By Anonymous, Elder Law Clinic Student, Spring 2016
My mom was adopted by my loving grandparents as an infant and, for most of her life, knew nothing about her birth family. That changed, however, a few months ago. She first obtained her original (redacted) birth certificate along with non-identifying family information from the Chicago church that facilitated her adoption in the early 1960s. Then she petitioned an Illinois Court to appoint her a “confidential intermediary” (CI)—a professional who can retrieve information from sealed records, locate birth parents, and contact them on behalf of adoptees. After verifying that her birth parents are still alive, the CI notified them that my mom wants to make contact. If either rejects or ignores the request, the CI can contact “other blood relatives,” presumably biological siblings or half-siblings. My mom is still waiting to hear back.
Illinois’s CI service became available under recent legislation, backed by an open records movement that is increasingly influential across the U.S. In many states, adoptees have lobbied for and gained substantial access to sealed court records and family medical histories. In Oregon, for example, adoptees can access unaltered birth certificates. Our pervasive digital culture amplifies these policy initiatives, as technology has removed many of the traditional barriers to information. My mom admits that, if the CI route fails, she may turn to a private investigator or trace her genealogy through genetic testing. Some adoptees track down and reunite with birth relatives through social networks like Facebook.
My biological grandparents, however, did not grow up in this information age; in fact, secrecy was the primary goal of adoption law and policy from the 1930s into the 1960s. In that era, privacy helped protect birth parents from social stigma, and it created a sense of permanency in an adoptee’s placement. Releasing records will no doubt upend the expectations of many individuals who put children up for adoption during those years. Working with the Elder Law Clinic has forced me to consider, for the first time, what my biological grandparents—and other senior citizens in their position—stand to gain or lose from open records laws and communication with birth children.
Through my Clinic cases, I better understand how vulnerable seniors are, especially near the end of their lives. The sad reality is that people ingratiate themselves with and take advantage of aging relatives and friends. By no means do I think that adoptees harbor such ill intent. Fears of abuse and exploitation, however, are well-founded for many elderly individuals and their families. In attempts to communicate or reunite, adoptees should recognize the potential complexities of their birth parents’ situations and the threats they might pose with unmediated contact.
Increasing adoptees’ access to personal and genetic information is an important and worthy goal—so much so that many birth parents support laws promoting open access. Nonetheless, the privacy rights and personal choices of birth parents should not be overlooked. And, as I voice my opinions and my mom’s adoption story, I wonder whether my biological grandparents have the same luxury. I wonder whether they could push back against openness in adoption records, even if they were so inclined. It seems unreasonable to expect aging birth parents to be vocal or visible in their opinions, especially if the privacy promised to them years ago is precisely what they would like to maintain.