Representatives of Operation Identity Provide Reports from 2010 AAC Conference in Sacramento


Jenni Dymon

     As the New Mexico representative for the American Adoption Congress (AAC), I was pleased to visit the April 2010 meeting of Operation Identity and share some of what I learned at the AAC National Conference in Sacramento, CA, March 18-21, 2010. The dual mission of the AAC is to promote adult adoptee access to Original Birth Certificates (OBCs) and to promote open adoption. Considering this, I focused my energies at the conference on sessions dealing with access legislation and open adoption. What I encountered was how laws and practices connected with adoption records and adoption differ from state to state, often quite dramatically.
     I will begin by summarizing some of what I learned about access legislation. Two states, Alaska and Kansas, have never closed their records. Seven additional states have opened their records (access to OBCs) over the last twelve years: Oregon (1998), Delaware (1999), Tennessee (1999), Alabama (2000), New Hampshire (2007), Maine (2009), and Illinois (2010). However, not all states allow unrestricted access. Legislation, both in effect and pending, often includes disclosure and/or contact vetoes. Delaware, Tennessee, and most recently Illinois legislation has disclosure vetoes, the Illinois new laws being the most complicated and tedious. To complicate matters further, there are three states that allow partial access to OBCs: Massachusetts (before 1974 and after 2007), Ohio (before 1964 and after 1996 also with a disclosure veto), and Colorado (before 1949, 1951-67, and after 1999).
     Many states have initiated legislation, but efforts by access advocates have failed or are still pending in California, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, and Washington.
     In a session at the conference on “California Legislation,” Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, who is introducing an access bill, explained why it is so difficult in California to get access legislation passed. She noted that California is different from many other states because it has come of the strictest privacy laws in the U.S. which collide with the presumption of confidentiality for birth parents. Also, California has a full-time legislature with long-term civil service staff. The Judiciary Committee staff opposes openness and advises legislators against changing the laws. And CA is in dire straits financially so the potential cost of opening records is an issue.
     In another session “Staying Clean: Pursuing Access Legislation in an Imperfect World,” a panel of access advocates from various states discussed the difficulty of promoting “clean bills” without the compromises of disclosure or contact vetoes. AAC advocates going for a clean bill first, but will support compromises in order to gain some openness. However, the recent Illinois legislation which passed was very restricted and complicated. AAC did not oppose the new laws, but also did not advocate for them. Oregon and California came up against stiff privacy laws as California is experiencing; they were able to settle the issues of privacy rights and get legislation passed. All panel members indicated that any legislative effort requires bill sponsors from both houses who are solidly committed to the legislation, also dedicated teamwork among advocates, and they suggested talking to everyone, both supporters and detractors, to elicit support and to counter myths. The big arguments to counter involve supposed birth parent confidentiality and a supposed increase in abortions.
     In a third session “Legislation Access to Identifying Information for Birth parents” led by two Canadian presenters, I learned that Canada now has four provinces with access, although not unrestricted access: British Columbia (before 1996 with contact and disclosure vetoes—after 1996, only the contact veto); Alberta (before 2005 with a disclosure veto); Newfoundland and Labrador (contact and disclosure vetoes); and Ontario (contact vetoes). In some cases, the disclosure or contact vetoes may lapse at some specified time.
     Clearly, change is occurring; however, the going is slow. Simple, direct legislation creating open access to OBCs is difficult to obtain. The new Illinois legislation is a horrifying 80 pages (depending on how you count) that incorporates existing laws with changes allowing some openness.

     My second focus at the conference was on open adoption. The AAC supports open adoption as part of its mission. I attended a session on “California: What Is Happening in Open Adoption vs. the Rest of the Country.” California leads the country with the most open adoptions. The presenter was Ellen Roseman, a consultant in adoption placement for 30 years, a woman passionate about open adoption, open records, and children’s rights.
