(continued...)

This op-ed piece was published in May of 2000 in response to an editorial by Steve Chapman which criticized the then-recent implementation of Oregon's open records law.

EMPOWERING THE TRIAD

The triangular relationship created when a child is surrendered for adoption could never have been meant to be severed for a lifetime. The mere concept is inhumane. But society spent so much time trying to protect all parties involved from the "shame" and "stigma" then associated with adoption that they forgot to ask birthmothers what kind of privacy they truly desired.  

Ask any birthmother who relinquished a child for adoption in the 1950's, 60's or early 70's if anyone asked her how she felt about "confidentiality."  Few will recall being consulted on the matter. Vulnerability, confusion and feelings of guilt and loss were galvanized and many birthmothers shared their feelings with no one.  

But things soon changed.  Reliable birth control was increasingly accessible, abortion was legalized, and, as a result, adoption rates declined dramatically throughout the 70s. A new generation of birthmothers began letting their wishes be known. And what these women wanted was the assurance that their identities would be shared with their children when they reached adulthood. However, these promises of openness were quickly nullified when state legislatures (including that of Illinois in 1989) passed laws retroactively sealing adoption records for 99 years.

Lawmakers were on the right track when they sought to protect this delicate triangle from society's judgmental eyes. They failed when they assumed they also needed to protect triad members from each other. This move turned it all wrong.

When the uninitiated jump into this prickly debate, they need to listen to both sides and get the facts: in England and Wales, adoption rates had been steadily declining since the late 60s for all the same reasons they were plummeting in the U.S. There were (according to the 1968-73 "Statistical Review of England and Wales" published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office) 14,461 adoptions of children by "unrelated parents" in England and Wales in 1968. Over the next eight years, British Office of Population Census and Surveys statistics show that total non-step-parent adoptions had dropped 67%, to 4,777, by 1976 (the year British and Welsh records were unsealed). Yet, during the eight years following the opening of adoption records, they declined by only 39% (to 2,910 in 1984).

Closer to home, data gathered by the National Center for Court Statistics show that Kansas and Alaska, the only two U.S. states where records have never been sealed, continue to celebrate higher adoption rates (respectively, 48.4 and 53.5 out of every 1000 births) than the national average (31.2%).  If open records prompt higher abortion rates, why (per a 1992 Gutmacher Institute study) does Kansas have one of the lowest abortion rates in the country (12.7%, less than half the 1992 national average of 25.8%)? If birth mothers want anonymity from their surrendered children, why did only 4.6% of them refuse contact when they were located by Washington State's confidential intermediary program during the years 1980 to 1995?  And why, despite an intense publicity campaign, have only ten of Delaware's thousands of birth mothers filed a disclosure veto with the Delaware Bureau of Vital Statistics since that state began releasing original birth certificates last January?  Only rarely does a woman who gave birth to a child 20, 30 or 40 years ago have no desire to know the fate of the life she brought into the world.  It simply defies human nature.

Poorly-conceived laws have created a standoff between adoptees and their birth parents. Each wants to know what the other one wants and we have made it nearly impossible to reach this end. The new Illinois Adoption Registry and Medical Information Exchange is designed to remedy some of these ills and allows triad members to confidentially exchange medical and other information whether they seek anonymity or not.  It is a first step towards empowering the very people adoption laws were meant to serve: adoptees, adoptive parents and birth parents.

The Oregon law may not be to everyone's liking, however it is a true reflection of the majority…that will put an end to the toxic secrets and allow the adults involved to follow their hearts, unhindered by government intervention.

Sara Feigenholtz
State Representative, 12th District
Adoptee

Melisha Mitchell
American Adoption Congress, State Representative for Illinois
Birth Mother

This op-ed piece was submitted to The Tribune in March of 1999 to clarify confusion over the then-pending Illinois Adoption Registry Reform Bill...

from the Voice of the People

The new Illinois Adoption Registry reform legislation announced by State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago) will substantially improve access to vital medical data by adoptive parents, birth relatives and adult adopted people throughout the life of the adopted person.

