Pennsylvania Act 101 and Other Adoption Intermediary Horror Stories – The Case for Unfettered Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates Without Government Interference
One of the most satisfying parts of my work is helping adoptees who have been emotionally abused and traumatized by overbearing government intrusion into their personal and private lives by forcing them to go through court-appointed search agents/intermediaries to get information about their pre-adoption history and to search for and contact families. In PA, we have Act 101, which was passed by the legislature in 2010 in a knee-jerk reaction to increasingly determined adoptee demands to restore access to original birth certificates (OBCs), the same as they had prior to 1985. There are a few other states that have these forced intermediary programs—most notably Maryland, Arizona and Michigan—and their rates of positive conclusions are abysmal, the same as Pennsylvania, about 50% according to written reports and legislative testimony. Needless to say, Act 101 has done nothing to quell the demands for Adoptee Rights—justice, equality and respect for adopted citizens, the same as enjoyed by PA-born people who were not adopted. In fact, the indignation over these intermediary programs is growing daily.
Here in PA, several counties have contracted out these “post-adoption intermediary services” to Catholic Charities (CC), which charges the adoptee up to $500 per search, and has absolute authority and discretion (even superseding a judge’s order) as to what they will do and whether and how much information will be given to the adoptee at the end of the search. This means that ALL post-adoption services, regardless of whether the adoption was handled by Catholic Charities or even if the parties are or ever were Catholic, are handled by an agency under the direct control and supervision of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. Can I hear a chorus of “Separation of Church and State, Conflict of Interest, Abuse of Power, Exploitation and Manipulation of Tax-Paying Adult Citizens!”? Amen!
Carol’s Bungled Search
This was the case with Carol. Born in Clinton County in 1978 and adopted to Centre County two years later, Carol dutifully went through the Centre County Court to ask for her non-identifying information (especially family health history) from the adoption file and the County CYS office and to initiate a search for her mother. The search aspect was referred to CC-Altoona. Thus began an almost year-long bureaucratic nightmare of stone-walling, non-communication, rudeness, and disrespectful dismissal of Carol’s needs and concerns (including serious medical conditions with her and her children). The CYS worker (who, incidentally, had known Carol and her adoptive family for many years) lied straight to her face, telling her “all the records have been destroyed, and I can’t tell you anything.” The CC-Altoona agent who conducted the search actually sent a letter to the WRONG woman (a much-younger cousin who had the same name as Carol’s mother), questioned this lady about her knowledge of the mother’s personal life and history, then called the 79-year-old mother at the nursing home where she is a resident to ask her—over the phone, mind you—about very detailed, private things. Are you as incensed as I am yet? Just wait, there’s more!
As you can well imagine, Carol’s mother was alarmed and intimidated by this intrusion by a religious organization into her personal life--she’s not even Catholic! Of course she denied to the CC worker that she had a child in 1978 who was given up for adoption! So CC decided, in their “who died and appointed you God over all adoptees and their families” attitude, that Carol would receive no information whatsoever—not even family medical history. Nothing! The file was closed, and they stopped responding to Carol’s emails and phone messages.
Thank Goodness For DNA—The Ultimate, Accurate “Birth Certificate”
The old adage “Nature abhors a vacuum” and its spiritual corollary “God abhors secrets and lies” have never been more apropos for adopted persons than in the past few years since the study of genetic genealogy was made easily and cheaply available to the general public [see my blog post Exciting New World of DNA Family Matching]. By the time CC and CYS were through with Carol, as you can well imagine, she was very distraught and traumatized. It makes me furious when I realize that criminals are actually treated better than adoptees in this state! Trying to project a positive, hopeful aura for her, I encouraged Carol to put her DNA in the Ancestry.com site. As a result, two months later, within a half an hour after the results were posted, I knew her mother’s name, complete genealogy (parents, grandparents going back 200 years, siblings, cousins, etc.), as well as the name and whereabouts of her sister.
For Carol, the search is over; she can finally say “I know” instead of “I wonder.” She has been warmly welcomed back into the family; she visits her mother and aunt in the nursing home frequently (and, in fact, has become the preferred contact for the nursing home staff). Most importantly, she knows her truth—some good news, some bad news—but it’s her personal history, her truth and hers alone. She learned, for example, that her adoption wasn’t finalized for two years because her birth family (especially one aunt) was fighting desperately to keep her in the fold. She has seen for the first time pictures of herself as a baby in their care. More importantly, when she ventures around Centre and Clinton Counties, she doesn’t have to scan the faces of everyone she meets – Are you my mother? My cousin? My sibling? The relief has had a profound effect on Carol’s health and outlook. She can finally lay down her nagging worries and put behind her the emotional trauma she has suffered as a result of her mistreatment at the hands of the state and CC and move forward with a lighter, happier prospect.
Michael Learns His History Despite Officious Incompetence
All who learn their history describe this same euphoric relief. Another adoptee for whom I completed a search that was botched by CC is Michael, born in Pittsburgh in 1959. His mother was an inmate of Catholic Charities Rosalie Hall home for unwed mothers. Michael had been trying to work with CC-Pittsburgh for several years and always came to a brick-wall refusal to give him any meaningful information. Not seeing any other option, Michael decided to take the chance to have CC conduct a search for his mother. He paid the $500 fee and waited, and waited. Finally the CC worker reported that she “thought” she had found his mother, but wasn’t positive; she had called and spoken with this woman’s son who said she had dementia, that he didn’t know what CC was talking about, and “do not call here again.” So, instead of making sure they had the right woman and giving Michael medical history and options, CC simply closed the file and told Michael, basically, “Tough luck, fee is not refundable, so sorry, have a good life …” Again, at my urging, Michael submitted his DNA sample and, like Carol, was matched with a second cousin. I was able to send him a complete family tree. Michael learned that he has lived for many years just blocks from his aunt and cousins and, most incredibly, that he had been acquainted with one of his cousins—his daughter had even babysat her children! I have encouraged Michael to file a formal complaint about CC-Pittsburgh’s inept, inconsiderate, unprofessional staff and demand his money be refunded.
