mother and an agency can harm an unrepresented third party, in this case the child given up for adoption.
THOMAS McDermott: You and I could not make a contractual agreement that would deprive someone else of their rights. Now, that would not be enforceable. The plaintiffs here really ignore the impact of what about the object of this agreement, which is the child.
CINDY: You know what? That's the reality of infancy. Babies don't get to decide.
LEE HOCHBERG: For Cindy, a rape victim who became pregnant and put her child up for adoption 20 years ago, the legal maneuvering is horrifying. She says she made contact with her now-grown daughter, and the daughter wants to find the father who Cindy had helped send to prison. Cindy fears the girl and father could use Measure 58 to locate her and harm her.
CINDY: It feels like rape all over again to have my timing and my choice taken away in revealing my identity. I gave birth to this child. I gave her life. I chose to give her life. I don't need to allow her to have access to me to hurt me.
HELEN HILL: A birth mother doesn't own the event. A birth is not something that happens to her alone. She can't control everything around that. She can wish to, but there's somebody else out there that is very much affected, the person that was born.
LEE HOCHBERG: Legislators in Delaware have struck a compromise with a new law that gives adoptees access to records unless birth parents ask the state to withhold them. How Oregon resolves its issue will be watched closely in several states, where open records advocates are pushing legislation of their own.