Current law does not have provisions to ensure that all adoptive parents receive medical background information at the time of adoption. Providing medical background information is an integral part of birth-parent registration at the time of the adoption under this legislation. Advancing science and technology are driving recent medical discoveries, regarding the genetic origin of numerous medical conditions and diseases. The ongoing leaps in medical science and technology and the new information they generate have rendered an already inadequate Illinois Adoption Registry obsolete. The current registry emphasis is the reunification of adopted people with their birth parents. And the results of that effort are less than meager. Since Illinois created its adoption registry in 1983, there have been only 1,906 registrations and only 37 matches between searching adopted people and birth parents.

The legislation authorizes a Medical Information Questionnaire that will ask birth parents and adult birth and adoptive relatives to indicate all genetically inherited diseases and conditions that are known to exist in their biological families at the time of registration. The information can be updated on a confidential, ongoing basis.

The legislation will also create a central repository for vital birth information in all prospective adoptions and many retrospective adoptions.

Additionally, the new legislation will, most importantly, allow all parties to update regularly the medical questionnaire with new medical information, and allow this exchange of medical information even in cases where one or more parties to the adoption do not wish to establish personal contact.

Melisha Mitchell

 

Our last Tribune article deals with "late discovery" adoptees, and was published in the newspaper's October 10, 1999, edition.

A SECRET REVEALED
THE WORLD TURNS UPSIDE-DOWN FOR LATE-DISCOVERY ADOPTEES

by Linda Landis Andrews, Special to the Tribune

They scrutinize the jaw lines, the eyes, the expressions on the faces in the family photo album. As many times as they look, they find no resemblance to themselves in those pictures.

"Everyone's an individual," their mothers blithely proclaim when asked about the discrepancy.

One day, when they are adults, the truth is revealed. It may come from a let's-get-the-record-straight cousin, a slip of paper found in a Bible or at the funeral of a parent: "You were adopted."

In that one moment, many layers of consciousness fall away as the late-discovery adoptees, as they are called, confront for the first time the truth behind the curtain of their lives. How they deal with this news has long-term effects on everyone involved. After recovering somewhat from the initial shock, some start an all-out search for their birth families. Others never pursue details about their heritage or lost relatives.

A 50th wedding anniversary party for her parents was the moment of transformation for Joyce Schneider, then 39, of Schaumburg. She found out about her adoption from a cousin "who had no sieve between her brain and her mouth."

"I kept this frozen smile on my mouth through the whole dinner, but I couldn't get a bite down my throat. My mother, knowing I had been told, came up and asked me if I was all right. I said, `I'm fine,' but all I wanted to do was run screaming from the room.

"It's like the moment of revelation you imagine right before you think the airplane is going to crash. You keep saying to yourself, `This isn't my mother, this isn't my mother.' Later that night I got hysterical crying, and my 16-year-old daughter was in shock too. She had a harder time with the news than I did."

Twenty years after this episode, Schneider, a homemaker, cat lover and genealogy buff who suffers from osteoporosis, still doesn't know for certain who her birth father was. Her birth mother, Virginia Wiesner, born in Michigan City in 1914, went to her grave with the secret.

"All along I knew I was different. I was the visitor within the family with my nose pressed up against the glass. I couldn't look at family albums and see similarities. When I found out through my cousin, I said, `Thank you, God!' Opening this window answered all the questions. After the shock wore off, I had to integrate the two identities, had to select which part to keep and the part to throw away. I gained a greater self-confidence. An adoption group invited me to be a speaker, and even though I couldn't get up to recite a poem in high school, I felt comfortable speaking about adoption in front of these groups.

"My adopted mother could have been mad at me until sunset about searching, but it didn't matter. I said to myself, `Oh my God, I'm not insane after all.' It gave me a deeper love for my parents and yet a sadness that they felt they had to keep this secret for 39 years.

"Why didn't my mother trust my love?" she asks.

After this experience, Schneider felt she had to give back to adoptees who didn't know where to turn for vital information. For 14 years she served as a volunteer counselor for the national organization Adoptees' Liberty Movement Association (ALMA). Her phone rang day and night with adoptees searching for their families.