Just Two of Dozens of Case Histories
Michael’s and Carol’s experience is, sadly, typical of the treatment adoptees receive at the hands of these legislatively-mandated, court-appointed intermediaries. There are probably a dozen or more cases like these that I have had to resolve, including Grace (1981, Butler County), who was strung along and put off for years by CC-Pittsburgh. Fortunately, Grace’s adoptive mother was smart to get a copy of her OBC before they were sealed in 1985, so Grace always knew her mother’s name, age, place of birth and last-known address. Even with all this information, and additional notes in the file, the CC worker was incapable of locating her. I found Grace’s mother, Karen, within a month of her contacting me. Karen was delighted to be found and wrote to me personally thanking me for my perseverance on her daughter’s behalf.
Mari-Rose (1959, Luzerne County) contacted me when she was matched on DNA with a half-sister, Laurie, another adoptee (1961, Florida) from the same mother. Mari-Rose had previously gone to the county court-appointed search agent who said she was unable to find her mother. This agent must not have looked very hard, because, once we learned the mother’s name, I found her within a half-hour even though she had been married four times. Their mother has spurned reunion; we understand, she has multiple health and life issues, and Mari-Rose and Laurie have respected her wish to be left alone. While Mari is enjoying a good relationship with her father and his side of the family, we are moving forward to find Laurie’s father.
Cindy (Philadelphia, 1962) was refused identifying information by CC-Philadelphia when she had requested a search for her mother because CC indiscreetly contacted the grandmother instead who ordered them not to pursue it. Fortunately, the non-identifying information Cindy received was enough for me to find the family even before the DNA came back.
David (1965, Pittsburgh) – David’s father, an immigrant from Lithuania was so happy to be located and have David back in his life he took him on a month-long visit to Lithuania to meet all of the relatives back home. David met his mother on Mother’s Day 2015, and she is taking the next step to introduce him to her extended family. So, tell us again, just who is being “protected” by this bureaucratic meddling in people’s private lives?
The case of Rosemary (1940, Warren County) is particularly compelling. Rosemary had been trying for decades to get any information she could about her birth and adoption. She found out too late that she could have gotten her OBC before 1985; outrageous, when we think about it, that it was available for the asking before then. Rosemary was continuously put off by the court clerk, who didn’t even know about Act 101, and told all of the adoption records were “destroyed in a flood” many years ago. I could feel and completely understood the frustration and anger building in Rosemary at the cavalier, dismissive treatment she was receiving. With my help, she devised one last plea to the judge to order her OBC to be released. It worked. Rosemary will be coming to Pennsylvania next month to meet her brothers for the first time. She’s 75 years old and finally knows her history and who her people are!
Intolerable Treatment By Government Bureaucrats
Unfortunately, these cases are typical of what happens when the government tries to insert itself into people’s private lives and micro-manage their personal family relationships through these mandatory intermediary programs—I won’t even dignify them by adding the prefix “confidential” when their insensitive intrusions into people’s affairs are about as indiscreet as it can get! In no other area of life would we tolerate this level of government interference in our personal lives. These programs are
* Demeaning and demoralizing, treating adult men and women, most of whom are educated, professional, successful members of society, as though they were perpetual children, incapable of handling their own personal information.
* Insulting by pre-judging all adoptees as somehow a threat to their own mothers and fathers, or presume them to be stalkers bent on “destroying” their mothers’ lives, when, in fact, it is the intermediaries who are the only ones wreaking havoc on birth families and innocent bystanders alike. Little wonder they have an appalling success rate (whereas when mothers and fathers are contacted by the adoptee, privately, respectfully, and discretely, we have a 95% success rate).
* Setting up the adoptee for continued intimidation, manipulation and concomitant emotional abuse by giving the intermediaries complete control over whether and what type of search will be done, and what information, if any, will be given to the adoptee.
* Placing the adult adoptee at the complete mercy of the intermediary as to their skill level in searching, how contact is made, what is said to the family, the attitude of the search agent towards the mother. When contact is refused, the adoptee is left bereft and will wonder forever what the outcome would have been if they had been in control of their own information, search and contact.
* Assuming that every adoptee wants reunion, which, in fact, is not the case for many who simply want their facts, their truth. It should be their prerogative alone as to whether, how, when, and to whom contact is made. It’s their personal business.
* Imposing an extraordinary financial burden on the adoptee that is not required of anyone else who wants his or her own personal information. Only adoptees are denied access to their birth records.
The Truth Will Out
My husband has a favorite saying he tells people when they learn of my work as a Search Angel: “If they breathed, walked, spent time on this earth, Prissy will find them!” I’d like to think that’s true. It certainly underscores my firm belief that every human being is entitled to know their identity, family history, heritage, and the identity of their blood relations, and my fierce determination to make that a reality for every adopted person who is unfairly deprived of their birth information. Now, thankfully, with the advent of genetic genealogy and ever-expanding DNA databases, this is becoming a reality for more and more people every day.
Still, I am powerless to lift the oppression and eliminate the discrimination inherent in sealed records laws. I cannot restore to these adoptees the simple piece of paper chronicling their birth. Only the state legislators can do that. Let us continue to enlighten them, appeal to their common sense, their ideals of justice and equality, and hope that this will be accomplished soon. #AdopteeRights