     In California, there are stringent requirements regulating open adoption and all who may be involved: agencies, attorneys, facilitators. California has a putative father registry so that birth fathers named after a baby is born can become a part of the adoption process and retain their rights. Twenty-five states have these registries, but they are not publicized. Birth fathers are often left out of the process. If they do not register within 30 days after the birth, their rights are terminated. Birth fathers are routinely left off original birth certificates and few come forward. Unlike some states, California does not have paternity statements that birth fathers can sign that would add their names on the birth certificates.
     California does have contact agreements for open adoptions. Oregon set up the first contact agreement in the 1980s, and other states, such as Nevada, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Washington, followed its lead, although not all agreements were legally enforceable. More and more states are getting involved (25), and now some of the agreements are also enforceable.
     In California, a contact agreement between birth parents and adoptive parents includes the exchange of 6-8 pictures a year, plus contact on birthdays and holidays. If the parents live near each other, there may be twice-a-month visits included. The Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) opposes open adoptions.
     Open adoption is about long-term relationship building, and Roseman believes that children do not thrive in “semi-open” arrangements. Ethical guidelines are needed. The adoptive parents need to have the health history and medical records of the birth parents, and the birth mother or birth parents need to have the results of a home study done on the adoptive parents. There should also be some money set aside for counseling for the birth mother ($2,000 is a fair amount). The birth mother is entitled to privacy at the hospital, and may also need some time to parent and/or breast feed before relinquishing. An agreement about naming the baby would be a happy result, and the birth mother should get a copy of the original birth certificate before it is sealed.
     Relinquishment data has changed dramatically over the years. Now only about 1% of birth mothers who consider relinquishment do so, whereas 50-60% relinquished before the 1970s. By the 1980s, the number was down to 5%. Interestingly, the rate of relinquishment goes up if the birth mothers breast feed or parent for a period of time. Adoptive parents are becoming less fearful of birth mothers’ parenting.
     Who is still relinquishing, and why? Women who are living in poverty conditions and who cannot afford more children often relinquish. Also the mentally ill, the very young, and those with alcohol/drug problems often relinquish. Some birth mothers are professional mothers who basically sell babies. Adoption is big business.
     Roseman offered more information about what is happening with open adoption or adoption practices in general in other states. In Oklahoma, there is a cost ceiling for the adoption business governing all professionals involved, but in states where no such ceiling exists, such as Louisiana, adoptive parents often pay exorbitant fees (the most expensive adoption agency in the country is in Louisiana—the agency charges $60,000, the lawyer involved charges $100,000).
     Some states allow mothers to sign the relinquishment papers while they are pregnant (Washington, Colorado), while others allow a quick sign after birth: Texas and others allow in-hospital relinquishments. In Utah, a birth mother can sign at the airport if the adoptive parents come from another state to pick up the baby. In Iowa, birth mothers may not relinquish before 72 hours after the birth, and 96 hours must pass before the adoption goes before a judge. In Wisconsin, children being relinquished must spend one month to six weeks in foster care (Roseman does not approve of this practice). Texas has no contact agreements for open adoptions. In Florida, white babies must be adopted in-state, while babies of color may be adopted out-of-state. In any event, gay couples in Florida cannot adopt. Until this year, Arkansas prohibited single-parent adoptions; the ACLU worked to restore single parents’ rights in Arkansas. New Hampshire has somehow figured out how to get around the Indian Child Welfare Act, which requires placement of an Indian child within the child’s tribe. Montana, Oregon, and Washington do not allow adoption facilitators or consultants (such as Roseman) to operate in their states. In New York, no agencies outside the state can make placements within the state.
     So again, as with access legislation, there are dramatic differences in adoption practices and procedures from state to state, and the picture is always changing.
     As a final note, when I made my oral presentation at the O.I. meeting in April, I brought some handouts from Marilyn Waugh who works in the Post-Adoption Division of Kansas Social and Rehabilitation Services. She does 800-1000 adoption searches per year. Her presentation at the ACC conference was on “Locating Family Via the Internet.” Of course, Kansas has open records so names are not a problem. I brought to the meeting copies of Marilyn’s favorite Internet sites for searching for a person, if you have a name. She includes user-friendly, regularly updated websites. Most are free or have minimal cost. Ask Bill Gage or Connie Martin about a copy of Marilyn’s handouts if you are interested.