"I know more about my dog's history than I do about my own," was a frequent complaint.

Sometimes adoptees who knew from a young age that they were adopted expressed envy of her ignorance.

"When people say, `Weren't you better off not knowing?' I say, `I'm sad that I didn't know; I missed the grieving process from age 2. I had to grieve for the lost person all at once with such intensity. Had I known all along, I would have been more emotionally prepared to search. Right after I found out, I experienced something similar to the baby blues; all of a sudden, I'd sit down and start crying."

For Elyse Frost, 38, of Palatine, it was her father's hospitalization after a stroke that led to the truth for her and her brother.

"I have a confession to make," the scared, ailing man told Frost, then 26. "You're both adopted."

When asked about the comment, Frost's mother told her that her dad "was under a lot of anesthesia and didn't know what he was talking about." Seven years later and about to deliver her own first child, Frost confronted her mother again -- and finally got the truth.

Frost says she realizes now that her mother struggled to keep the secret and even denied to herself that her two children were adopted.

"My mother had a hard time dealing with the fact that she couldn't have a baby of her own. The main reason she kept it a secret was her insecurity. She thought if I found my birth mother, then she would lose closeness with me."

In four days, Frost found her birth mother through the help of a professional searcher. After the exhilaration of finding each other passed, reunited birth mother and daughter were out of touch for a year because Frost felt anxious and guilty about being disloyal to her adoptive mother.

Despite her adoptive mother's fears, Frost says they are closer now than before she knew about the adoption.

"Once her biggest fear was out, we could form a strong relationship," she said. The hardest time was the period between finding out she was adopted and then finding her birth mother.

"At 33, I thought I knew all the answers to my identity. Then, suddenly, it wasn't true. When I found the other set of parents, I said to myself, `I'm still the same person.' "

At a time when open adoption, in which adopted children know about their birth parents, has received wide acceptance, it's difficult to imagine that dramatic reunion scenarios are still taking place. Although the sexual revolution of the '60s widely negated notions of shame, adults who were adopted in the 1930s, '40s, '50s and early '60s inherited a culture of secrecy and were relinquished under much different circumstances.

Adopting parents often feigned pregnancies and took on lifelong amnesia. Part of it was to keep secret their own inability to produce offspring, but often it was to spare their children the "stigma" of being adopted. But even though the stigma is gone, the news that a person was adopted can come as a powerful blow.

"The first reaction of an adoptee finding out as an adult is trauma, a terrible shock," said Miriam Reitz, a family therapist and author of "Adoption and the Family System." "All the stories you ever heard about your family and all the diseases they had have nothing to do with you. Like any grief reaction, the person goes numb with psychological freezing, and how they come out of this state depends on who the person is and the age at which they make the discovery. Using the fight or flight model, the fighter type becomes the doer, gets very busy finding out information. Sometimes they pin this search on medical history, when in reality the search is for much more than the medical information.

"Those who chose the flight response turn inward. The reality they believed is not real, and they may go into quite a serious depression.

"But having the secret out in the open is curative," Reitz said. "It's also helpful to find out that you're not alone."

"Consciously I knew for 37 years that something was not right," said Florence Fisher, author of "The Search for Anna Fisher" (out of print), her own personal adult adoptee search book, and founder of ALMA in 1971. "I knew at (age) 7, I knew at 5 even that these parents couldn't be my parents. I always wanted to see someone I looked like."

Now 71 and pursuing a new career in New York, Fisher has the perspective of someone who has been a major player on the adoption scene. The fiery and outspoken Fisher says, "The worst thing that can happen to you is for someone to have control over you. I can't read adoption books or watch programs and see an adoptee who can't handle themselves. I go crazy. You have to say what you think and do what is right for you," she said.

Ironically, late-adoptees are reluctant to talk about their experiences, mirroring the secrecy that has marked much of their life.

A 42-year-old humanities professor who did not wish to be named -- even though his adoptive parents are dead -- said that not being told about his adoption has added a layer of psychological difficulty to his neurotic nature.

