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Illinois Leads Trend To Open Access to Birth Certificates

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Sara Feigenholtz had her "'aha' moment" in the late 1990s. A fellow state representative introduced her to a group of adoption advocates, knowing she'd have a personal connection to them--Feigenholtz herself was adopted, and had already searched for and reunited with her birth mother. Many of these advocates wanted the same opportunity, but to do that they first needed access to their original birth certificates, which were sealed under Illinois law at the time. Feigenholtz recalls "so much pain in that room.... I had this 'aha' moment where I realized the power I had in the place where I was, and I really had a moment of feeling selfish. At that moment in time I was obligated to do something."

It took a while--13 years of untangling the history of the state's relevant legislation, reworking the Illinois Adoption Registry, changing the confidential intermediary program--but Feigenholtz has met that obligation. "It was 13 years of trying to navigate people toward their truths with all of these obstacles in the way," she says. The last obstacle was removed when what was H.B. 5428, the Original Birth Certificate Access Bill, passed the Senate of the Illinois General Assembly on April 21, and Governor Pat Quinn signed it into law on May 21. The legislation is now known as Public Act 096-0895. Feigenholtz admits some of the success was luck, but she also says she'd decided that this was the year to get the bill passed.

State Representative Sara Feigenholtz, center, watches with adoptive families and other legislators as Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signs the bill into law May 21.

That sentiment seems to be shared by several other state legislators. In Michigan, H.B. 4015 and 4006 would amend the Probate Code and the Public Health Code, respectively, to allow access to original birth certificates unless a birth parent files a denial. In New Jersey, the current incarnation of similar legislation is A. 1406--A. 752 and A. 2557 predated it in the last two sessions of the state assembly. Neighboring New York is considering an "adoptee bill of rights" in S. 5269 and A. 8410. In Rhode Island there have been at least three versions of a birth certificate access bill introduced in the state House; H.B. 7877 was passed by that chamber in mid-May and was referred to a state Senate committee.

"You build critical mass, one victory builds to the next," says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, one of CWLA's partner organizations. He calls laws limiting access to original birth certificates "an anachronism." In late 2007 the Adoption Institute published For the Records: Restoring a Right to Adult Adoptees, and a follow-up paper, For the Records II, reflecting updated information is now available. One of the recommendations from the original report, which Feigenholtz cites as a catalyst for her work in Illinois, was "Amend every state's laws to restore unrestricted access for adult adopted persons to their original birth certificates."

As more states change their laws, and the dire predictions of those who had favored the status quo fail to materialize, Pertman says, those opponents of change have to narrow their arguments. "We have changed these laws, we've changed it in a bunch of states--and we haven't seen negative consequences, so why not change it?" He believes that these recent experiences, coupled with research and history, can "strongly rebut if not refute" arguments against increasing access.

Moreover, Pertman says, now is the time. "It's critically important that the momentum behind changing these laws accelerate," he affirms, explaining that the people who would benefit from changing these laws the most are aging. According to the 2007 For the Records paper, removing access to the original birth certificates was a post-World War II trend; states had begun issuing amended birth certificates to adoptees in the 1930s and '40s. Pertman explains that this means the birth parents affected by these closed-access laws are at least middle aged, and many are older. "They're now getting older without getting what they really, really want, [which is] to know what happened to the lives they created," he says. "Overwhelmingly, that's what they want. If we don't change these laws pretty soon, they're not going to get that."

Pertman's assertions about birth parents', especially birth mothers', desire to meet the children who were adopted into other families come from the Adoption Institute's research. Feigenholtz's similar beliefs come from her own experience. "The over, over, overwhelming number of birth parents have been waiting for this moment for a long time," she says. "I know that my birth mother did." Feigenholtz says she got a "classic" first response when she met her birth mother: "What took you so long?"

Feigenholtz notes that most, if not all, of the changes to birth certificate access laws have come from members of the triad--birth parents, adoptive parents, or adult adoptees. Pertman thinks that this is not surprising. "With any legislation, it's the people who are most directly affected who become the most passionate about making it happen," he says. "People who are adversely affected stand up and say, 'We've had enough.'" If recent state legislation is a fair barometer, there is a wave of people standing up for this issue across the nation.

Meghan Williams is a contributing editor to Children's Voice.

Michigan

Midland County is in the midst of a three-year pilot program called Baby Court, which aims to stop the multigenerational cycle of abuse and neglect often seen in court cases. One-quarter of local maltreatment cases involved children under age 3--nationally about a third of abuse and neglect victims are younger than 4--and only about 35% of these cases resulted in reunification. Through Baby Court, partners representing social services, health, and education provide integrated support to help parents learn how to better care for their children. The county has had 23 Baby Court cases so far, with 7 still open.

Washington

State Senator Claudia Kauffman, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, sponsored a bill to align Washington state law with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act in terms of removing Indian children from their homes or terminating parental rights. An article in Indian Country Today notes that though Indian children represent 2% of the Washington population, they are overrepresented in the foster care system, accounting for 12% of children in out-of-home care. The bill, which was signed into law by Governor Chris Gregoire, would address this disproportionality, requiring "clear and convincing evidence" of serious potential harm before removing an Indian child from home.

Wisconsin

In mid-May, Governor Jim Doyle signed "Emma's Law," which raises the maximum penalty for recklessly causing bodily harm to a child from 10 to 15 years in prison. According to the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, the law grew out of a campaign by Washburn County District Attorney Mike Bitney and Cynthia and Carl Manning, the grandparents of Emma, who was abused by her mother's fiance so severely that she is blind, unable to walk, and must be tube fed. In prosecuting the fiance, Bitney discovered that the charge of causing harm to a child carried a lighter penalty than causing harm to an adult.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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