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Ohio set to open adoption records sealed for 50 years

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette logo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3/16/2015 By Jim Provance / Block News Alliance
Baby photo of Tamara Green shortly after her adoption. © Tamara Green Baby photo of Tamara Green shortly after her adoption.

COLUMBUS, Ohio  — The last time Tamara Green saw a doctor, she took a photo of the form on which she was asked for medical history. Once again she had checked “non-applicable/unknown.”

She turned to her husband and said, “That’s the last time I hope to ever write that again.”

Ms. Green, now living in Weirton, W.Va., knows she was born in 1969 in the Ashtabula County Medical Center in Ohio across the border from Erie. But she doesn’t know the names of her birth parents or that long elusive medical history.

Perhaps more than anything else, she wants to see her own name, something more than the “Baby Headley” some bureaucrat once mistakenly failed to redact on a rare document she was able to get.

“Imagine going through your entire life not knowing your identity,” Ms. Green said. “Yes, I’ll get medical history. I would love a reunion. But while I always thought the reunion was the end, I now see that as the icing on the cake. If I was one of the lucky ones who got a reunion, my first act would be to thank my birth parents for choosing life.”

Beginning Friday, Ms. Green and potentially hundreds of thousands of adoptees like her may get the answers they’ve wanted. Ohio will throw open a door that had been slammed shut to as many as 400,000.

Birth certificates and court decrees — some sealed as long as 51 years — will become available to adoptees or their direct descendants for the first time without a court order. It remains to be seen, however, whether the papers that many adoptees have longed to hold in their hands will contain the information they want.

For the last year, the birth parents of those who were adopted between January 1964 and September 1996 have had the option of having their names redacted from the records. The window to do that will close forever on Thursday.

Birth parents who chose to maintain the anonymity that the 1963 law promised them were required instead to submit lengthy medical and social histories for the files.

Judy Nagy, state registrar in the Department of Health’s Office of Vital Statistics, estimated that fewer than 100 birth parents have so far asked the state to redact identifying information. She expects that number to pick up a bit as Thursday’s deadline approaches, but it will remain tiny compared to the number of adoptions potentially affected.

Ms. Green plans to be among those in Columbus when Adoption Network Cleveland hosts an event Thursday between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. Adoptees born in Ohio during that 35-year window will gather to fill out forms to be delivered to the bureau on Friday. The response has been so strong that the venue was switched to a larger venue, the Crowne Plaza at 33 Nationwide Blvd.

“Three to four times more people say they’re coming than we thought there would be,” said Betsie Norris, the network’s executive director.

She said some adoptees hope the information will break down walls they’ve run up against while searching for their birth parents.

“Other people have already searched, but still want the document for themselves,” she said. “A whole population of adoptees wants the information just in case. They don’t plan to use it to find anyone.”

The records for the vast majority of adoptions that took place before January 1964 and after September 1996 were not sealed. But as many as 400,000 that occurred in between were. The law was changed again in 2013.

The state doesn’t plan to make the request form available on line until just before it begins accepting requests Friday. The forms may be submitted only via postal mail or in person at the vital statistics office because of the notarized documentation required. It could take six weeks for requests to be processed.

A video spelling out the process is available at odh.ohio.gov/vs.

Greg Burnham, a 44-year-old private security contractor from Trinity, Fla. near Tampa, won’t make the trip to Columbus, but he plans to promptly mail in his request.

A woman, also an adoptee, recently reached out to him after seeing similarities between his story and her own. She thought he might be her brother. They exchanged photos, but without the documents so far denied them, that’s as far as it’s gone.

Mr. Burnham was born in Toledo and grew up with his adopted parents on the opposite side of the chain link fence from the now demolished orphanage where he’d spent the first days of his life.

“What I’m hoping to get out of this waiting game all these years is a name,” he said. “I just want it on paper as closure to say this is my biological parent. … It’s a jigsaw puzzle, and I’d have three more pieces.”

Those three pieces could be the names of two birth parents as well as a medical history.

“I would go the next step to find out where they are,” Burnham said. “There are plenty of avenues to take. Would I show up at their front door? No. But maybe a letter.”

Although the opportunity to redact information will expire Thursday, birth parents may continue to add medical and social histories and personal notes to their files. If they did not have information redacted, they can indicate whether they want to be contacted and, if so, how.

The 1963 law was enacted under the belief that women would be more likely to opt for adoption over abortion if they were promised confidentiality. Ohio Right to Life backed the law at the time and for years after it changed again in 1996 for subsequent adoptions.

“We were staunch defenders of the law,” said the organization’s president, Mike Gonidakis. “But we started to see a seachange around 2011. …As a father of two adopted children, I’m very sensitive to the issues of adoption.

“With the Internet you can find out anything about everyone,” he said. “Instead of adoptees or the biological mother or father hiring a company to search, you can go to the bureau of statistics to get the information.”

Ms. Green, now a wife and mother of two sons, insists she had a happy and grateful life as an adopted child. But she remembers the day when she was a college freshman that she was told she was not legally entitled to information about her birth parents or her own given name.

“Somebody had what I considered to be my identity in their hands but because of a law they couldn’t give it to me,” she said. “I don’t think any person should ever be denied their original birth certificate or their medical history. In this day and age there have been so many medical advancements in treatment, but you have to have that foundation of knowledge in order for people to help you.”

The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Jim Provance is a reporter for The Blade (jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496).

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