"In the machismo of the Italian community where I was raised on the West Side, I was proof of the failure of my father's masculinity. When he told me when I was 18 that I was adopted, I understood a lot more about his problematic relationship with me. Not being able to trust my instincts is the most profound effect of finding out later about my adoption."

A rebirth is how another man, Phil, 45, who also wished to remain anonymous, characterized finding his birth mother. He learned about his adoption last year at his adoptive father's funeral.

"Then, when my adoptive mother was in the hospital recovering from a fall, my sister and I found our adoption papers in the house," he said.

"Growing up, my adopted family was secluded. Our parents barely talked to each other; there were no gifts for Christmas. I paid for my own education, my own automobiles. It would have been nice to have someone I felt was on my side. I hung around until I went into the service when I was 18. My sister ran away when she was 14. Both of us had to do for ourselves, and there was abuse," he said.

Meanwhile, his birth parents continued their illicit relationship for 37 years while the birth father's wife was in a mental institution. A year after they gave up Phil for adoption, they had a second son, Howard, whom they also relinquished. Currently, Phil is searching for his lost younger brother.

"The hardest thing to deal with now that I've found my birth mother is the way I was brought up. It would have been nice to know someone was in my corner. I'm happy now when my birth mother calls (but) I don't have real deep feelings because she's new in my life."

"This is not unusual," says ALMA's Schneider. "The exhilaration of the reunion of child and parent is an explosion of confetti and balloons. It's very intense at first, but then within six to eight months the contact starts to drop off. Pretty soon, the communication is every couple of months. Conversations become what they are in every family--mundane: `How are the kids?' `What did you do over the weekend?' Adoptees become disappointed, thinking there should be more, but now they're just family, like everyone else."

Although the birth parents feel loss and resignation at the beginning of the adoptee's life, the adoptive parents suffer similar emotions in their child's late-discovery of an adoption. After struggling to keep their child "protected," they, too, have to adjust to having their secret revealed.

One patriarch, who has a strong and warm relationship with his adopted daughter, rues the day two years ago when she discovered her true identity. He meets the sub-contractors every day for the addition on her north suburban home, and helps her and her husband with their three young children. Sadness and a sense of defeat fill his voice when he tells her, "I still wish you had never found out."

WHERE TO FIND HELP

Discovering as an adult that one was adopted provides a life- altering experience.

Non-adoptees cannot imagine the impact. After absorbing the shock and trying to deal with the betrayal, late-discovery adoptees have resources available to them if they want more information. One post- adoptive resource is The Family Tree Initiative* available for adopted people who were born, adopted or are currently residing in Illinois and their birth and adoptive families (ILtreesurgeon@aol.com).

The Cradle in Evanston, Catholic Charities, Lifelink in Bensenville and other private adoption agencies now offer search services for a fee. The national ALMA organization, as well as others, provide both individual and group support.

Many informative books have been written about the complex adoption web of searching, discovering, and dealing with a new identity. These include: "May the Circle Be Unbroken: An Intimate Journey into the Heart of Adoption," by Lynn C. Franklin and Elizabeth Ferber (Three Rivers Press, $14); "Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter," by Betty Jean Lifton (Griffin, $13.95); "Birthbond: Reunions Between Birthparents and Adoptees -- What Happens After . . . ," by Judith S. Gediman (New Horizon Press, $13.95); "ITHAKA: A Daughter's Memoir of Being Found," by Sarah Saffian (Delta, $12.95).

A new avenue to information will become available in January in Illinois, when House Bill 631, the Illinois Adoption Registry and Medical Information Exchange Bill, goes into effect. It will allow reunited adoptees access to their original birth certificates, which are now sealed. Birth parents will be allowed to provide updated medical information for their surrendered children. State Rep. Sarah Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), who was adopted by her birth mother's doctor, sponsored the bill.

"While the bill was going through the General Assembly, a reporter asked me, `What about adoptees who are happy with their adoptive family?' and I knew right then we had a great deal of educating to do," she said. "Adoptees need to know their medical histories, about breast cancer, diabetes and heart disease. With this mutual consent registry, they get a chance to know."

-- Linda Landis Andrews

*White Oak's Executive Director was then the Deputy Executive Director of The Family Tree Initiative.