     If you have corrections, additions, or discussion items connected with this article, you may contact me at jenni@cybermesa.com.

Bill Gage

     The American Adoption Congress’s conference in Sacramento, CA, began with Registration in the morning on Thursday, April 18th, at 8:00 a.m. As I registered, I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Jenni Dymon, who was among those manning the Registration Desk. Because the first workshop that day did not begin until the afternoon, I passed the morning without much activity, sitting in the host hotel’s lobby, looking over the packet of information I’d received with my name badge. I spoke briefly with a gentleman named Bill from El Cajon, CA, another adoptee attending the conference, who related how he’d searched for and, like me, found his birth mother deceased, and who had also found two siblings (in his case, full, in contrast to the three presumably half-siblings I had identified). He told me how he had become aware of the issues relating to his own adoption when a coworker brought his recently adopted Romanian infant to their work place.
     The workshops I attended on Thursday afternoon were both showings of documentary films in the large conference room. The first, entitled Sunshine, was an hour-long film made by Karen Skloss about her experience of single motherhood as a reunited adoptee, contrasting her own experience with that of her birth mother. Because this film was broadcast on the local PBS television station, KNME, as part of its “Independent Lens” series, I won’t go into great detail about the film itself. Ms. Skloss was, unfortunately, not in attendance at the conference, so we were unable to ask her any questions. The post-film discussion was moderated by one of the conference organizers. Three birth mothers talked about their own experiences, with some additional input from other audience members. The consensus of those who spoke seemed to be that not a lot has changed between the time when the filmmaker was adopted and when she had her own child, whom she chose not to surrender.
     The other film, a 30-minute documentary by Zara Phillips entitled Roots: Unknown, was screened at the O.I. meeting in May, along with Jean Strauss’s documentary film, For the Life of Me. Zara is also the author of the book, Mother Me, which is the title of the updated British edition of a book she wrote and published in the United States called Chasing Away the Shadows. Zara’s film also deals with her own experiences as a reunited adoptee who has had her own children, and served as a good introduction to her other workshop scheduled for Friday morning, entitled “How Adoptees Raise Their Children.”
     For economic reasons, I did not stay at the host hotel, so each day began with a walk from my motel to the host hotel, with a stop along the way for breakfast. On Friday morning, I found a diner-style restaurant where I enjoyed a breakfast of eggs Benedict before walking the short distance to the host hotel. While looking for a place to eat on Friday morning, I also discovered a New York-style bagel shop on the same street, where I breakfasted on each subsequent morning, as well as several other eateries that I determined to try out during my stay.
     The first workshop of the day on Friday was Zara Phillips’. Although the workshop’s title seemed very broad in scope (“How Adoptees Raise Their Children”), it was—as all workshops must necessarily be—a view of the subject matter from the presenter’s personal perspective. Having also subsequently read her book, I know that everything Zara spoke of during the workshop was also dealt with in greater detail in Mother Me. She began by speaking of experiencing “body memory” of being relinquished and the lifelong effects that event has had on her, which I found somewhat hard to swallow. (Subsequent research indicates that so-called “body memory,” the hypothesis that memories can be stored on a cellular level even before the brain is sufficiently developed to store memories, is considered to be pseudoscientific, and seems to me to be impossible on its face, given the fact that the body’s cells are continually dying and being replaced.)
     Her presentation then segued to the more concrete matters of her childhood as an adoptee, her reunion with her birth mother, and her own experiences of motherhood. She spoke of her feelings of attachment to her own children and how, should her daughters become pregnant out of wedlock, she would do all in her power to ensure that the child remained in her family. However, not being a woman and not having any children, I didn’t find much with which to identify. Readers are referred to Zara’s book for more information.
     The workshop I attended on Friday afternoon, entitled “Turning Reunion into Reconnection: Difficult Challenges and Solutions,” was presented by Michael Grand and Monica Byrne. They began by noting that the definition of a “successful” reunion depends upon how one defines “success.” If one defines success by the simple act of finding the object of one’s search, then any reunion that meets that criterion, regardless of how it works out subsequently on an interpersonal level, can be deemed “successful.” The workshop was designed to go beyond that limited definition and help participants seek “reconnection” with the family of origin by acknowledging and dealing with the difficulties inherent in the process.
