Toronto Star

Saturday, August 7, 1999

Get with the 21st century: Open records for adoptees

By Michele Landsberg
The Toronto Star

OREGON DID it a few weeks ago. Scotland did it in 1930. England did it in 1978 and British Columbia did it, half-heartedly, two years ago. In New Zealand, you can do it legally at 20 years of age; in Israel, France, Germany, Denmark, Australia, Iceland, Ireland, Korea, Mexico, Norway, Sweden, Alaska and Kansas, you can do it at 18 or older, and in Holland at 12.

You can find out who you are.

One of Canada's most astonishing and blatant human rights violations - the refusal to allow adopted adults any access to their true birth records - has long since been corrected in most of the world. The United States is an exception: In fact, a few fanatic state legislators are now so nervous about the open records movement that they are actually proposing criminal penalties for those who seek their birth parents.

A few weeks ago, when I wrote about Donna Marie Marchand's determination to launch a constitutional challenge against adoption secrecy, I was startled by the outpouring of positive responses from adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents alike. We should all be shocked, actually, that adoptees' original birth certificates are altered (fictionalized) to name the adoptive parents instead of the birth parents. The deception is so deep and so protected that sealed adoption records are specially exempt from the Freedom of Information law - an exception that Marchand intends to challenge.

Even where both adopted adult and the birth parent register for ``voluntary disclosure'' in Ontario, bureaucratic backlogs are so great that the actual search and reunion may be on hold for eight to 10 years.

Why the foot-dragging in Ontario? Adoption activists point to studies showing that there has been no negative effect of open records in New Zealand or Scotland. ``Ninety-nine per cent of birth parents welcome the contact from their grown child,'' said Holly Kramer, president of Parent Finders Inc. ``Of course, contact has to be made sensitively. I counsel people to speak only to their birth parent and not leave word with anyone else. They might say something like, `I'm phoning on behalf of a friend, George Smith, who is searching for Mary Jones' . . . Usually, the birth mother will say, `I always thought this day would come.' ''

As far back as 1984, Ralph Garber, dean of the University of Toronto School of Social Work, headed a government commission that strongly recommended open records. His excellent report suffered the dusty fate of most government commissions: Oblivion.

Some adoption agencies argue that the birth mother has been ``promised confidentiality.'' But these explanations ring hollow. In Alberta, for example, the birth records remain sealed even if the child was adopted because its birth parents died or even if all parties are happily reunited. Surely we're long past those cruel days when a young woman could be devastated by the shame of an unwanted pregnancy. Parents who still fear shame or exposure can refuse contact. Nor can an adult adoptee lay claim to a rediscovered birth family inheritance. Once adopted, always adopted. There is no legal mechanism to annul an adoption, so an adult adoptee would have no viable claim against biological parents.

It seems evident to me that the laws were enforced for the sake of the adoptive families, in the name of society's pious insistence on the sacredness of the nuclear family.

Remarkably, many adoptive families now reject those outmoded strictures and welcome open records in the belief that their well-loved child needs to know about her biological origins.

As Holly Kramer pointed out, we bemused observers are often led astray by our language. We keep speaking of them as ``adopted children,'' instead of recognizing that it is adults who seek to know their true identity. There will be no scenarios of children wrenched from one set of loving arms and arbitrarily thrust into another; no 3-year-olds are seeking their birth mothers.

Nor do open records represent a loss: ``Your 18-year-old may get married and move to Alabama, but you don't feel you've `lost' her love,'' Kramer said. ``In my own case, when I found my birth mother, no one lost and we all gained.''

In the last Legislature, MPP Marilyn Churley, herself a birth mother who has written movingly about her reunion with her son, put forward Bill 88 advocating open access to birth records. The bill died on the order paper. Maybe, this time around, the whole Legislature will at last recognize the right of all Canadian adults to know their own true identities.



Michele Landsberg's column appears Saturday in the Life section and Sunday in the A section. Her e-mail address is mlandsb@thestar.ca.

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