Adding Insult to Injury

When under-staffing and under-funding aren’t enough to weed out all but the most tenacious applicants, many states further fuel their poor performance records by building pernicious provisions into their registry statutes (many of them inspired by NCFA "recommendations"). New York limits registrations to adoptees who were born AND adopted in the Empire State, leaving those born in New York but adopted out-of-state in registry limbo. Rhode Island and Missouri require written permission from the adoptive parents before they will forward names and addresses to birth parents and adoptees who have been matched by the registry. Nebraska also requires adult adoptees between the ages of 21 and 25 to get signed authorizations from their adoptive parents before reuniting them with their birth families. And Texas’s new law subjects potential matches to one hour of counseling (but eliminates the “face-to-face” meeting with a social worker that was mandated for all registrants up until 1996--now out-of-state applicants can get their 60-minute pep talk over the phone). And, per NCFA’s original game plan, in 15 of the 21 states which currently offer an MCVR, the existence of a passive mutual consent registry seems to have definitively stymied the introduction of more progressive legislation (such as the “search and consent” programs, also known as “active registries,” which are currently available to interested triad members in two dozen states). Like Oklahoma, four of the six states which have averaged more than five matches per year since their registry’s inception (LA, OR, OH and FL), now also offer some sort of search assistance to adoptees and/or birth parents—a fact which, technically, puts them in the “active,” rather than passive, registry category.

The 1998 Statistics—More Bad News

 With so much going against them, and so little going for them, it’s a wonder passive mutual consent registries ever find anyone. West Virginia has only made two matches in its 7-year history. Arkansas, which had one reunion during its first six years of operation, has matched up 14 times as many adoptees and birth parents since 1993, but still has a pitiful 1.5% success rate.

Overall, mutual consent adoption registries have made only minimal progress since the early 90s. Reunion rates in all but two of the states included in our survey are still well under 10% (from a low of 1.1% in Missouri to a high of 8.3% in Oregon) and pale in comparison to other, more active, post-adoption solutions (most government- and agency-sponsored search assistance programs, for example, boast an 80% or higher “find” rate). Even though the overall number of registrants has increased considerably in many of the states we surveyed, these improved statistics have not translated into higher reunion rates for the MCVRs concerned (see chart). And, even though states as diverse as Florida, Illinois, Idaho, Maine, New York, Texas and Utah reported fractional improvements in their “reunion rates” this time around, Maryland and Rhode Island are barely maintaining the status quo, and the Missouri, Nevada and Ohio registries actually performed better, match-wise, in earlier surveys than they did in 1998.

While New York and Texas appear to have inexplicably lost registrants since the 1996 survey, the lower 1998 numbers are most likely attributable to recent legislative reforms.  Texas has begun centralizing its state registry, and no longer includes guestimates of private agency registration numbers in their totals. New York’s loss of over 500 registrants since the 1996 survey is probably due to the fact that previous statistics included adoptive parents (who were excluded from the NY registry five years ago).

Fee-wise, there have been few changes over the past five years. One third of the 21 registries are still free, and the remainder charge between $10 (Idaho and South Carolina) and $75 (for adoptees registering in New York).  The average cost still hovers around $25 per registrant. Additionally, although over half of these MCVRs have opened up their rolls to birth siblings and/or adoptive parents in the past decade, this expanded access has had little impact on the number of registrants or the reunion rates in those states. Nine of the 21 registries are still reserved to birth parents and adult adopted persons.

Louisiana and Indiana—Not Necessarily the Success Stories Their Numbers Imply

At first glance, only two states, Louisiana and Indiana, seem to have truly separated themselves from the pack. Both states have tripled their number of applicants over the past five years. They are also the only two states with double-digit “match rates” (14% and 13%, respectively). However, since 1993, Louisiana has added on-request search assistance for adult adoptees to their palette of post-adoption options, thereby disqualifying their registry from “passive” status. And, too, recent changes in the Indiana Adoption Medical History Registry (IAMHR) have made it particularly difficult to accurately gauge the Hoosier state’s reunion rates. While some of the unique “perks” which were added to the Indiana registry in 1993 might be considered steps in the right direction (particularly its emphasis on the exchange of medical information and a provision that allows all adoptees who are matched with their birth parents via the registry to access copies of their original birth certificates and other adoption files), these innovations may be skewing, rather than actually improving, the registry’s reunion statistics. It appears that some adoptees and birth parents are flocking to the IAMHR not to find one another, but to use the registry’s back-door access to birth records to obtain their original birth certificates—after they’ve been reunited. And, too, when you consider that the focus of the Indiana registry is on the exchange of vital medical data, its 13% success rate begins to take on disappointing proportions. For someone who’s dying of a mysterious, genetically-linked disease, odds this slim, combined with a total absence of search assistance, can ring like a death knell. So, even Indiana’s better-than-average results (some 9,000 new applications and over 1500 matches since 1993) are not necessarily a sign that the times are a’changin’ quite yet.

Even if persistent funding and staffing concerns could somehow be resolved (which is unlikely), it is clearly the passive nature of mutual consent voluntary registries that is most responsible for their failure.  When an adoptee or birth parent decides to sign up on a registry, they are, in most cases, really saying they have begun thinking about actively searching. Applying to a registry (or several) is usually the first leg of an often long and frustrating journey. Asking adoptees and birth parents to “sit and wait” just as they’ve begun to move forward is blatantly unrealistic.  Like forgetting to lower the checkered flag at the Indy 500. Unless passive registries are proposed in tandem with other, more active options, signing up with a registry is about as effective as tossing an SOS in a bottle into the middle of the ocean.

A Dubious 20-Year Milestone

 States like Oregon, which recently passed a ballot initiative that would have allowed adoptees born there to begin accessing their original birth certificates by the end of 1998, and Tennessee, which passed an open records bill in 1995, have already left totally passive registries way, way behind. As adoption reform activists in Texas, Washington, New Jersey and elsewhere begin gearing up for their 1999 open records quests, many of the 21 states with the most repressive adoption laws on the books seem to be locked in the same, unshakable apathy that characterizes passive mutual consent registries. However, in the not-so-distant future, a bill introduced by Michigan Senator Carl Levin may supplant most of these cumbersome and ill-conceived state registries by creating a National Voluntary Mutual Reunion Registry. Despite strong opposition from the NCFA (which, after banging the drum for passive state registries for over two decades, now purports that registries "erode" birth parent confidentiality), this encouraging piece of legislation was passed out of the U.S. Senate in November of 1997, and has been introduced in the House by New York Congressman Charles E. Schumer. While a national registry would be far from a panacea, its higher profile and greater accessibility would at least open up the registry process to many who are currently excluded from state registry rolls (e.g. adoptees who were born in one state and adopted in another).

 Although the oldest passive state registry in the U.S., the Nevada Adoption Registry, celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1998, there were probably no Nevada triad members rejoicing outside the Registry’s Las Vegas offices. Only 101 birth families have been reunited since Nevada enacted its passive registry legislation in 1978. For two decades now, Nevada triad members, along with tens of thousands of adoptees and birth relatives from Reno to Bangor, have been stuck in the dark ages of compromise legislation. In all of the states which chose the mutual consent route back in the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, registered adoptees and birth relatives have gone from skeptical anticipation to disappointment and, ultimately, resignation, as their long wait for a match has stretched out over months, then years, and now decades. Unless these triad members—or their state legislatures—seek out more pro-active solutions, fewer than 4,000 of the 65,000 adoptees, adoptive parents and birth relatives who are currently enrolled with passive, mutual consent adoption registries will have any hope of ever reconstructing their family trees.


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