     On Saturday morning, I attended the workshop entitled “Reunion Relationship,” presented by Marlou Russell. I took a seat near the front of the room and was not too surprised when Ms. Russell recognized me from my name tag. I am somewhat well-known within the Adoption Reform Community by virtue of my newsletter, Geborener Deutscher, and adoption bibliography, the Readers’ Guide to Adoption-Related Literature. Ms. Russell’s workshop was similar to the one I attended on Friday afternoon, insofar as it dealt with establishing and developing a relationship during the period following the finding of a birth family member.
     After the workshop, I was invited by Rich Uhrlaub, who is a member of Adoptees in Search of Colorado, to have lunch. After a while, while waiting for another invitee to free himself, the lunch group had grown to about eight, including Marlou Russell and Patrick McMahon, another adoptee, from San Diego, CA. I had planned to have lunch that day at a Chinese restaurant I had found on my initial reconnaissance of the area surrounding my motel, and so, after we all agreed to my suggestion of the place, I led the group to this eatery, which was located about ten blocks from the host hotel. Eventually, we all got back to the conference after the start time of the “AAC Town Meeting,” so I slipped in and quietly took a seat for the remainder of that gathering.
     I then attended the late afternoon workshop entitled “ ’I’m a Birth Mother!’ Ya Got a Problem with That?” presented by Dolores Teller. Ms. Teller began with the story of her own experience as a birth mother. She was 16 years old in 1968 when she became pregnant while living with her father in Eugene, OR, after her parents’ divorce. She described herself as having been a “typical teenager,” but noted that she was also very scrupulous about using birth control. Nonetheless, she became pregnant due to the failure of what she described as a “gas-station condom.” She went on to describe a prototypical experience at an unwed mothers’ home where she spent three and a half months. She managed to keep her son for five days before convincing herself that adoption was the best thing, a conclusion she came to regret when she found him years later to be a damaged individual who suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of his adoptive parents.
     Among the things I had planned to do while at the conference was to introduce myself to Rene Hoksbergen, a Dutch researcher who is a regular attendee at AAC and other adoption conferences. I knew of Dr. Hoksbergen from his being the author or co-author of a number of books on the subject that are included in my bibliography. I found him early on Thursday, and I ended up having lunch with Rene and Zara Phillips on Friday and dinner with him and another (male adoptee) attendee on Saturday.
     Rene also invited me to contribute to an anthology of essays by male adoptees that he and Rich Uhrlaub were apparently putting together for possible publication by the University of Michigan Press, which would also include pieces by Urlaub and another of the conference attendees, Patrick McMahon, among others. Having already written extensively about my own search and reunion experience in my newsletter, I immediately agreed to put something together for the book.
     On Sunday morning, the final day of the conference, I attended a workshop entitled “The Laughing Warrior,” which turned out to be something completely different that what I had imagined it would be, based upon my apparent misreading of the description in the conference guide: as it was, it turned pout to be a “touchy-feely” kind of group-participation thing of the sort that invariably makes me feel supremely uncomfortable. I did my best to play along, but it was, without a doubt, the least interesting and—for me at least—least helpful or informative workshop. I had initially considered attending the “Preserving Family and Cultural Ties” workshop, but decided that, despite my status as an “international” adoptee (I had been born in and adopted from Germany in the late 1950s), I probably would have been seen as somewhat “out of place” among the mostly oriental (e.g., Korean) adoptees.
     For those who want to get more detailed information about the workshops, there are CDS available from the third-party vendor who recorded most of the workshops.
     There were 136 registered attendees, mostly from the western United States. In addition to Jenni Dyman and myself, there were three other participants from New Mexico: Alice Davenport from Las Cruces; Diana Edwards of Clarity Communications from Silver City; and Joy Miller of Adoption Experience Workshop from Mesilla.

Excerpted from the July & October 2010 editions of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2010 Operation Identity